The NFL told club executives they could be schooled in the ins and outs of the new labor contract as early as Thursday, and the players' association summoned its leadership for a potential vote - the strongest signs yet the lockout might be nearing an end.
Lawyers for both sides met 81â„2 hours Monday in New York, including 31â„2 with a court-appointed mediator, to try to close a deal to resolve the sport's first work stoppage since 1987. Talks were scheduled to continue today.
"Making progress," said NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, who also represents locked-out NBA players.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith spoke to each other on the telephone Monday and planned to stay in regular contact.
"Nobody cheers for you at Mile 25 of a marathon. You still have to cross the finish line," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said in Washington. "There still are things that can get you tripped up, and we're going to push through."
Owners are set to hold a special meeting Thursday in Atlanta, when they could ratify a new agreement - if there is one. Executives from all 32 teams then would be briefed there Thursday and Friday on how the terms would affect league business, two people familiar with the plan told the Associated Press.
The people said the clubs were told Monday topics would include the 2011 NFL calendar, rookie salary system and guidelines for player transactions. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the process is supposed to remain confidential.
Any tentative agreement also must be approved by the players, of course, including star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and the other plaintiffs in a federal antitrust suit against the league.
Members of the NFLPA executive committee and representatives of every team were heading to Washington by Wednesday, in preparation for possible decisions on re-establishing a union and signing off on a tentative pact with owners.
Atallah said the players would be gathering "with the hope they have something to look at, and with the hope we can move forward on this."
Owners locked out players March 12, when the old collective bargaining agreement expired, leaving the country's most popular professional sports league in limbo. The sides are trying to forge a settlement in time to keep the preseason completely intact. The exhibition opener is supposed to be the Hall of Fame game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears on Aug. 7.
The regular-season opener is scheduled for Sept. 8, when the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are to host the New Orleans Saints.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick tweeted Monday: "Sound like we gonna be back to work so soon!!!"
One issue standing in the way of a resolution, according to a person from each side of the dispute and speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity: Players want owners to turn over $320 million in unpaid benefits from the 2010 season. Because there was no salary cap that season, the old collective bargaining agreement said NFL teams were not required to pay those benefits.
On a separate matter, one of those people, as well as a second person familiar with the negotiations, also told the AP a proposal currently under consideration would set up nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years in additional benefits for retired players. That would include $620 million in pension increases, long-term care insurance and disability programs. Representatives of retired players are expected to be in New York for today's talks; that group complained to the court recently it had been excluded from negotiations.
At federal court in Minnesota, where the players' antitrust suit is pending, their lawyers filed a motion Monday asking for a summary judgment that the lockout is illegal and that players are entitled to damages. The NFL, meanwhile, asked the court for a week's extension to file their formal response to the lawsuit; the original deadline was Monday.
Those filings were necessary, procedural moves that would be rendered moot if an agreement is reached before the Aug. 29 hearing date. Later Monday, the NFL and retired players filed a joint request to delay the hearing for at least a month to allow owners "to focus on the continuing mediation."
Atallah called the current players' filing "an obligation to protect the members of the class."
"Obviously, if we come to a settlement, it all can be lifted at any time," he said.
During lengthy negotiations last week, players and owners came up with the framework of a CBA that addresses most of their differences.
Areas they've figured out include:
• How the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues will be divided, with somewhere from 46.5 to 48.5 percent going to players, depending on how much the total take from TV contracts and other sources rises or falls;
• A structure for rookie contracts that will rein in soaring salaries for high first-round draft picks;
• Free agency rules that allow most four-year veterans to negotiate with any team;
• A cap of about $120 million per team for player salaries in 2011, with about another $20 million per team in benefits.
• Each team must spend at least 90 percent of the salary cap in cash each season, a higher figure than in the past.
"The lawyers are hard at work in New York with the language and some of the things we agreed to last week," the NFLPA's Atallah said. "As for face-to-face meetings between the principals, we will do that as necessary."