FOXBORO, Mass. — "Close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but it's also a heck of a nice word when one of the NFL's negotiating principals uses it while discussing the end of the lockout.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been a primary participant at the recent string of confidential settlement discussions, sounded excited Thursday while updating the progress that has been made by the two sides.
"I think we're getting close to having to put this thing to bed so we don't miss any events," Kraft said from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots were hosting a community MVP charitable event. "I know that's the intent on both sides, but it would be misleading to say anything that would not make it crystal clear that there's a lot of hard work still to be done. But the good news is we're talking, and I think we went 34 days without having communications, and the lawyers on each side were doing stuff. That, to me, isn't progress."
Kraft and the owners have long since preached about getting the lawyers out of the room in order for football people to discuss actual football. It's been used as a two-fold message. A lot of the saying has been genuine because the lawyers don't have a long-term interest in the well-being of the game, at least not in the same sense that the owners and players do. The second has been a way to handcuff the players, who have used the court system as their leverage.
The lawyers have been absent from the recent string of discussions, which have involved 12 people, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Kraft, owners Jerry Richardson (Panthers), Clark Hunt (Chiefs), John Mara (Giants) and Dean Spanos (Chargers), as well as DeMaurice Smith, who is the head of the trade association formerly known as the NFLPA, Kevin Mawae, Jeff Saturday, Mike Vrabel, Tony Richardson and Domonique Foxworth.
"We're talking about how we improve the game and how we solve our problems," Kraft said. "The only issue is how do we get football back? There's no other agendas, and I think that's a very positive thing, but we still have a lot of hard work to do. There's a lot left to solve. At least we're there talking to one another."
Kraft alluded to another sign that displayed the way the owners and players have come closer together since the lockout began in March. Many in league circles have been skeptical of Smith's long-term intentions with the NFL, hinting he has used this opportunity as a springboard for his career.
But Kraft mentioned the dozen in the group as a collective unit, saying, "We all care about the health of this game long term. That's our sole focus. Building on that is very positive." While that line wasn't Kraft's way of throwing confetti on Smith's efforts, the change in tune symbolized progress.
"We're making progress," Kraft said. "There's a lot of work to be done. This is a very hard deal with all of the different variables in the end. The fact that the principals that are going to be sitting down [across] from one another five years, 10 years from now, are sitting down [right now] and talking about the problems is a positive thing. But there's a lot of hard work still to be done. But the good news is we're talking."