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Critical week on NFL labor scene

NEW YORK - This is the week hardly anyone expected to actually arrive: deadline time for the NFL and its players' union.

The collective bargaining agreement expires Thursday night, and the owners could lock out the players. Even before that, though, the Players Association is likely to decertify to prevent a lockout and take its chances in court.

Both sides will resume meeting with a federal mediator Tuesday and probably Wednesday in Washington; seven recent sessions brought little progress. The 32 team owners have meetings Wednesday and Thursday in nearby Chantilly, Va., where they will be briefed on the status of negotiations before deciding on the next step.

Just ahead stands the unthinkable: a labor shutdown in America's most prosperous and popular sport.

"Everything is hypothetical right now,'' new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "I'm just optimistic we can get something done.''

If the league locks out the players, everything stops except the NFL draft on April 28-30 - and any interviews or workouts teams conduct with college players leading up to the draft. After that, teams can't contact their picks, nor can they sign undrafted rookies.

Veterans also will be in limbo, with no offseason workouts (OTAs) or minicamps held. The longer the impasse lasts, the more in jeopardy training camps, the preseason and - gasp! - the regular season become.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne already has plans for practicing with teammates.

"We picked out a spot to work out at, and we're trying to get guys back in town,'' Henne said. "Normally our offseason program starts March 28, so we're going to try to have everybody back March 28 ... and hopefully a lot of guys will come back and we can work out and we can build some bonding and camaraderie.''

The financial losses are almost incalculable, but would grow by tens of millions of dollars the longer the work stoppage lasts. The NFL is a $9 billion industry, but not when it comes to a halt.

Should the union decertify, something it did in 1989, only to reform, individual players would seek a court injunction preventing a lockout. Players on every team approved decertification in votes during the season.

But going through the courts can be a long, winding journey.

The league filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union with the National Labor Relations Board in mid-February, saying the NFLPA "consistently has failed to confer in good faith'' during negotiations for a new contract. The NFL claimed the union's plans to decertify overrode its interest in reaching a new CBA, a charge union spokesman George Atallah said had "absolutely no merit.''

If the union decertifies, which it must do before the CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. Thursday night, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL in essence would have nobody to negotiate with. Then again, the players wouldn't have executive director DeMaurice Smith representing them anymore.

Already, some teams have withheld 2011 playbooks from veterans, particularly teams with new coaches, offensive or defensive coordinators. Indeed, several teams are putting together two sets of playbooks, one for use if there is an agreement and offseason workouts take place, and one in the event there are no OTAs or minicamps.

"There have never been any restrictions on when you could or couldn't hand out playbooks or do the normal offseason stuff,'' Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

"Obviously, we have different schedules planned,'' Broncos coach John Fox added, "but all 32 teams are dealing with this.''

Judge David Doty in Minneapolis is dealing with an NFLPA motion that $4 billion in TV rights fees from the NFL's network partners should be placed in escrow rather than spread among the teams in 2011 - even if no games are played. The league's agreements with the networks calls for payments to be made whether games take place next season or not, and the NFL says lockout protection is a normal part of such contracts.

Doty's decision likely won't come before Thursday night's CBA deadline.

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