For a brief period Thursday, it appeared as if Vikings players would be able to return to Winter Park on Saturday.
Then another dose of lockout reality hit.
While the Vikings were among the 31 teams that approved the terms of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association (Oakland abstained), members of the NFLPA were less than thrilled by what they learned about the proposal.
"What I'm hearing is [the owners] tried to slide in a good one on us," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. "It's a good thing we read over things before we sign them."
Robison spoke after the NFLPA held a conference call Thursday night in which it was decided that players would not yet vote on the proposal. The NFL reportedly gave the players a deadline of Tuesday to vote. A member of the Vikings organization said the team would decline to comment on Thursday night, although a few teams did issue statements or had their owners speak publicly.
"I think it's a good deal for all sides," Cincinnati Bengals President Mike Brown told the team's website. "The players got a good deal out into the future and got things looking at the safety issue. It's good for the fans. They won't miss football. It's for 10 years. And it's a good deal for the owners."
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe did not think it was a good deal for the players.
"It's disappointing that the owners would try to change the terms of this carefully negotiated CBA right before presenting it to the players," he said in a text message. "If they try to present us with a fait accompli, then I think they're sadly underestimating the players' unity."
The latest setback in a work stoppage that began on March 11 means there is a good possibility that if and when a settlement is reached, the Vikings won't hold training camp in Mankato.
The Vikings set last Monday as their deadline to inform Minnesota State University whether they would go to Mankato, but because of optimism about the progress being made in CBA talks, that deadline was extended. There is a possibility that if the CBA agreement is not ratified Friday, the Vikings could decide to conduct training camp at Winter Park.
The Vikings are scheduled to report to camp on July 31 and begin practices the next day.
"I try not to stress out, but it's a little discouraging when you talk about being so close and going back to work and everything and it ends up this way," Robison said. "But that's kind of the way it has been. It's been an up-and-down battle. You kind of get used to it after a while. The thing is luckily our player reps are going to make sure they do the right things for us and make sure we have a fair deal for both sides."
Vikings Hall of Famer Carl Eller was among a group of veteran players who were involved in the negotiations. The NFL owners' proposal does provide for substantial increases for retired players, including additional funding for retiree benefits of between $900 million and $1 billion. The largest single amount, $620 million, would be used for a new "Legacy Fund," which increases pensions for pre-1993 retirees under the plan.
Under the league's proposal, teams could have started signing their own free agents and players they drafted Saturday, and also started negotiating with free agents from other teams. The full free agency period would then have started Wednesday.
Players will become unrestricted free agents after four years under the owners' proposal, meaning Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice and defensive end Ray Edwards both would be free to shop themselves on the open market.
That, of course, won't happen until the players ratify this agreement.
Quarterback Christian Ponder, the 12th overall pick in the April draft by the Vikings, said earlier Thursday that he has learned to temper his enthusiasm when it comes to the lockout ending.
"It's tough," Ponder said. "As long as it's been going, I've learned not to put too much weight in what's being thrown around. I kind of got my hopes up and been let down a couple of times. So I'm trying to play it by ear. Not to put too much weight in it, not become too optimistic until we get that word."
Ponder has not been able to talk to Vikings coaches since a brief window in late April when he was allowed to discuss football matters after the lockout was lifted for a few hours. That happened shortly after Ponder was drafted.
"Once this thing gets lifted, I'm definitely going to head straight to the facility, give [offensive coordinator Bill] Musgrave a call, sit down with him and hopefully talk some ball," Ponder said.
For the time being, that conversation will have to wait.