A day after the NFL regular season ended, Commissioner Roger Goodell sent an e-mail to about 5 million fans, telling them that "if both sides give a little," the league and its players' union "can and will reach an agreement" on a new labor deal.
Citing the U.S. economy and saying, "a 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all," Goodell wrote Monday: "Yes, NFL players deserve to be paid well. Unfortunately, economic realities are forcing everyone to make tough choices and the NFL is no different."
He outlined two key elements in negotiations among owners and players to replace the collective bargaining agreement, which expires March 4:
— Expanding from a 16- to 18-game regular season, which Goodell called "a significant change" that would "resolve fan complaints about preseason" by dropping two exhibition games;
— Instituting "a new system that properly compensates proven veterans and retired players by shifting some of the outrageous sums paid to many unproven rookies."
In 2009, according to the e-mail, NFL teams agreed to contracts worth $1.2 billion — including $585 million in guaranteed pay — for 256 drafted rookies.
"Don't get me wrong: top draft choices will continue to be highly paid," Goodell wrote. "All we're asking for is a return to common sense in paying our rookies. Other leagues have done this and we can, too."
Goodell also referred to the league's efforts to improve player safety by enforcing rules on dangerous hits, especially to the head, and "addressing the potential wear-and-tear on players in the way they train in-season and off-season."
The union declined to respond to the letter, which was sent to a database of fan e-mail addresses the league has collected from various sources, including NFL.com.
Some individual players did react to what Goodell said, including Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the union's executive committee.
"We're not close (to a deal) right now," Fujita said.
Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton found it noteworthy that Goodell wrote about owners and players needing to "give a little," and also pitched an 18-game regular season and changes to rookie salaries.
"It sounds like more than 'a little' to me. What are the owners giving that's equal to that?" Orton said. "So we'll see how that plays out, but it's not going to be a one-way situation where the players give and the owners don't."
Orton also wondered whether players will support the longer regular season, something the owners have made a centerpiece of the negotiations.
"Many fans have been asking me where we stand on signing a new collective bargaining agreement with the player's union. Let me update you and be clear at the outset: I know we can and will reach an agreement," Goodell wrote.
He continued: "Economic conditions ... have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. ... These are not easy negotiations, but the outcome can be positive. If both sides give a little, everyone, including fans, will get a lot and the game will improve through innovation."
The current CBA went into effect for the 2006 season, but the owners exercised an opt-out clause in 2008 that ends the deal after this season, saying they can't afford the current system. The players say the league is healthy, thanks to billions of dollars in TV deals, solid attendance, profitable marketing partnerships and overseas interest.
"We have a formula that works. And we're just asking the owners: Why opt out? Why are we going though labor issues right now, when this equation is working?" Washington Redskins defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday said Monday.
Holliday, Washington's player representative, added: "It's amazing how talks have gone from negotiating a collective bargaining agreement to negotiating an 18-game season. And that was a strategic move by ownership, by the NFL. And it's somewhat disappointing. And they're supposed to be operating in a way that is (for) the good of the players, and I don't know if that's happening right now."
The NFL has not missed games because of labor problems since 1987, when the players went on strike. But the union's executive director, DeMaurice Smith, has said he believes owners are preparing for a lockout this time.
"This is about more than a labor agreement," Goodell wrote in Monday's e-mail. "It's about the future of the NFL."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Englewood, Colo., and AP Sports Writers Joseph White in Ashburn, Va., and Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.