The NFL has told its teams and players to get back to football, at least for now.
Told twice in three days by a federal judge that its 45-day lockout was illegal, the league assured teams and players they could resume some of the normal day to day football operations beginning Friday, including voluntary workouts at team facilities, meetings with coaches and going over playbooks.
"That's great news," said linebacker Joe Mays, one of 10 Denver Broncos players who showed up at the team's headquarters Thursday. "It's something we've been trying to do, get back to work."
The league also promised to distribute detailed procedures for signing free agents, making trades and other roster moves. That memo, the league said, will likely come Friday and spell out the timing for the start of the league year.
The guidelines were released a few hours before the NFL draft, where teams were still allowed only to swap picks, not players.
"Judge [Susan Richard] Nelson said it was up to us to determine how to proceed, and we think in light of the fact that the first round of the draft is tonight, clubs are fully focused on that," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an appearance Thursday on ProFootballTalk.com's daily webcast. "The best way to proceed is for the veterans to start working out at facilities [Friday], and then we'll set up the process of starting the league year, which would include player trades and player signings."
New players in particular will benefit from the new guidelines.
"These rookies, there's a lot going on for them," New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "So any info they can get, any things they can study, is good. If the lockout happens again, they'll have plenty to study from their teams."
Things are far from normal, however. On a day members of the Tennessee Titans showed up to find two armed guards at their locked-up facility, the NFL pressed forward with the legal fight in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
The league wants a temporary stay of Nelson's decision to lift the lockout so it can argue that it should be overturned altogether. The players were told to respond to the league's motion for a stay by 1 p.m. ET on Friday, and the NFL's reply to that is due Monday morning.
Michael Gans, the appeals court clerk, said the three-judge panel for the appeal had not yet been finalized. The venue is considered more friendly to businesses like the NFL's $9 billion operation than the federal courts in Minnesota.
"They could rule on the temporary stay at any time between now and Monday," Gans told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he feared the fight could last for a while.
"I think the litigation, unfortunately, could go on for some period of time," he told the NFL Network. He said he was looking forward to the next round of court-ordered talks on May 16.
Agent Angelo Wright said he has told clients under contract not to worry about visiting headquarters this weekend out of fairness to the teams so they can focus on the draft. He said they should plan to show up on Monday, and said he'd start calling team executives about unsigned players as soon as Sunday night.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus, though, said he'd like for signings and trades to take place during the draft.
"I've been calling teams, and I've been told they've been advised by the NFL to hold off on signings or trades until further notice," Rosenhaus said.
Attorneys for the players said the decision lifting the lockout "is in full, immediate force."
"It is our view that the NFL and the clubs will be in contempt of court if they do not comply with the order," lawyers James Quinn and Jeffrey Kessler wrote.
Quinn, in a tersely worded letter to NFL attorney Gregg Levy, said the players were tired of waiting and even accused the league of "granting itself a temporary stay" of Nelson's order by not immediately opening the doors for football operations.
Now, four days after Nelson lifted the lockout, there are guidelines to follow.
Mandatory minicamps and voluntary offseason practices can begin, under the rules in the old collective bargaining agreement. Team-supervised workouts will count toward such bonuses in player contracts, and players can also work out on their own at team facilities if they have health insurance in place.
The league will "promptly make arrangements" for the substance abuse and steroid programs to resume, and players can participate in team-sponsored community and charity functions.
And in the meantime, they'll continue their fight in court.
The league told the appeals court that the players "cannot have it both ways" by threatening contempt-of-court sanctions while also asking for a delay to address the NFL's request for a temporary stay.
And the NFL criticized Nelson, who late Wednesday rejected its request to put her order lifting the lockout on hold pending appeals. The league said her decision "blinks reality" and is "deeply flawed."
The NFL complained that the order has forced teams to "produce their collective product" and expose themselves to antitrust claims by the players -- claims that if held true can result in treble, or triple, damages. An antitrust lawsuit filed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and other players is still pending before Nelson.
Without a stay, the NFL said, it would be impossible to "unscramble the egg in terms of player transactions (trades, signings, cuts) that would occur in the interim" before a ruling from the appeals court.
The league has proposed a specific timeline for the 8th Circuit appeal: a written opening argument due May 10, the same due for the players May 24, the NFL's reply due May 31 and a hearing after that "as soon as possible."
Such a timeline would mean the legal fight would stretch well into June, a month before training camps and only weeks before the first scheduled preseason game on Aug. 8.
In its 23-page motion, the league reiterated three arguments it unsuccessfully made to Nelson: that she had no jurisdiction while a bad-faith negotiation charge against the players is pending with the National Labor Relations Board; that federal law prevents the court from overseeing cases stemming from labor disputes; and that it shouldn't be subject to antitrust claims with the collective bargaining deal barely expired.
The union was dissolved March 11, clearing the way for the legal fight. League rules have effectively been shelved since then.
Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, at a charity event in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the league year should have begun Monday when Nelson denied the stay request.
"I guess if you're a billionaire, you can tell a judge no," Woodson said.
Now the fight will be taken up by the 8th Circuit. The league
even proposed a timeline: a written opening argument due May 10,
the same due for the players May 24, the NFL's reply due May 31 and
a hearing after that "as soon as possible."
That would stretch the legal fight well into June, a month
before training camps and only weeks before the first scheduled
preseason game on Aug. 8.
Tony Richardson, a 17-year veteran and a free agent, said there
was still uncertainty.
"It's still a situation where guys cannot be sure what's next,
but I think we're headed in the right direction," he said.
Added Mays: "Everybody's tired of sitting around, laying
around. We've had enough of that. Now, we're trying to get back to
Information from ESPN's Sal Paolantonio and The Associated Press was used in this report.