- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2011

Five more days.

Negotiators for the NFL and the players’ union begin five days and nights _ at least _ of talks toward reaching a new collective bargaining agreement on Monday. Failure by the time Friday ends could mean the first pro football work stoppage since 1987.

Enough progress was made in 11 days of meetings overseen by federal mediator George Cohen that two extensions to the current CBA were granted: first for 24 hours, then for seven days. That doesn’t mean the owners and players association are on the verge of any major breakthroughs.

But, unlike in the previous months when there was little movement _ except in opposite directions _ the two reprieves last week were encouraging.

“I think what the mediators bring to the process is a structure and a discipline that wasn’t always there,” said Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president and chief negotiator. “They inject a seriousness of purpose to it. They encourage you. They keep you going.”

So they will keep going on such issues as how to split the $9 billion in revenues America’s most popular sport rakes in. And a potential 18-game regular season, a rookie wage scale, health benefits, and pensions.

“It’s a positive thing to have a mediator involved and that’s just a personal feeling,” Saints tackle and player representative Jon Stinchcomb said. “Any time there’s a third party with no dog in the hunt, sometimes he can show where you’re just being stubborn and where you need to give some ground.”

Where might that be?

The owners’ request that about $2 billion of total revenues be deducted before they split the rest with the players has been a sticking point ever since 2008, when the owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement. They already deduct about $1 billion for operating expenses from the overall take, and it might be _ might be _ easier reaching accord on that subject than on expanding the regular season to 18 games.

“We have made player safety our biggest concern, and we won’t back off on that,” said Tennessee Titans guard and player representative Jake Scott.

In seeking the additional $1 billion off the top, owners say it’s essential for league and team operations because of the heavy debt many franchises have for stadium construction loans. Such numbers often are negotiable. Although the players aren’t eager to take any sort of paycut, they might be amenable to a substantially reduced giveback that serves the owners well enough.

The rookie wage scale being proposed also shouldn’t be too contentious as long as the owners plan to divert much of the money they save toward the veteran players and not their own pockets. All those players who wince when they see an untested rookie getting more guaranteed money than they’ve earned in their entire careers are firmly behind such a redistribution of those dollars.

Most dicey, as Scott suggests, is anything dealing with player safety and health benefits for current and retired players. That’s where the proposed 18 regular-season games and two preseason games figure in.

The union is adamant, with so many injuries in a 16-game schedule _ particularly brain trauma and major injuries that can have long-term effects _ increasing the length of the regular season is not an option. The owners are just as adamant that the extra revenue 18 games would bring from league media partners and sponsors is necessary to keep the assets growing.

Commissioner Roger Goodell insists the preseason matches don’t feature the quality fans deserve, so switching two of them for games that count is preferable.

For the players to agree on 18 games, they would want substantial reductions in offseason workouts, minicamps, and training camp. Should they get that, and if NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith can coax, say, five extra roster spots per team (160 more jobs), perhaps the league and union can find common ground in this area, too.

“There are so many moving parts, so much that goes on,” Stinchcomb added. “When you have these CBA negotiations, what we establish now will affect how we do business for years to come. It’s more than just how to slash the pie. It’s how you go to work, what your offseason will look like, benefits for former players, how protected are we when injuries come along. There are so many aspects being negotiated, it takes time to come to an agreement on all these different fronts.”

They have five days, barring another extension.


AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington, and AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans and Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this story.

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