By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
Robert Kraft has owned the New England Patriots for 17 years. In some ways, this is the most important week of his tenure. The league's 32 owners will meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Chicago. They'll argue whether satisfactory progress has been made since they decided to lock out the players on March 11 and force negotiation of a new labor deal. They'll battle among themselves over rookie wage scale concessions, health benefit payouts, controlling payroll, how much projected growth the players can share in, revenue sharing, who gets credit for what and - most significantly - how a new deal will benefit their franchise and their very own financial bottom lines. Strip away the artifice and realize this - the vast majority of these owners are wildly successful businessmen accustomed to winning by knockout. Who will sell them on the benefit of accepting asplit decision? Or a draw?The most likely answer is Kraft. He will likely be the most valuable man in the room this week. Think about it: as respected as Commissioner Roger Goodell is among the owners, he is their elected mouthpiece and conscience. He never wrote a check for a free agent bust or sweated out a stadium naming right negotiation like an owner has. And as highly-regarded as long-standing ownership families like the Maras and the Rooneys are, they came to own the Giants and Steelers respectively the old-fashioned way - Dad. They personally don't know what it's like to cobble together more than 100 million to actually purchase a franchise as Kraft did. Kraft, 70, incrementally pursued ownership of the Patriots through the 80s by buying up first parking lots then the stadium. He bought themoutright in 1994 with a nice little leveraged play on James Busch Orthwein. Krafthas been involved in every high and low an owner could imagine - battling a heavyweight coach, building a new stadium, getting to the precipice of moving a franchise, winning Super Bowls, dealing with ignominious charges of on-field cheating, creating commerce around the team. And while doing that, he's struck deals and blazed trails that helped every other franchise see the financial light, whether it be digitally or with TV contracts. He can relate to the hawkish tendencies of owners like Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Jerry Richardson of the Panthers. At the same time, while he may not seem to totally agree with the way teams like the Bengals and Bills work their small markets, he seems to at least appreciate their travails. He's poised to be the bridge-builder this week when the owners gather. It's likely a majority will see an end to the lockout as being for the greater good. Concessions from the players will have been gained, damage to the product can be minimized, there will be no interruption of inflowing money from customers. But in order for the deal to be accepted, 24 teams have to approve it. And the strange blend of big-market teams and small-market teams who may resist the deal for very different reasons. The job of convincing holdoutsmall-market owners that the deal won't break them whileassuringholdout big-market teams that they aren'tfinancially propping up the have-nots isgoing to be tricky business.Add in the dynamic of ownersswallowing pride in letting their employees win a little, plus the wishes and demands of attorneys in the room and there's a combustible mix to keep the lid on. To be clear, Robert Kraft isn't riding in on a white horse. From his involvement in the "lockout insurance" deal that Judge David Doty ruled was improperly struck to his conspicuous disdain for De Smith at the outset of the lockout, he's had a part in creating the divide. But no owner has been more vocal and active in bridging the divide and attempting to get football back in business before severe damage is done. And that effort culminates this week.
By Tom E. Curran