WASHINGTON — Now it can be said with certainty: Get ready for some football!
NFL players voted to OK a final deal Monday, days after the owners approved a tentative agreement, and the sides finally managed to put an end to the 4½-month lockout, the longest work stoppage in league history.
"This is a long time coming, and football's back," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "and that's the great news for everybody."
The labor dispute comes to a close after claiming one exhibition: the Hall of Fame game between the Bears and Rams, scheduled for Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio. Otherwise, the entire preseason and regular-season schedules remain intact. Club facilities will open to players Tuesday, when 2011 draft picks and rookie free agents can be signed.
Getting back to business could be wild.
"Chaos," said Jets fullback Tony Richardson, a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee. "That's the best word for it."
At a joint appearance outside NFLPA headquarters, Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith shook hands, surrounded by some of the owners and players who were involved in the talks. They spoke shortly after the NFLPA executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously to approve the terms of a 10-year deal.
"We didn't get everything that either side wanted ... but we did arrive at a deal that we think is fair and balanced," Smith said.
Owners can point to victories, such as gaining a higher percentage of the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues, one of the key issues throughout. Players persuaded teams to commit to spending nearly all of their salary cap space in cash and won changes to offseason and in-season practice rules that should make the game safer.
If there was one unexpected moment during the press conference it was certainly Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday's eloquent tribute to New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who was lauded as instrumental in helping forge the deal.
Kraft's wife, Myra, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer.
"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. ... He's a man who helped us save football."
Owners overwhelmingly approved a proposal to end the dispute on Thursday, but some unresolved issues needed to be reviewed to satisfy players. The sides worked through the weekend and wrapped up nearly every detail by about 3 a.m. Monday on a final pact that runs through the 2020 season and can't be terminated before then.
That's significant because the old collective bargaining agreement contained an opt-out clause, and owners exercised it in 2008. That led to the contract expiring when talks broke down March 11; hours later, owners locked out the players, creating the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987.
"I know it has been a very long process since the day we stood here that night in March," Smith said in a brief appearance about 20 minutes before being joined by Goodell and the owners. "But our guys stood together when nobody thought we would. And football is back because of it."
As he spoke, Smith was flanked by NFLPA president Kevin Mawae and other key members of the players' negotiating team, including Saturday, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth.
Brees was one of 10 plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit that players filed against the league March 11. They approved the settlement deal Monday, after two unanimous NFLPA leadership votes: to recommend to the plaintiffs that they accept the settlement, then to recommend to all 1,900 players that they re-establish the union.
All players now will take a vote to re-certify the union — it was dissolved March 11, turning the NFLPA into a trade association — and then one more vote to approve the final CBA. That all needs to be wrapped up by Aug. 4 to make everything official, something everyone involved believes will happen without a hitch.
Only once it is back to being a union can the NFLPA finish the contract, covering remaining items such as player discipline, drug testing, disability programs and pensions.
"I believe it's important that we talk about the future of football as a partnership," Smith said.
Later, standing shoulder to shoulder with Goodell, Smith said: "If we don't have a good relationship, it hurts the game and the business of football. I'm not sure any two people have ever come together in a more compressed, public, interesting time than Roger and I. I'm proud to say our relationship has grown."
In addition to Kraft, John Mara of the Giants and Jerry Richardson of the Panthers — all members of the owners' labor committee — were present, too.
"I'd like, on behalf of both sides, to apologize to the fans: For the last five, six months we've been talking about the business of football and not what goes on on the field and building the teams in each market," Kraft said. "But the end result is we've been able to have an agreement that I think is going to allow this sport to flourish over the next decade."
Then, taking a verbal jab at the nearby White House and Congress, Kraft added: "I hope we gave a little lesson to the people in Washington, because the debt crisis is a lot easier to fix than this deal was."
Now comes frenzied football activity, starting immediately.
On Tuesday, clubs can begin talking to veteran free agents, who can sign as soon as Friday. On Wednesday, training camps will start to open.
Both sides set up informational conference calls for Monday afternoon to go over the details of the agreement. The NFLPA told player agents they would be coached in particular on the guidelines and schedule for signing free agents and rookies; the NFL alerted general managers and coaches they would be briefed in separate calls.
The major economic framework for the deal was worked out more than a week ago.
That included dividing revenue (about 53 percent to owners and 47 percent to players over the next decade; the old CBA resulted in nearly a 50-50 split); a per-club cap of about $120 million for salary and bonuses in 2011 — and at least that in 2012 and 2013 — plus about $22 million for benefits; a salary system to rein in spending on first-round draft picks; and unrestricted free agency for most players after four seasons.
"We know what we did to frustrate our fans over the last several months," Goodell said. "They want football, and our job is to give them football."