Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller and lawyers for retired NFL players joined labor talks with representatives of owners and current players Tuesday as signs mounted that the league's lockout might almost be over.
The court-appointed mediator, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, also was at the session, his second consecutive day overseeing negotiations at a New York law firm. The sides were trying to close a deal to resolve the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
The NFL Players Association's executive committee and representatives of all 32 teams were gathering in Washington to prepare for possible votes on an agreement in principle.
"The grass is cut, but the hay is not in the barn yet. We've got a lot of work to do," NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said Tuesday.
Owners, meanwhile, are set to hold a special meeting in Atlanta on Thursday, when they could ratify a new deal if there is one by then. Executives from all 32 teams then would be briefed there Thursday and Friday on how the terms would affect league business. Clubs were told Monday that topics would include the 2011 NFL calendar, rookie salary system and guidelines for player transactions.
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 Monday in Washington. "There still are things that can get you tripped up, and we're going to push through."
Still unresolved is what it will take to get Tom Brady and the other plaintiffs to sign off on a settlement to the players' antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that is pending in federal court in Minnesota. There also is the pending TV networks case, in which players accused owners of setting up $4 billion in "lockout insurance."
Another issue standing in the way of a resolution to the four-month lockout, 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 weren't 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 that 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.
Retired players complained to the court recently that they had been excluded from negotiations, which is why Eller's presence Tuesday was significant.
Owners locked out players on 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!!!"
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.