NFL winners? Not fans, not players

The NFL is back. Sing it from the rooftops, shout it from the mountains. Praise the dual princes of negotiation, Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith. All hail the heroic Bob Kraft and the suddenly lovable -- or at least tolerable -- Jerry Richardson.

And, oh yeah, one other thing: Don't ask why you're being told to celebrate something that really never went anywhere in the first place. Right now, amid the glory of the moment, that would be rude.

Goodell and Smith had barely finished patting themselves on the back Monday when they began tossing out platitudes to the fans. The fans are the big winners, Goodell said. "I dig our fans who love our game," Smith said.

Really? Why did everything they said make it sound as if they were doing everybody a favor?

So they got a deal done. Great. It definitely beats the alternative. But they got a deal done for themselves, with the owners doling out carefully measured slices of compromise and the players taking what they could get. And that's why, amid the interminable discussions of who won and who lost, remember this: The owners won.

It's a simple formula: If the lockout is over, the owners won. They wouldn't have planned four years for this lockout and signed a deal after four months if it didn't benefit them. Trust us on this one. They had to win. There was no other possibility.

They didn't go into their meeting last week and call for the vote based on making the fans the big winners in all of this. Is that the Mike Brown way? Do you think Richardson got up and said, "This has gone on long enough; we need to give the fans what they want"? Oh yeah, pleasing the fans -- that's probably not why they gave Goodell a standing ovation, but I'm just guessing.

The owners locked the players out by dismissing the previous CBA, so, by definition, any settlement is a win for them. They were more than ready to sit out the season, because they can. They have the money and the publicly funded palaces and the antitrust exemptions. What do the players have? A clock clicking in double time, counting down their careers.

You probably already have read about how the players won. That seems to be a common refrain in the echo chamber. It's good for a laugh, anyway. Saying the players won is like saying a guy who wakes up to find armed intruders in his house won because he kept them from stealing a few 20s he keeps under a floorboard.

Just because the players expected to lose on certain major points doesn't mean they won. Nobody expected the owners to open their books -- seemingly a requirement for true collective bargaining -- and it didn't happen. The owners were expected to get a bigger percentage of revenue, and they did. Players will go from a little more than half to roughly 47 percent, with language that opens the possibility for accounting gymnastics that don't typically favor players.

Most everybody -- including veteran players -- seems happy with the idea of restricting rookie salaries. That's an easy one, right? A 22-year-old has no right to a guaranteed $50 million -- just to pick out a random Sam Bradford -- before he has even taken a snap. But there is another side: There are precious few players at that level, and it's often their only chance to command that kind of money. It seems like a major concession for the NFLPA when the marquee player in the draft goes from a guaranteed $50 million one year to a shade over $22 million the next.

Any praise for the NFLPA -- certified or decertified -- is limited to its ability to get the players back on the field with cleats on their feet. Give the players this: They proved to be a tougher opponent for the owners than anybody expected, and they refused to be railroaded into signing something before they'd been given the courtesy of at least reading it.

Any confusion about the owners' ethics should have been dispelled Thursday, when they attempted to force-feed the players a unilateral agreement. In true totalitarian fashion, they agreed to accept their own deal. How smashing. This was a remarkable bit of hubris, even for a group that includes Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder and Richardson. They tried to backdoor a deal full of provisions that hadn't even been discussed, then marketed it publicly as a principled stand.

(The Raiders and Al Davis abstained from that vote, which gave everybody -- including the owners, I'm sure -- a good laugh. Just Al being Al, right? Maybe, but in this case, Al being Al was as principled as it got. His CEO, Amy Trask, gave an unenlightening explanation for the abstention and Al's never been one to back away from a good fleecing providing he's not the fleecee, but we're thinking "philosophical differences" might refer to the ethics of the whole enterprise. We're hoping anyway.)

But you know why so many people are under the assumption the players won? Simply because they called the owners on their devious little ploy. It might not have changed anything in the end, but when Smith says, "Our guys stuck together when nobody thought we would," he's exactly right.

They withstood the pressure from the owners and from much of the media, which bought the garbage the owners were selling. The corporate shills, perhaps fearing the emptiness of their lives without the grandeur of a Rex Ryan news conference, ratcheted up the pitch and volume of their give-us-our-football whines until the airport called to complain.

So in the end, the players did as well as could be expected. They got out with their pride and dignity intact.

Now we can get on with the important stuff, such as whining at those damned players for costing us the Hall of Fame game.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Rick Harrison of "Pawn Stars." "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," also available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.