- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Say this for the NFL and its players’ union: They are on speaking terms at the moment.

And they are talking at length.

“Conversation,” New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson said, “is good.”

Federally mediated negotiations toward a new NFL labor deal lasted about eight hours Sunday, the third consecutive day the sides met to try to find common ground before the current contract expires.

After months of infrequent _ and sometimes contentious _ bargaining, the league and union have met for a total of more than 20 hours since Friday in front of George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

“We are working hard,” NFL general counsel and lead labor negotiator Jeff Pash said, “and we’re following the director’s playbook, and we’ll see what we come up with.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith arrived within minutes of each other, shortly before 10 a.m., and the two negotiating teams didn’t clear out of the building entirely until after 6 p.m.

Goodell and Smith wouldn’t discuss the talks at all. Because both sides are abiding by Cohen’s request that they not comment publicly on these negotiations, it’s not clear what, if any, progress is being made.

“You know we’re not going to give you any information,” NFL outside lawyer Bob Batterman said as he left with three league executives. “I can’t say anything, other than the fact that we are meeting.”

Batterman, who represented the NHL when it lost its entire 2004-05 season to a lockout, then referred to Cohen as a “first-class mediator.”

The NFL’s labor deal expires at the end of the day March 3. The union has said it believes team owners want to lock out the players as soon as the next day, which could threaten the 2011 season.

Lawyers Jeffrey Kessler and Richard Berthelsen; current players Richardson, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and Charlie Batch of the Pittsburgh Steelers; and former players Pete Kendall and Sean Morey were among those representing the union Sunday. They began arriving before 9 a.m.

The sides met for about six hours on both Friday and Saturday. Cohen announced Thursday the groups agreed to the mediation, which is not binding but is meant as a way to spur progress. The plan calls for several days of negotiations with Cohen present.

The league and union went more than two months without any formal bargaining until Feb. 5, the day before the Super Bowl. The sides met again once the next week, then called off a second meeting that had been scheduled for the following day.

The most recent CBA was signed in 2006, but owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008.

The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: the owners’ push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games; a rookie wage scale; and benefits for retired players.

No team owners have been seen at the mediated sessions, but they’re surely keeping up with what’s happening _ and at least one indicated optimism about the 2011 season in a roundabout way.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted Sunday: “T Minus 351 days 2 Sup Bowl kickoff in Indy…early predictions 4 participating teams???”

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