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.
The vote now goes as a recommendation to the 10 plaintiffs in Brady antitrust lawsuit. They have agreed to sign off on the settlement.
"This is a long time coming, and football's back," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "and that's the great news for everybody."
At a joint appearance outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, D.C., Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith were flanked 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 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 overwhelmingly approved a proposal Thursday, but some unresolved issues still needed to be reviewed to satisfy players; the owners do not need to vote again.
The sides worked through the weekend and wrapped up the details Monday morning on a final pact that runs for 10 years, without an opt-out clause, a source familiar with the deal told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora.
Owners decided in 2008 to opt out of the league's old labor contract, which expired March 11. That's when the 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. "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, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Colts center Jeff Saturday, and Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth, key members of the players' negotiating team.
Brees was one of 10 plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit that players filed against the league. Those plaintiffs approved the deal, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"I believe it's important that we talk about the future of football as a partnership," Smith said.
Moments later, Goodell walked into the building, joined by owners Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots, John Mara of the New York Giants and Jerry Richardson of the Carolina Panthers.
Kraft apologized to fans for having to wait out the labor turmoil.
"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," Kraft said.
According to the documents forwarded to all agents from the NFLPA, obtained by La Canfora, the key dates to the league year would be as follows:
» Monday: The free agent list will be published at 6 p.m. ET.
» Tuesday: Facilities open "for training, conditioning" and "classroom" work; trading period begins (no time specified); teams can start signing undrafted free agents and their own draft picks at 10 a.m. ET; teams can begin negotiating with any free agents -- their own and those who were with other teams.
» Thursday: Waiver period begins and teams can begin terminating contracts at 4:01 p.m. ET.
» Friday: Full free agency begins -- teams can begin signing their own free agents and those who played with other teams at 6 p.m. ET.
Under the proposed schedule, training camps would open for 10 of the 32 teams on Wednesday, 10 more on Thursday, another 10 on Friday, and the last two teams on Sunday.
According to sources who helped create the documents, training camps can open on Wednesday, but no teams can be in pads until Saturday. So as a practical matter, no real camp activity will begin for any team until Saturday, but in the new CBA it stipulated the first three days of camp are non hitting, La Canfora reported.
Furthermore, by Wednesday, most of the teams opening camp won't have 90 players under contract yet, anyway.
The Dallas Cowboys are one team that has already begun training camp preparations, having sent their equipment trucks to San Antonio on Sunday.
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 how the more than $9 billion in annual league revenues will be divided (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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.