With NFL labor strife possible, will Patriots owner Robert Kraft have to save football again?

Shots have already started to fly between the NFL players and owners over the proposed collective bargaining agreement.

Robert Kraft and Jeff Saturday embrace during a July 2011 news conference in which the NFL players and owners came together to avoid a work stoppage. –Rob Carr/Getty Images

The veiled (and not-so-veiled) shots have already started to fly between the NFL players and owners over the proposed collective bargaining agreement. And while there’s a long time between now and any sort of hardcore deadline, the maneuvering that’s taken place this week regarding an expanded regular season, a change to the postseason picture, a fight over financials (and other proposals) could be interpreted as the opening stages of a protracted labor battle.

You might remember the last time we were here: 2011, when owners and players approached zero hour, during the lockout. As spring gave way to summer, it looked an awful lot like there was going to be some sort of work stoppage. But at the last minute, Robert Kraft ended up bringing both sides together. There was the teary embrace with Jeff Saturday, and the proclamation Kraft was the man who saved football, ending the 136-day lockout and allowing training camp to start relatively quickly that summer. The fact that it all played out against the backdrop of his wife’s sickness — with his hug of Saturday coming five days after her death — made it all the more dramatic.

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“Without him, this deal does not get done,’’ Saturday said of Kraft when everything was completed.

So nine years later, with player/owner relationships starting to simmer regarding the new CBA, could we be in for a replay?

And would both sides be inclined to turn to Kraft again? There’s no denying the Patriots owner was instrumental in setting the stage for the 2011 agreement, and despite any baggage he may have accumulated along the way, he’s still on the short list of owners who might be able to appeal to the better nature of both sides and get a deal done. Basically, if things stall, an owner of Kraft’s stature might be the sort of guy who can get things unstuck.

That being said, 2011 was a lifetime ago. (Tom Brady wasn’t even the oldest guy on the Patriots’ roster.) And while Kraft still wields enormous influence, the league dynamics may have changed to a point where others might be capable of stepping into the void. The truth is that with Kraft facing one of the more eventful offseasons of his stewardship, would he even be willing to wade into league business in the same sort of fashion he did in 2011?

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Think of the looming questions the Patriots will face over the next few months: What does the future hold for Brady? Can they retain some of their other foundational free agents like Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney? And how can they make the moves necessary to regain their spot in football’s Final Four, let alone win another Super Bowl? All legit questions that Kraft and his franchise have to deal with over the next few months.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of time between now and any sort of zero hour. But with players and owners already starting to maneuver for PR wins in the court of public opinion, it’s going to be interesting to see what sort of role the New England owner might play this time around.

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