A report Thursday in the Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Mass. suggested that the NFL lockout was nearing an end and that coaches and players might start reporting as soon as this weekend.
Quickly, both the NFLPA's George Atallah and the NFL's Greg Aiello denied the report on Twitter, and a league source told PFW that the story of the lockout ending was "premature." However, the same source also added that things "could move quickly" toward a resolution.
Aiello's statement might have denied the report, but it also raised a few eyebrows in NFL circles: "Joint NFL-NFLPA-Yogi Berra Statement: 'It's not over till it's over.'"
Here's what we know: Following two separate sets of meetings outside Chicago last week and New York this week, the NFL and the former players' union now have met twice — without primary lawyers present — under what are being described by league sources as the most amicable conditions since the lockout was enacted back on March 11. And while the legal process remains very much ongoing on several fronts, there have been rare signs of optimism for the first time in months.
Adding to the optimism was a report in the New York Post of a "jovial" dinner between NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday night in Manhattan.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the central figures in the labor talks, said Thursday from the team's annual Community MVP event that the recent talks have been "powerful" but warned that "I still think we've got a lot of hard work to do to resolve this and I hope that keeps happening."
Previous talk coming out of the owners' meetings at the end of May — namely from Colts owner Jim Irsay and NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash — appeared to target July 4 as a key date in the labor impasse. Both suggested that getting something done by that time would be necessary to have an uninterrupted 2011 season.
But a new date might be emerging. Sources have indicated to PFW that June 21, which is when the NFL owners are scheduled to meet in Chicago, might be a date to circle on the calendar. The reason for the escalated talks might indicate that the owners want to have a deal — or parameters of a deal — to vote on when they all assemble for the meeting.
A final Collective Bargaining Agreement might not happen until or around that July 4 date, and if that happened free agency would begin soon after. During normal seasons training camps typically open the final week of July, so reaching a deal around that time would allow for a three- or four-week free-agency period where players finally could change teams.