Everyone’s still super optimistic that a new labor deal will be in place in time to save the entire 2011 NFL season, and even the entire preseason. But as representatives from the league and the trade organization formerly known as the NFLPA continue to negotiate, time is becoming a major factor.

By all indications, the two sides only have about two weeks to agree in principle on the details of a new collective bargaining agreement. If that doesn’t happen, training camp locations and start dates will be jeopardized and the league will have to consider postponing or cancelling the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game.

The point is that we’re a little too close for comfort. And with so many figures involved, things can take a turn for the worse at any moment.

The interesting news today is that, as the sides get together for four consecutive days of talks in Minnesota, only Roger Goodell, DeMaurice Smith and their staffs will be present. No owners, no players.

At this point, it’s become clear that Goodell and Smith are taking things into their own hands. They’ll have to rely on the attorneys to dot the i’s and cross the t’s at some point, but they’ve booted them from the bread and butter of this process, and now they’re telling their constituents to take a hike, too.

It seems that the relationship between Goodell and Smith has drastically improved recently. Three weeks ago, the two met for what was apparently a “jovial” dinner in New York. Now, you get the feeling that they’re ready to make one final push together.

Instead of Chicago or Boston or New York, the fifth, longest and most unique installment of meetings is taking place in Minnesota, close to the federal judges and magistrate judges who are overseeing the process. I don’t want to read into that too much, but it can’t be a bad thing.

Speaking of the courts, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis should technically be on the verge of delivering a decision on the league’s appeal of an injunction to lift the lockout. Ideally, that decision will never see the light of day. The court could be waiting to see what happens in this fresh round of negotiations before setting a timeline, but the threat of a decision from the three-judge panel is surely putting pressure on both sides.

As if any more pressure is necessary.