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NFL owners, players announce 10-year agreement; let games begin

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith left NFL football Commissioner Roger Goodell share laugh as they speak with reporters outside NFL

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, left, and NFL football Commissioner Roger Goodell share a laugh as they speak with reporters outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously Monday to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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Updated: October 29, 2011 12:34AM

WASHINGTON — After months of sometimes acrimonious negotiations, NFL owners and players jointly announced a 10-year agreement on a labor deal Monday afternoon.

They stood in front of the headquarters of the soon-to-be-recertified NFL Players Association, just blocks from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service headquarters, where one of the country’s most acclaimed mediators couldn’t coax any progress between the sides.

But the most poignant moment occurred when Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday acknowledged Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft who died last week.

“A special thanks to Myra Kraft who, even in her weakest moment, allowed Mr. Kraft to come and fight this out,” Saturday said. “Without him, this deal does not get done.

“I don’t want to be climactic in any way, but he is a man who helped us save football, and we are so [grateful] for that.”

The two men — one massive, the other diminutive, each a member of their respective side’s negotiating teams — embraced, with the owner visibly shaken by the player’s words.

That seemed a fitting snapshot of how far players and owners have come in four-plus months to end the lockout and take a significant step toward sparing everyone involved from the backlash for sidelining the country’s most popular sport.

“We know what we did to frustrate our fans over the last several months,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “They want football, and our job is to give them football.

“We think that through a 10-year agreement here, we’ve secured the future of the game to ensure that pledge to bring great football to our fans. I think we have some work to do, though, to make sure they understand that we are sorry for the frustration we put them through . . . but our commitment is to bring them better football going forward.”

The only casualty is the Hall of Fame Game, which the Bears were slated to play in Aug. 7. The official preseason kickoff now takes place Aug. 11, when the Seattle Seahawks visit the San Diego Chargers. But while final steps are taken to sign, seal and deliver the collective-bargaining agreement — in a gesture of good faith — the lockout will end, and teams are immediately opening up their doors to players today at 9 a.m.

The first training-camp practice will be Wednesday, with the Bears scheduled to hold their first practice Saturday at 3 p.m. at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais.

Owners were in a celebratory mood Thursday, when they approved the deal at a meeting at a hotel near the Atlanta airport. But several members on the players’ side continued to temper their excitement.

“We have a long way to go yet, but hopefully it’s a short way,” said Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the team’s player representative. “There’s still a benefits package that has to be ratified. If the owners and players don’t agree to the benefits package, which hopefully is just a formality, then the deal doesn’t get ratified, and we’re back to square one.”

So why isn’t the entire deal completed?

The NFLPA is technically not a union, and there are certain issues — including the benefits package and the substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies — that cannot be discussed until the players take institutional steps to reform their organization.

But the truth is, the sides have come too far not to finish the deal, and the major points of contention are settled, namely how to split the $9 billion pie.

“I know and I have a great deal of confidence that both sides are going to engage and take that process with the sobriety and the good faith that we have shown over the past few months to get this deal done,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.

In the meantime, though, the joint announcement Monday triggered pandemonium throughout the league.

By Monday night, undrafted rookie free agents were proclaiming on Twitter which teams they had agreed to contracts with, and teams such as the Baltimore Ravens were informing veterans of their impending release.

The Bears, for one, told longtime punter Brad Maynard that he would not be returning for an 11th season with the team.

“It’s going to be chaos,” said longtime NFL fullback Tony Richardson, a member of the players’ executive committee. “Guys are excited to get back to work.”

Richardson, though, isn’t under contract yet.

“I’ll be a free agent, so I will be an interested observer,” he said. “We’ve never had to experience this type of time line.”

But with minicamps, organized team activities and offseason workouts sacked by this prolonged negotiation, the Bears are among the teams expected to be in better shape than most.

“The core of our team has been in place for a long time,” Gould said. “We’re in a good position, but we do have work to do.”

Unlike a handful of teams, the Bears won’t be releasing veterans to make space, instead having more room than any other team in the NFC North.

In addition, while some teams have to re-sign quarterbacks, the Bears’ top priorities are center Olin Kreutz, defensive tackle Anthony Adams and linebacker Nick Roach.

So while months of work are jammed into days, everyone associated with the league considers it a small price to pay for a deal that will cover them for 10 years.

“We’re grateful for all the work that both parties did to make sure that we came to this day today,” Goodell said, “and to make sure for the fans that we can stand here and say, ‘Football’s back.’ ’’

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