But while the lack of combativeness, at least out in the open, continues to fuel hopes that a work stoppage will be avoided, people on both sides of the negotiations say they’re not all that optimistic that an agreement is imminent. Breakthroughs in such CBA deliberations generally are tied to deadlines, and neither side appears to be feeling a particular sense of urgency, with the sport’s 10-year labor deal set to run through the 2020 season.
“They are moving along and progressing as expected, essentially 1 1/2 years out from expiration,” said a person on the players’ side, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations.
Executives with several NFL teams said it’s a good sign that talks are taking place without obvious acrimony or public sniping. But they said the discussions are in the early stages and that they would be surprised if the process accelerates enough in the coming weeks to produce a deal.
So while participants leave open the possibility of a 2019 resolution, they’re not counting on it.
Representatives of the league and the players met this week in Chicago. That came after other recent bargaining sessions ended earlier than scheduled or were postponed.
Eric Winston, the veteran offensive lineman who serves as president of the NFLPA, and Smith have said that players must prepare for the possibility of another lockout in 2021 even while the union strives at the bargaining table to avoid a work stoppage.
It is unclear whether the two sides have spent significant time yet haggling over the central economic issues of the negotiations. Players currently receive 47 or 48 percent of revenue under the salary cap system. A key issue to owners is the inclusion of stadium credits, essentially money put aside from the revenue pool for stadium construction before the players’ share is calculated.
Some owners would like to see the regular season increased from 16 to 18 games. Smith and the union have continued to express their opposition to that on player-safety grounds, as they did in 2011. Some on the management side continue to believe that is a negotiable issue, however, and they hope to persuade the players with increased roster sizes, a reduced preseason and perhaps concessions. There has been talk of an 18-game season in which each individual player is limited to 16 games, but it’s not clear whether that has sufficient support on either side.
If there’s no agreement on an 18-game season, owners could seek a compromise at 17 games, one of which might be played at a neutral site. Or they could abandon a longer regular season and instead seek an expanded playoff field, with 14 teams qualifying for the postseason instead of the current 12.
Many owners seem prepared to make concessions on issues such as Goodell’s authority in player discipline and the sport’s marijuana policy.
There remains hope on both sides that an agreement will be reached before another labor confrontation ensues. But the timetable remains uncertain, and the history of the NFL’s labor negotiations suggests that bargaining rarely yields tangible results before deadlines are at hand.