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Progress made in NFL lockout, but Goodell, Smith must seal deal

Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith are faces NFL lockout. | AP photos

Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith are the faces of the NFL lockout. | AP photos

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:36AM

ATLANTA — Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith are the faces of the NFL labor battle, a necessary tug-of-war toward a long-term solution but an unnecessary drama because the sides are squabbling over $9 billion.

The NFL commissioner and NFL Players Association executive director are the obvious targets because they’re easier to single out than one of the 32 owners or one of the 1,900 players. It is Day 131 of the lockout, and many of those days have featured outsiders attacking their leadership, their qualifications and even their personalities.

Meanwhile, insiders create a whole other set of headaches.

“I’m hopeful the players will ratify the agreement,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “I think it represents a real successful story for both Roger and De because to be able to — in today’s world of sports — have a 10-year labor agreement is unprecedented.

“You’re dealing with a lot of factions within your own groups, and they were able to manage it.”

Ultimately, though, leaders are judged by results, and Goodell and Smith haven’t consummated a deal. Neither side has lost any significant money, but there are hundreds of millions at stake soon (if preseason games are wiped out), so they have to rally their respective constituents to the finish line.

NFL Network and ESPN reported that there was significant progress Saturday and that the players were moving toward a vote that could start the league year Wednesday and training camps Friday.

Still, given all the false alarms, the champagne won’t be uncorked until the 400-plus page agreement is signed. Goodell and Smith reportedly were on the phone Saturday, but their faces seemed to show the toll this painstaking process has had on them during news conferences Thursday.

After lunch, in a brief address to reporters outside the NFLPA headquarters in Washington, Smith warned that the players wouldn’t be pressured or rushed. After dinner, at an airport hotel outside Atlanta, Goodell announced that owners had approved an agreement and outlined some dates.

Neither was as smooth as usual, Goodell even admitting that an appropriate word to describe his feelings was “exhaustion.”

Kudos from constituents

Still, their efforts are appreciated by their respective groups.

“Roger walked into a fairly difficult situation shortly after he became the commissioner,” said Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, a member of the NFL’s negotiating team. “The economy went through the biggest downturn in many decades, and we were opting out of a labor deal that had only been approved a couple of years before.

“So he had a very, very tough job. But he kept us all together, and that is awfully hard to do with any 32 people, much less the 32 owners in the NFL.”

Consider the characters.

“There are a lot of different perspectives,” Hunt said diplomatically. “I’ll tell you that.”

Lurie recently said he told Goodell that he respected his poise and focus.

“He’s a person who is strong-willed but doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” Lurie said. “He really stayed the course, and he kept his eye on the ball. He wanted a long-term agreement that was fair to everybody. I felt he represented us well, by being strong but reasonable.”

As for Smith, NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told me in February that the players respected Smith’s “different perspective,” which set him apart from other candidates.

“He had a clear vision of what he thought was the way to move forward with the union,” said Mawae, an eight-time Pro Bowl player.

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, one of the nine named plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, admitted he was “a little skeptical” about Smith initially.

“He seemed like a politician; they’re known for saying one thing and doing another thing,” Robison said recently. “But now that I’ve gotten to know him, he’s done a heck of a job working with us and getting the things that we’ve stressed in this deal.”

Robison said he admires that Smith isn’t easily influenced and that he fights on the players’ behalf.

Finish line draws near

But how much longer will this fight go on?

It was clear Thursday that there were people on both sides unhappy with the deal on the table. Players took to Twitter to complain about various elements, while Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, another member of the NFL’s negotiating team, hinted that he was less than thrilled.

“At the end of the day, you do get roughed up,” Jones said. “I don’t mean physically, but you do get roughed up. That’s what the negotiation is about.

“I’m not necessarily happy about everything,” he said separately.

There appeared to be some last-minute negotiating tactics. The owners seemed to put the pressure on the players Thursday, celebrating a deal and insisting they had a handshake agreement with the players. Then the players pushed back, once again reinforcing that they wouldn’t be rushed into signing a bad deal.

Cooler heads, though, appear to have prevailed, and Goodell and Smith probably deserve much of the credit. But all that they have done right won’t matter if they can’t close the deal.

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