Updated: 7 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — As the NFL owners broke from their May meeting Wednesday, they walked past a race car suddenly parked in a downtown hotel preparing for Indy 500 weekend.
But even though their game has stalled and commissioner Roger Goodell wrapped up the meeting with a warning how the league has already suffered without losing games, many owners departed thinking they might be heading into the straightaway as they sounded themes of compromise and negotiation.
"You guys have said it. Everyone has said it. It just makes sense," Colts owner Jim Irsay told a group of reporters. "Yes, there is disagreement. Things have to be worked on for there to be a new agreement. It's the greatest sport in the world. It just makes sense to get something done and I think it can and you want the urgency and wakeup call to be now."
At the moment they are on fast track in purgatory. What the owners want is for the players to come to the table and negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement instead of waiting for a Federal appeals court to dictate the next step in the process, which would probably take the lockout into July with the case set to be heard June 3 in the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis.
Since owners and players are frozen with the hearing as well as the June 7 resumption of federal mediation looming, there is only so much the owners could do the past two days. Goodell said they discussed preparing for a normal start to the season that includes the traditional Kickoff Weekend as well as 9/11 10th anniversary plans. He also said he told Indiana governor Mitch Daniels at an event Tuesday night that Indianapolis will get the Super Bowl this season because there will be a season.
Yet he also admitted "our contingency plans have contingency plans."
In a news conference Wednesday, Goodell wouldn't rule out expanding rosters if the preseason and training camp are cut short to ease the development of rookies and player evaluation. He also acknowledged the lockout has hurt the league in everything from season ticket sales to the draft's TV ratings to traffic at NFL.com.
"The longer it goes, the more damage it does to the game," Goodell said. "The more revenue is down, there's less money to be divided amongst the parties. We made this point back in March. It gets more difficult when you get into litigation."
Despite the drop in ticket sales and interest, Goodell said the league has no plans to waive the local TV blackout rule when it comes to sellouts. He also continued to harp on the theme of getting back to the bargaining table and said the owners are ready for both sides to compromise. He echoed Tuesday's words of Jeff Pash, the league's point man in negotiations.
"This is the way it's going to get resolved; through negotiations," Goodell said. "The ownership knows that. The ownership believes that and it's imperative to all of us to get back to negotiating and figure out ways in which we can compromise our positions so that we can reach an agreement that's good for everybody."
Even those owners described as hardcore hawks in the dispute like Jerry Jones of Dallas and Jerry Richardson of Carolina were talking compromise Wednesday.
"We all realize that it's pointless to pick dates and deadlines because at the end of the day an agreement which is what it has to be," Jones said. "It won't come from court decisions, all of these things. This resolution will come from an agreement between the owners, league and players. When we get there it needs to cover everything."
Jones, the NFL's biggest dealmaker, senses there is one to be made.
"My experience has been in anything with negotiation it can come quick if you have a meeting of the minds that says now let's get in here and get it done," he said.
Irsay threw out July 4 as a potential drop-dead date when a deal has to be in place in order to ensure a full preseason slate, but Goodell and other owners, including Jones and Bengals president Mike Brown, didn't want to get that specific. It's believed the Bengals have to notify Georgetown College by mid-July if the Georgetown, Ky., college is going to host training camp. Brown indicated at the March meetings the Bengals would hold camp at Paul Brown Stadium if camp is delayed and the school can't accommodate the club because of classes.
But decisions like those seem to be a few weeks away.
"We're not at an Armageddon date," Eric Grubman, executive vice president of business operations for the NFL, told The Associated Press. "We're not staring that in the face this week."
What is a very real problem is that the league's new coaches aren't able to work with players, particularly rookies. The Bengals aren't the only team that can't install their new offense with a young quarterback. They aren't even the only team in their division that has the problem.
"I've got a new coach, too," said Cleveland boss Mike Holmgren, who hired Pat Shurmur after the season. "If you have the combination of a new coach and a young quarterback, I think probably it's a little more problematic then if you have a veteran team and veteran coach because everything is new. This time you would normally be installing and getting familiar with them and (them) with your program."
Shurmur runs a version of Holmgren's West Coast offense and has yet to teach it to second-year quarterback Colt McCoy, but McCoy has eight more NFL starts than Bengals rookie Andy Dalton even though they both have zero snaps in the West Coast offense. Since new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is an X and O descendant of Holmgren (Jon Gruden worked under Holmgren in Green Bay), the Browns and Bengals figure to be looking in a mirror offensively and Holmgren thinks it's a good scheme for youngsters.
"It's really a quarterback-friendly offense," Holmgren said. "You've got a bright guy, he's willing to work at it. It functions well. I'm very excited about the possibility of (McCoy) playing. He's young still. He still has to do it. He played a lot more last year than I thought he was going to have to. You saw things that he did that encouraged you. It's a good system, a proven system. We know how to teach it."
But how much time will teams have to teach it? Goodell knows roster expansion may have to be in the works with a late start.
"I do believe that the uncertainty is something we'll have to consider as it relates to getting players ready to play," Goodell said. "One, from an injury standpoint, and two, from making the proper evaluations. We have talked about different concepts depending on how long it goes, that we may have to implement."
Goodell peppered his caution with optimism. While he says the uncertainty is bad as the sides wait for the court ruling on the status of the league's lockout, it can also be a breeding ground for progress.
"The uncertainty is bad for us in many ways, what it does to the game and what it does to the fans," Goodell said. "But also when there is uncertainty that may be a good opportunity to get resolution because there is risk to everybody and that's what we should be doing."
Meanwhile, Jones raised concerns between his optimism.
"I am just concerned in general. My mantra is that I didn't build that $1.2 billion stadium in Dallas not to have the Cowboys playing games in it. I have a lot of confidence around the league and certainly with the Cowboys our players are working," he said.
Perhaps trying to will the Super Bowl to his city on time, Irsay cheerily reminded reporters a deal seemed to be close in March and that sometimes deals come from the least likely sources. Even agents, he said, because they are usually the people keeping players informed.
"Anyone can have perceptions of how far and how close it came. But it's reachable," Irsay said. "It's something that can get done. When you have an environment with this many people, you never know what circumstances are going to come up. What gets a spark going. History has shown emissaries have come forward, things happen. That's what we're looking for."
Until the spark comes, everyone waits. The motto of the next few weeks may have been uttered by Holmgren to Shurmur as they grapple with new plays and no players.
"Like I told my new head coach," Holmgren said, 'Hey, it is what it is. So we're not going to complain about it. When we get them in finally, we've got to go.' "