There are about a billion reasons to be optimistic the NFL will be open for business as usual this season.

That's how much Jerry Jones shelled out for his palace in Dallas. The Cowboys owner is hardly pinching pennies or scrounging through his jewelry box for a Super Bowl ring to pawn as the lockout stretches into a fourth month and threatens the start of training camp. But NFL owners are facing debts like they never have before, and even the hard-liners in the bunch can't ignore it's a costly battle.

If there's no football, there's no cash.

"It's a process, and you have to let the process work and keep working through it," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said as he and other owners left a five-hour meeting where they were briefed on a number of bargaining issues. "But I know it's better when you have labor peace on both sides."

Better when you can come to a deal on your own terms, too, rather than having it imposed on you by a judge.

The owners had always banked on winning the court battle that would allow them to extend the lockout until the players gave in. Whether that took a month or a year didn't really matter so long as the owners got the deal they wanted. A deal that would allow them to pay the bills for those sparkling new stadiums in Dallas, New York and Houston, and build even better ones in Minneapolis, San Francisco and maybe even Los Angeles. A deal that would ensure the values of their franchises, already worth an average of $1 billion, continue to skyrocket.

Then federal appeals Judge Kermit Bye uttered the words that gave the owners their biggest scare since players won the right to free agency almost 20 years ago.

"We will keep with our business," Bye told owners and players alike earlier this month, "and if that ends up with a decision, it's probably something both sides aren't going to like."

What a coincidence. After all those months of bluster and posturing, of insisting it was impossible to find agreement on an equitable split of $9 billion — something most fans could have managed over a pizza and a case of beer — there's been so much progress these last three weeks it seems the question is not if a deal gets done, but when.

Not only would owners relent on their demand for an increase in "expense credits," the money they've taken off the top of the pot to pay for conducting league business, they'd drop the credits altogether. (Explain why such credits were needed in the first place, though, when teams have been wheedling gifts out of taxpayers all these years.)

The owners also would agree to a salary "floor," preventing less-successful franchises from protecting their bottom lines by trotting out rosters of low-rent players. Not every owner has to spend like Jones or Dan Snyder, but you couldn't be the NFL's equivalent of the Pittsburgh Pirates, either.

Willingly giving up cash can't be easy for the owners. In past negotiations, the heads of the richest clubs would have fought such concessions as if it were fourth-and-goal. And they still might. Asked if there was a consensus for the proposals among the owners, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't say yes.

He didn't say no, though, either.

The outlook doesn't officially get bleak until games are canceled, yet owners are getting an idea of the hit they'll take if the lockout goes on much longer. NFL employees have had their salaries trimmed by 12 percent since April, and seven teams have instituted pay cuts or furloughs. Jones and the owners of the other deep-pocket teams may be able to hold on, but for how long?

It's telling that Jones and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, another traditional hard-liner, have been active participants in the negotiations in recent weeks. It's equally telling that Goodell and the labor committee left the meeting with the owners and headed straight to another with players association chief DeMaurice Smith on Wednesday.

"The membership has a strong view of the priorities and what we need to do, and a determination to get there," Goodell said. "Time is moving quickly for everyone to get this done."

Because time is money, and right now both are being wasted.


AP National Writer Nancy Armour can be reached at narmour(at)ap.org or follow her at http://twitter.com/nrarmour