DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell l © Matthew Emmons | 2014 Feb 2 l USA TODAY Sports
DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell l © Matthew Emmons | 2014 Feb 2 l USA TODAY Sports

In the past few months, it hasn't been shocking to see the NFL struggle to put the national anthem protest story behind it, despite the league running with a message that says it wants to "get back to football."

The league has done just the opposite with the installation of its new pre-game policy that opens the door for teams to punish players for not adhering its new rules, that all team personnel must "stand and respect the flag" when on the field before the game. This is also an NFL that has cycled through a wave of public-relations executives in recent months and which has empowered some individual owners to steer policy on the matter.

Players aren't happy, it appears. The NFL looks painfully out of touch, or at the very least, out of control of the situation it helped create. Now the question is whether it can avoid stepping on more rakes as it tries to fix the whole mess.

The good news is that the NFL and the NFLPA finally are discussing the policy matter. A resolution feasibly could come through these discussions. The two sides issued a joint statement Thursday evening to map out what is happening on the matter:

"The NFL and NFLPA, through recent discussions, have been working on a resolution to the anthem issue. In order to allow this constructive dialogue to continue, we have come to a standstill agreement on the NFLPA’s grievance and on the NFL’s anthem policy. No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing."

Don't overlook the big-picture significance of the matter at hand. And don't assume that the NFL is merely engaging in window-dressing talks here. A source close to the union indicated to PFW that while it's too early to tell how productive these talks will be, the early indication is that the NFLPA is treating them as an earnest attempt to come up with a solution.

That's the good news. The bad, in their eyes, might be that some hard-line owners remain steadfast — and vocal — in their desire to enforce a strict policy for players to stand if they're on the field during the playing of the anthem. The league's concession of allowing players to remain inside the locker room wasn't roundly viewed as much of an olive branch at the time by the union or its members.

Nor was the fact that the NFLPA didn't have a seat at the table when the policy was announced. That really was at the heart of the anger from the union perspective at the time. But the idea that the two sides are now meeting — even if it's coming months after the fact — is generally viewed as a positive.

The statement reads further:

"The NFL and NFLPA reflect the great values of America, which are repeatedly demonstrated by the many players doing extraordinary work in communities across our country to promote equality, fairness and justice.

"Our shared focus will remain on finding a solution to the anthem issue through mutual, good faith commitments, outside of litigation."

And that last part really is a notable addition. The NFLPA and league are steamrolling toward what should be difficult labor negotiations leading up to but certainly following the 2020 NFL season when the current CBA is set to expire. The assumption is that tensions between the two sides will make it extremely unlikely to have a resolution prior to a work stoppage — either a strike or a lockout — before the expiration date in March 2021.

However, there's a sense, naive as it might seem on the surface, that positive developments in the anthem debate might create a bit more harmony between the two sides. If the league and union can come to an agreement on this matter and make both sides reasonably happy about it, it might lay a thin foundation on which they can build.

There's also a belief that this test for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is not one that should be overlooked. Although failing to come up with a solution isn't likely to cost Goodell his job, preventing this story from mushrooming into something bigger (especially something that reflects even more negatively on the NFL) will be a major thorn in his side from here on out.

Talks between the two sides remain ongoing, though, and there's work to be done. Neither side is happy with the current state of affairs. But from what we've been able to gather, there's at least the hope that common ground is there for the reaching.