The NFL put on a good show on Thursday, making it seem like long-term labor peace was at hand. The owners voted on a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement, complete with a 17-game schedule, expanded playoffs, and more money and better benefits for players.
They were hoping for a quick approval. But the players have responded: Not so fast.
The NFL Players Association want to head back to the bargaining table, according to a report from the NFL Network, after the union's executive committee voted 6-5 to not recommend the owners' proposal to their 32 team representatives. It was a stunning reversal, considering that is the committee that negotiated the deal the owners accepted.
It's also a gamble, because there's no guarantee the owners want to negotiate anymore.
At the moment, they are at least willing to come to the table. After the NFLPA issued a statement on Friday saying that executive committee "looks forward to meeting with NFL management again next week," an NFL source confirmed that management accepted the invitation. The NFLPA's executive committee will now meet with the NFL Management Council's executive committee on Tuesday in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine.
What's not clear, though, is if the owners accepted this meeting as a courtesy or out of a genuine willingness to talk. Whatever happens at that meeting will set the tone for what happens next and where this all ends up in the coming days, weeks or months.
With the help of multiple NFL sources on both sides of this negotiation over the last few days, here's a look at what might happen and where it all might go:
A quick renegotiation
It's unclear what prompted the six "no" votes on Friday, but judging from Tweets and public statements, it seems players generally don't think they've gotten enough in return for a 17th game. The revenue split doesn't seem to be the issue, but there are other minor details and some healthcare-related concerns. It's possible the players will just ask for a few more concessions, which the NFL owners might - might - be willing to accept.
In that case, the NFLPA could start their voting process immediately, which they say they plan to do anyway. Any deal needs to be approved by two-thirds of their player reps (22 of 32) and a majority of all their players.
No more talking
Some NFL agents think this is a possibility. There is a feeling that the owners wanted to rush this proposal through, and some on the players' side felt it was a "take it or leave it" offer. The owners seem strong in their desire to get this done by March 18, the start of the last year of the current CBA, and their belief that they have all the leverage.
They could meet with the players on Tuesday, and then actually say "Take it or leave it". If that happens, the two sides would head into the final year of the CBA with a threat of a lockout or strike looming in March, 2021.
A short pause
If the owners say "Take it or leave it," or if the players can't get the concessions they want, either side could walk away from the negotiating table. But remember, in talks like these nothing is ever final until the deal is signed. They could begin a game of cat-and-mouse, to see just how adamant the owners are of getting this done by March 18.
The players may want to see if the owners become more willing to offer concessions the closer that date gets. The owners might want to see if the players start to wonder if this is the best deal they'll ever get and decide they have to take it.In that case, watch for talks to restart about 10 days or so before the deadline.
And if that happens, one source said, don't be shocked if the start of free agency gets postponed. The owners will want the new rules in place before they start spending their money and their cap gurus will need time to study them. A delay of a week or two could definitely be on the table.
A long pause
Some players do feel like they are being rushed and don't have enough time to fully evaluate this. It's possible the union will decide there's no reason to try to steamroll this through by March 18, since they have a CBA in place through March, 2021. That will give plenty of time for more negotiations.
However, at least one prominent agent said he believed that this offer will be the best one the players get, that if the owners don't get what they want - a deal done by next month that includes 17 games - they will reduce their offer and this will all head to a 2021 lockout.
That's what happened last time, and the owners absolutely believe the union has no stomach for a lockout, given how short the careers are for most of the players. And they probably can do what they did last time - lock the players out until the summer, get what they want, and not lose a single game.