EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -- A federal appeals court threw the NFL back into chaos late Friday, putting a judge's order lifting the lockout on hold.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis granted the league's request for a temporary stay of the injunction issued Monday that ended the 45-day lockout. Now arguments will be heard on whether that order should be overturned altogether.
The decision came as the second round of the NFL draft was getting under way, and it came on the very day players were allowed to return to their teams' facilities. Dozens if not hundreds of players happily met with coaches, worked out and got a peek at their playbooks for the first time.
Will teams lock their doors again? That wasn't clear late Friday.
"Our attorneys will review the decision, and we will advise the clubs as soon as possible on the next steps," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
Some teams already were operating under the assumption that the lockout would be reinstated. The Vikings spent all Friday trying to get their first-round draft pick, quarterback Christian Ponder, up to speed.
"When it was not a lockout, they were allowed to spend time here to get (playbooks)," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said. "Now that the lockout's back in, he'll probably be leaving here shortly."
New Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak said he was disappointed.
"As coaches we just want to get to work and get the players in the building and get going forward. Today was a positive day in that regard," he said. "It was nice having the guys in and being able to see some of the guys who are in town."
Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards, scheduled to become a free agent, put it simply on Twitter: "Looks like we're unemployed again."
The 2-1 decision from a panel of the 8th Circuit was issued by Judges Steven Colloton, Kermit Bye and Duane Benton. It included a lengthy dissent from Bye, who suggested temporary stays should be issued only in emergencies.
"The NFL has not persuaded me this is the type of emergency situation which justifies the grant of a temporary stay of the district court's order pending our decision on a motion for a stay itself," Bye wrote. "If we ultimately grant the motion for a stay, the NFL can easily re-establish its lockout."
Bye also said the league hadn't shown proof it would suffer irreparable harm without a lockout in place and had asked for the stay so it wouldn't be forced to run its $9 billion business without a collective bargaining agreement in place.
"The NFL claimed such operations would be 'a complex process that requires time to coordinate,"' Bye wrote. "This contention is severely undermined by the fact that the NFL had, within a day of the district court's order denying a stay, already planned post-injunction operations which would allow the players to have access to club and workout facilities, receive playbooks, meet with coaches and so forth.
"Because I expect our court will be resolving the actual request for a stay in short order, I see little practical need for granting an emergency temporary stay in this non-emergency situation."
The ruling was the first victory for the NFL in the bitter labor fight. It came from a venue considered more conservative and favorable to businesses than the federal courts in Minnesota, where the collective bargaining system was established in the early 1990s and judges have generally favored players over the NFL.
Colloton and Benton were appointed by President George W. Bush. Bye was appointed by President Clinton.
The appeals court is expected to rule next week on the NFL's request for a more permanent stay that would last through its appeal of the injunction. That process is expected to take 6-8 weeks.
Jim Quinn, the lead attorney for the players, downplayed Friday's order.
"Routine grant of stay and totally expected," he said. "The only surprise is that Judge Bye is so strongly against giving them even a tiny stay because the league obviously can't show it is necessary."
The order was just the latest in a dizzying week of legal wrangling. U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson late Monday ordered the end of the lockout, calling it illegal, and she denied the NFL's appeal on Wednesday night.
That led to a crazy couple of days where teams and players had no rules to guide them. On Friday, the NFL opened up team facilities to players for the first time in nearly two months.
And the players flocked to the facilities, exchanging smiles and high-fives with their teammates. Tony Romo and Jason Witten even did some sprints on a Dallas Cowboys practice field.
"From the players' standpoint, I think everybody is pleased we're not locked out anymore, especially the rookies," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said on CNBC, his first public comments about the dispute since he became one of the 10 plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit still pending against the NFL.
Players from Seattle to New York warmly greeted a little bit of normalcy in the most unusual offseason in league history, fully aware that it might not last very long.
"It's exactly what I expected," Buffalo Bills player rep George Wilson said in a text message to the AP after the stay was granted. "That's why I advised my guys to stay put until we knew something more concrete."
Attorneys for the players had argued against a stay of Nelson's order, suggesting that the public and the players, with their short careers, are at far more risk when the business is stalled.
"Professional football is part of the fabric of American life," the attorneys wrote. "Because the uncontroverted record of evidence shows that the 2011 season could be canceled or significantly curtailed without an injunction in place, a stay may deprive the public of professional football altogether."
The players argued that granting any stay -- temporary or permanent -- inflicts irreparable harm by limiting their ability to workout at team facilities and preventing free agents from signing with teams.
Agent Joe Linta, whose clients include Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, lobbied for the NFL to go forward with free agency despite the decision.
"The owners will create a huge injustice to their own GMs and personnel departments if they don't allow the signing of undrafted free agents tomorrow," he said. "They may not care about the players, but they should at least help their own scouts, coaches and personnel people who have worked so hard in the scouting process. This is by far the biggest issue of the next 48 hours."
Many first-round draft choices who arrived at their new teams scrambled to get as much done as they could while they were allowed.
"I'm trying to get as much ball talk in as possible and get a feel for what's going on," Ponder said. "It is tough, especially with the uncertainty. We have no idea what's going to happen, and I'm praying I'll be back here in two weeks for mini-camp or whenever we're allowed."
By Friday evening, Ponder was on his way home, and the Vikings were on the clock in the second round of the draft when the decision came down. All Spielman could do was shrug.
"There's nothing you can do about it because you have no control over it, so just do what you do," he said. "Right now we can draft players and that's what we're focused on doing. That's all you can do."
Jets defensive lineman Mike DeVito said he was frustrated.
"This whole situation is definitely something that I've been really trying to pull myself back from and getting excited too much about because of days like this," he said. "I know there are smart people on both sides, and I know this will all be resolved at some point. I'm not sure when, but at some point."
The lockout has hurt a team like the Browns, preventing new coach Pat Shurmur and his staff from talking with players for the first time. He met with a handful on Friday before the bad news.
"Because we were allowed to talk and communicate with our players, we felt like it was a good few hours," Shurmur said.
And then it ended. Bengals quarterback Jordan Palmer said: "It's crazy and it's really, really making it difficult to plan. It's just really hectic. Everybody I've talked to is very thrown off by the situation."
Palmer told the AP he had no idea if Cincinnati would go forward with organized workouts next week.
"We don't know. I don't know," the fourth-year player said. "This is as uncertain as I've been since draft day, as far as the NFL goes."
AP Football Writer Barry Wilner and AP Sports Writers Dennis Waszak, Bob Baum, Tom Canavan, Joe Kay, Stephen Hawkins, Dennis Waszak, Tom Withers, John Wawrow, Mike Cranston, R.B. Fallstrom, Mark Long and Joseph White and freelancer Warren Mayes in St. Louis contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)