DALLAS -- Quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were among the star players who attended a negotiating session between the NFL and players' union Saturday, league sources told ESPN's Chris Mortensen.
While it is not unusual for players to occasionally sit in on negotiations, the presence of Manning was a surprise and is an early indication that the union is successfully getting the support of its superstar quarterbacks. During the 1987 players strike and subsequent labor strife, several of the league's star passers broke union ranks by signing licensing rights with the NFL which weakened the union revenue pool.
Manning was also joined at Saturday's meeting by Brees, who has been an activist as the team's player representative. Sources did not reveal if any players spoke during the negotiating session but their presence was considered symbolic, at the very least. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was named the NFL's MVP on Sunday for the 2010 season, also has been an outspoken pro-union player rep.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the two-hour meeting with the players' union was "beneficial."
"It's always a positive when both parties are talking," Goodell said.
"My focus is on the next three or four weeks," Goodell said. "I've often said, our agreement expires on March 4th. We have to use that period of time to reach an agreement that's fair for the players, fair for the clubs, and allows our great game to grow for our fans."
In an interview with "Fox News Sunday" that aired the morning of the Super Bowl, Goodell called drug testing a key issue in labor talks. Goodell also addressed the NFL's labor issues on Sunday in an appearance on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning".
The two-hour meeting did not delve deeply into the issues that have created a fairly wide gulf that could lead to a lockout on March 4 when the current CBA expires. However, sources on both sides felt the meetings had some positive production as the owners and players scheduled at least two sessions this week and made progress on a working agenda.
In addition to Goodell and his lead labor negotiators, sources said there were five owners present -- Jerry Richardson of the Panthers, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, Clark Hunt of the Chiefs, John Mara of the Giants and Dean Spanos of the Chargers.
Richardson, who is co-chairman of the owners negotiating committee, continues to be perceived as the least flexible and most pessimistic spokesman for the owners, sources have noted on both sides.
In an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said it was a "good meeting" but said "I don't think anyone went into the meeting with the idea that we were going to build Rome in one day."
Smith said the sides have been talking continually and it's probably better that those talks aren't publicized.
Outlining major sticking points, Goodell talked about revenue division, rookie salaries and benefits for retired players. He added: "We want to continue on with the integrity of the game, which is my No. 1 issue" and spoke of "making sure we have the best drug program in sports."
Both Goodell and Smith said that expanding the NFL season to 18 games wouldn't be a deal breaker either way. But Smith said that the NFL must address post-career health care if the league does add two games each season. Currently, Smith said, only players who play three seasons in the NFL are eligible for post-career health care and adding two games to a season will likely shorten NFL careers.
Smith said the key issue is the money the owners want the players to give back in a new deal.
"At the economic height of this game, the owners want the players to give a billion dollars back. The only thing we ask is why and to demonstrate that," Smith said.
Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and The Associated Press was used in this report.