FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In his annual state-of-the-league address during Super Bowl week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stressed the importance of getting a collective bargaining agreement done with the NFL Players Association as quickly as possible.
He has until March 5 to show how important that issue is.
The future state of the league is going to be determined in the next four weeks. If the owners don't get a deal done before March 5, the salary cap goes away. And NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith says it is virtually impossible for the union to go back to a salary cap if there isn't one in 2010.
The pressure is on.
In my opinion, there is a Hail Mary chance something could get done by March 5, but it's a long shot. And I know I'm in the minority, maybe even a minority of one. Having covered the labor disputes of the 1970s and '80s, I learn never to get too wrapped up in rhetoric. Collective bargaining agreements come down to money and leverage, not words.
On Thursday, I tried not to be thrown by Smith's claim that the league is asking for an 18 percent pay cut. I was a little more encouraged Friday when the league explained the owners asked for an 18 percent credit against revenues, not a reduction in pay. Those credits would be based on money owners borrow or use to build stadiums or to create new revenues.
There is enough revenue to make everyone happy. Goodell noted that player costs have grown from $2.2 billion to $4.7 billion over the past decade. Revenue has grown into the $8 billion range. The owners are asking for adjustments because -- according to Goodell's numbers -- revenues have grown $3.6 billion since 2006, but $2.6 billion of that went to player costs.
One of Goodell's biggest challenges over the next four weeks will be getting owners to agree on the right direction of the league. There are some owners who might be willing to try a system without a salary cap that requires a player to wait six years until free agency. There are high-revenue owners who like having no salary cap. There are low-revenue owners who like not having a salary floor that requires them to pay roughly 90 percent of a salary cap in salaries.
What was clear Friday was that Goodell would like a deal -- the last thing he wants is a lockout in 2011.
"You don't make money by shutting down your business," Goodell said.
The league and the players still have time. The union is reasonable enough to be willing to keep the salary cap because players know that it's good for the game. Owners need to come together on a revenue-sharing plan that assures 32 teams can compete on a reasonably level playing field.
The league has plenty of other issues: there are concerns about concussions; the Rams are for sale and Goodell wants to make sure they stay in St. Louis; getting a stadium in Los Angeles could allow the league a chance to get football back in that area.
But getting a labor deal done in the next month is the first priority. Though it's a long shot, I left Friday's news conference thinking there is a 5 percent chance something could happen.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.