NEW YORK -- The head of the NFL's negotiating team says it will be much easier to reach a new labor agreement with the players' union if the accord includes an 18-game regular season.
"It's something that both sides recognize the value of, and so both sides will work hard to incorporate it into the new agreement," NFL executive vice president of labor and chief counsel Jeff Pash said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Pash also said the league is "focused on a full 2011 season" and the owners want to have a deal in place "well before" the summer.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, and the union's executive director, DeMaurice Smith, has said he believes owners are preparing for a lockout. In a letter sent to players last week, Smith advised members to save their last three game checks in case next season is canceled. The NFL has not missed games because of labor problems since 1987, when the players went on strike.
"If both sides are equally committed and equally focused," Pash said, "then there's no reason why we can't get an agreement."
Pash doesn't have a drop-dead date in mind for getting a deal done in time to avoid missing games.
"I haven't even begun to think about it," he said, "because we're focused on getting an agreement. We're focused on a full 2011 season. That's where our head is."
Asked whether the season could be played if there is not a new CBA in place until the summer, Pash replied: "The goal is to have an agreement well before that."
He continued: "We have every incentive to get an agreement as soon as we can. We've said, we've told the union, it's been public -- if there is extended uncertainty, it's costly for both sides. It's costly for us, and it's costly for the players. So there is every incentive to try to reach an agreement sooner rather than later, and that's what our focus is. Are we going to do it? I can't guarantee that."
Pash declined to provide details on where the negotiations stand right now. He listed the most prominent issues as economics, the 18-game season, the rookie salary system and free-agency rules.
Pash believes the back-and-forth the sides already have had about increasing the regular season from 16 to 18 games demonstrates they are aware of that subject's importance to the talks. He said the NFL and union "exchanged detailed proposals" and had "detailed discussions" on that topic and added he thinks they'll "continue to do so."
"It's a season that would deliver more value to the fans. It would allow a lot of growth opportunities that don't exist with the current structure, and those growth opportunities would be beneficial for the players as well as for the clubs," Pash said. "There is a recognition that it is realistically an easier agreement to reach in the context of an 18-game regular season."
The current CBA went into effect for the 2006 season, and the owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008 that makes the deal expire next March. According to the NFL, the average player salary rose about 35 percent from $1.4 million in 2005 -- the last year of the old deal -- to $1.9 million in 2009. The league said it doesn't have comparable figures for 2010 because there is no salary cap in place.
"I would guess that there will be some inclination towards a longer-term deal rather than a shorter deal, but that all depends on what the deal looks like because obviously the longer out you go, the more risk both sides are taking, and I think it wouldn't be good for either side to feel three or four years down the road that it was really aggrieved," Pash said. "And that's a big part of the problem right now: The clubs really feel as though the deal that was made in 2006 was one-sided."
As talks move forward, Pash emphasized what he called "a shared responsibility to the fans" on the part of both sides.
"Ultimately, the only reason that we have a successful business and that we enjoy the public support that we have, and the economic success, and that the players can receive the kinds of salaries and benefits that they get, is because of the fans," Pash said. "And if we don't take advantage of the opportunity that the new collective bargaining agreement would offer to improve the game, to grow the game, to give fans and certainly clubs and players the benefits that would come with a new agreement, we are not just missing an opportunity, we're failing ... to honor the commitment that our fans make to us."