NEW YORK - The NFL's 32 owners paraded silently out of the Conrad New York Downtown on Thursday with an unspoken message for the league's players:
The owners voted in a two-hour meeting to approve the principal elements of a new collective bargaining agreement. And that could be the encouraging first step toward an imminent agreement with the NFL Players' Association, which is scheduled to host a membership-wide conference call on Friday.
But it's also possible this was only the first move in a protracted game of chess that is just beginning.
If this process feels like it's going too smoothly to believe, that's because it is.
In the hyperdrive 24-hour CBA news cycle drummed up between Wednesday and Thursday, a news leak that the playoffs would expand from 12 to 14 teams in this deal built public anticipation that a new, exciting deal was on the cusp of being done.
The owners' hurried assembly in Manhattan for Thursday's vote added to the urgency. And those factors now have put pressure on the NFLPA to do its part and vote yes, and to do so in a timely fashion.
That was clearest in the final paragraph of the NFL's statement, which oddly was the only on-record comment anyone made to a media throng welcomed here supposedly to receive unique clarity on the status of the talks.
"Since the clubs and players need to have a system in place and know the rules that they will operate under by next week, the membership also approved moving forward under the final year of the 2011 CBA if the players decide not to approve the negotiated terms," the statement read. "Out of respect for the process and our partners at the NFLPA, we will have no further comment at this time."
Announcing a contingency plan and an implied deadline for the NFLPA is an interesting way for the league's owners to couch their optimism for this deal, is it not?
Not to mention one NFL Network report said that in the proposed expansion of the regular season to 17 games, players who have signed contracts based on a 16-game schedule would have their game check for that 17th game capped at $250,000.
It is hard to understand why that wouldn't be a non-starter for many players. Get ready to hear more similar potential poison pill details if these negotiations are teetering on the edge.
The Washington Post also reported that the NFL and owners probably will expand the postseason to 14 teams whether this CBA gets approved or not, since they don't believe they technically need the players' approval.
But any detail that impacts players, whether or not it must be collectively bargaining, is worth discussing with the NFLPA. And this is interesting timing for the league's owners to announce that they unilaterally plan to do something, when they're seeking compromise everywhere else.
The owners' silence on Thursday seemed telling, too. The NFL initially appeared prepared to hold some sort of post-meeting press conference, but when the meeting ended they decided their best course of action was to not talk at all.
What this does is force the players to vote yes soon or to vote no and publicly explain why.
If the players vote no and list their grievances, though, they will look like they have gone on the offensive. They will come off as the party willingly becoming the impediment to a deal, even though all they would be doing is advocating for their own interests, as the owners are.
But this is how these negotiations work. There are games being publicly for leverage, and there is plenty more happening behind the scenes.
And now on Friday, thanks to the NFL's very public but very quiet show on Thursday, it is the players' move.
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