Lukewarm to a proposed 18-game regular-season format by NFL owners, the NFL Players Association nevertheless has made what it says is a "good-faith" counterproposal that addresses the player safety risks incumbent with an expanded season.
The union's counterproposal, according to sources, includes significantly reduced voluntary offseason workouts and a specific number of helmetless and padless practices during training camp.
The highlights of the union proposal:
" Voluntary offseason workouts would be reduced from the current 14 weeks to five weeks or 20 days (four days a week, four-hour maximum per day).
" Significantly reduced contact between players during training camp with four practices a week consisting of helmetless and padless periods.
" Two in-season bye weeks.
" Expanded rosters from the current 53 to 56 or 57, in addition to practice squads.
" Increased prorated salaries for players under contract.
" Reduction of the amount of games players need to become vested to qualify for post-career health care and pension benefits.
An NFL spokesman said the league would not have a comment on the union's counterproposal, which was delivered to the league's labor negotiation team near the end of October without a response from management.
Despite optimistic public assertions made by high-profile owners such as Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, there have been no substantive recent negotiations, nor are there any scheduled, on a new collective bargaining agreement. The owners will have their monthly labor meeting in mid-December in the Dallas area. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that while there have been discussions, little progress has been made as both sides have prepared for a potential work stoppage in 2011.
"We have responded to every one of the league's proposals and concerns in an effort to keep negotiations progressing in good faith," said George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director of external affairs. "There are obvious concerns about an 18-game season in the absence of real information that we await."
Asked to describe "real information" that the union awaits, Atallah said, "injury data, financial information and a logical explanation as to why they are canceling their obligation to post-career and current health care [next March when the current CBA expires]."
In response to Atallah's description on health care, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello recirculated the management position on funding of current player benefits if there is a work stoppage: "This is yet one more reason to get back to the bargaining table and get an agreement. But there is no question that a strike or lockout triggers rights under a federal law known as COBRA that allows employees to continue their existing health insurance coverage without interruption or change in terms -- either at their expense or their union's expense. This means that no player or family member would experience any change in coverage for so much as a single day because of a work stoppage. The union surely knows this and there is no excuse suggesting otherwise."
The NFL's proposal for an 18-game regular season remains unavailable but sources said the league has called for a reduction from 14 weeks on voluntary workouts to 12. The union's five-week proposal is a stark contrast, although the NFLPA will allow for rookie exceptions as first-year players are integrated into the league.
The NFL also has proposed one bye week after the second of two preseason games in addition to one bye in-season, the sources added. The union wants both byes to be in-season.
Furthermore, union sources say that owners have proposed just one expanded roster spot, from 53 to 54, for an 18-game regular season.
The NFL calendar would undergo significant changes under an 18-game format with two byes, including the possibility that the Super Bowl will be played on President's Day weekend -- three weeks into February. However, there is still discussion of beginning the season one week earlier, on Labor Day, a practice the NFL has forsaken the past several years.
It's possible training camps would begin in late June with at least one break before resuming for preseason preparations, a source said.
Unrelated to the 18-game schedule, also remaining on the table are proposals from each side to include a rookie hard wage scale that could be in effect as early as the 2011 draft. However, whereas the owners want the $200 million on projected rookie wage savings redistributed with $100 million to improved retired player pensions and health care and the remaining $100 million to simply be available in the system with an increased pay-for-performance pool, the union wants the owners to match the $100 million savings on retired players.
Aiello's league response: "We proposed to the union prior to the 2010 season adopting a rookie wage scale for this year  and redistributing the first $100 million to improve retired player pensions and health care. We were prepared to take this step immediately without a fully negotiated CBA in order to get help to retired players now. The union rejected the proposal."
Aiello added that the league already has committed that retired player benefits would continue even if the CBA expires without a new agreement.
Chris Mortensen is ESPN's senior NFL analyst.