NFL's response to courts pivotal Thursday

The latest legal setback for the NFL comes as little surprise.

It's the timing of the setback that raises the stakes for the league -- and for NFC West teams in particular.

With the draft set to begin Thursday, teams do not yet know to what extent the league will open for business in accordance with a federal court order striking down the owners' lockout against players. U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson's refusal to stay her decision pending an appeal sent league attorneys scrambling for relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even if the appeals court ultimately granted a stay, there's no telling when that court would issue such a decision. In the meantime, there's a draft to conduct, and teams need to know as soon as possible whether they can trade players under contract, sign free agents, etc.

Every NFC West team but the St. Louis Rams needs a starting quarterback. Opening the trade market could send the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers scrambling after veteran options such as Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb, a player Seattle inquired about last offseason. Teams in the division could conceivably reach out to long-time Seattle starter Matt Hasselbeck, hammering out a deal before the draft begins. That sort of scenario seems unlikely, but it's tough to take anything for granted under the circumstances.

Barring an expedited assist from the appeals court, would the league fall into contempt of court if it refused to allow at least some level of trades involving players? Nelson was explicit, after all, in her instructions to the league, even though she refused to lay out specific operating rules.

This should be a dramatic Thursday, even by NFL draft standards.