The Eagles are determined to hold their training camp at Lehigh, and with growing signs that an NFL labor deal is within reach, it appears increasingly likely they will be able to do so.
Eagles president Joe Banner said Wednesday that the team believes in the value of training at Lehigh for the team and fans. The team will not cancel its plans - it has not announced any dates - to travel to Bethlehem unless forced to and will wait until "the very last minute," he said.
"For us, it's a priority, so if there's any way to do it, we definitely will," Banner said.
Coach Andy Reid believes in the team bonding that comes from a hard camp in the Bethlehem hills, away from normal life for his players and coaches. The team - and many fans - love the fan participation: Practices can draw thousands of spectators, some of whom might not otherwise get the chance to see the Eagles in person.
A labor agreement, and an end to the NFL lockout, would have to come soon to preserve the Eagles' ability to use their traditional training ground, "but we're going to hold until the very last minute because for us it's an important part to our whole approach to things," Banner said.
Some other teams, including the Giants, have already pulled the plug on their traditional training-camp sites. If the Eagles, who started camp last year on July 27, had to stay home this year, they would practice at the NovaCare Complex on Pattison Street, but fans would not be allowed to attend because of an agreement between the team and its neighbors not to hold fan events at the team facilities.
Statements Wednesday from player leaders and the league, though, added to the optimism that a deal could be reached soon and normal training camps preserved.
"We believe the overall proposal made by the players is fair for both sides, and it is time to get this deal done. This is the time of year we as players turn our attention to the game on the field. We hope the owners feel the same way," read a statement from Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning, three of the most prominent players in the game and all named plaintiffs in the players' lawsuit against the league.
"We share the view that now is the time to reach an agreement so we can all get back to football and a full 2011 season," the NFL wrote in its own statement. "We are working hard with the players' negotiating team every day to complete an agreement as soon as possible."
Such optimism doesn't necessarily mean the final details will be sewn up, but it is a clear indication that each side sees an end within striking distance. The players' statement, in particular, is an important signal, both because it comes from such influential voices and because player sources had previously cast doubt on other reports of optimism.
Brees was expected to join the labor talks Thursday, another indication that a possible endgame is near.
"We have a lot of faith in the people working on this and are confident they understand the urgency and are hopeful they find a way to work things out," Banner said.
NFL owners have a meeting scheduled for July 21, at which time they could ratify a labor deal if the lead negotiators can settle on terms in their talks before then.