NEW YORK – The NFL hasn't set a deadline for when games would be canceled without a collective bargaining agreement.
"We don't have a date by which the season is lost, or a date by which we have to move from 16 games to some other (number)," Eric Grubman, the league's executive vice president for business operations, said Friday at a meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors. "Our intentions are to play a full season, and we will pull every lever that we can within the flexibility we have or can identify to make that happen."
Even during the lockout, Grubman said, the NFL and teams are working so they will be ready to start the season quickly once a deal is reached.
"We have to be able to figure out: When you turn the key, is the gas going to flow?" he said. "Is everything going to work?"
The 2011 schedule released Tuesday has games beginning Sept. 8, but includes some room to maneuver. The NFL could still squeeze in 16 games with a delayed start by eliminating bye weeks and the week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. The league also has a deal with host Indianapolis to potentially hold the Super Bowl a week later, stemming from the earlier possibility of playing an 18-game regular season.
But a delayed opening would remove a meaningful date from the schedule. For now, the first Sunday of the season falls on the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and part of the NFL's business-as-usual planning includes deciding how to commemorate that moment.
"Its national significance is profound," Grubman said. "And the significance of competitive sports in America is also very profound."
Predicting a deadline for when the schedule would have to be revised is difficult because it's impossible to know how negotiations will play out. If at some point it becomes clear a deal is near, the NFL can begin setting plans for the upcoming season. If an agreement is reached unexpectedly and rapidly, there might be more lag time before the games start.
The league and teams have mostly turned to pay cuts to reduce expenses during the lockout. It costs about $40 million a week to run the business of the NFL, Grubman said.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose salary was slashed to $1 during the lockout, recently received a pay stub for 4 cents.
"There's no possible way we could have a state of readiness and achieve the season quickly if we cut staff and the clubs cut staff," Grubman said.
Executive vice president for football operations Ray Anderson said it was feasible to play fewer than the normal four preseason games, but general managers and coaches would prefer at least two.
The two sides took a break from mediation earlier this week after four sessions and aren't scheduled to reconvene until May 16. Before then, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is expected to decide on the players' request to immediately lift the lockout.
Goodell said he didn't believe the labor impasse would be resolved through the courts.
"I recognize people try to get leverage in negotiations, but at the end of the day it's going to come down to the negotiations," said Goodell, who unexpectedly attended the final 10 minutes of the 90-minute meeting. "The sooner we get to that negotiation, the better. I think the litigation has delayed those negotiations."
The NFL has also filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board. The board could announce in the next four to six weeks whether it will hear the complaint. NFL officials contend that alone would be significant: If the board started the process, Grubman said, that would indicate it believed the decertified NFL Players Association was still acting as a union, as the NFL has alleged.
In other news:
— NFL officials said Goodell's chat with Chad Ochocinco, which the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver tweeted about Thursday, was OK under guidelines restricting communication between the league and players because the conversation was purely social. Goodell said he had chatted with other players during the lockout and would continue to do so. But officials acknowledged the guidelines of what's acceptable behavior by teams included some gray area. "The easy thing to do is say, 'You can't call,'" Grubman said.
— Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy and player development, emphasized that players would still be held accountable under the league's personal conduct policy for infractions committed during the lockout.
— Grubman said season ticket sales were strong until CBA negotiations broke off in March and have slowed since, but teams have been particularly hurt by an inability to sign sponsorship deals during the lockout.