The NFL is a long way from playing football.
One confusing day after a federal judge ended a 45-day lockout, small groups of players showed up at team facilities Tuesday -- let inside but told they would not be allowed to work out. Most left in a matter of minutes on a strange day with more questions than answers and the judge said she will take at least another day to consider whether she should put her order on hold.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minneapolis has given the league until 6 p.m. ET Wednesday to resubmit a request for a clarification on her ruling Monday that lifted the lockout. The league previously had filed an expedited motion for a stay. The stay would put Nelson's decision on hold pending further appeals. Nelson also gave the players until 10 a.m. ET Wednesday to respond to the stay request.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Tuesday morning that the league will continue operating as is.
"We are going to proceed in an orderly way that is fair to the teams and players and complies with court orders," Aiello said. "Players are being treated with courtesy and respect at club facilities.
"We do not believe it is appropriate for football activities to take place until there are further rulings from the court. Under the last set of proposals made to the NFLPA, teams wouldn't even be into offseason programs yet. We need a few days to sort this out, as NFLPA attorney Jim Quinn indicated last night."
NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash agreed it was too soon to tell exactly when free agency would begin and which players would be eligible.
"What we need to do is let the dust settle for a day or two and see if the stay is put in place, and then we'll all know more and go from there," Pash said.
Little was clear as both sides essentially made up the rules as they went along.
"It's very chaotic for the teams right now," agent Drew Rosenhaus said. "It's not chaotic for the players. Our position is the lockout is over, free agency should begin, signings should begin, offseason workouts should begin, everything should be going on. The longer the NFL doesn't do that and drags this out, the more there are concerns of collusion and violations of antitrust."
"Chaos" is how NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah described the situation, and he blamed the league for letting it happen.
"The owners didn't seem to have a plan in place for an injunction. We were in a situation today where there were no uniform rules across the league," Atallah said.
Tennessee Titans guard Jake Scott, his team's player representative for the now-dissolved union, spoke to senior executive vice president Steve Underwood and left his team's headquarters 10 minutes later.
Scott said he was told no staff was available to meet with players. This for a team with a new head coach, too, in Mike Munchak.
After Nelson lifted the lockout Monday, writing in an 89-page order that she believed it is causing "irreparable harm" to the players, the NFL questioned whether she had exceeded her jurisdiction, and said it would seek an immediate stay of her ruling as well as relief from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
But if her injunction is upheld -- by the judge herself or the appellate court -- the NFL must resume business in some fashion.
It could invoke the 2010 rules for free agency, meaning players would need six seasons of service before becoming unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire; previously, it was four years. The requirement for restricted free agents would be four years rather than the three years before 2010. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much -- or as little -- as they wanted.
"We're evolving as a league," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at his team's pre-draft news conference Tuesday afternoon. "We've asked for some hearings, asked for some rulings from the exiting judge ... as well as anticipating going to the appellate area, and that might make a difference in how we look to sign free agents in the immediate future.
"I can't answer (how we'll approach free agency) in relation to the specific ruling yesterday. At some point we'll play, and we'll have had the opportunity to sign veteran free agents and college free agents."
All of this was in the background for the NFL draft, which begins at 8 p.m. ET Thursday night. The draft has a decidedly weird feel as teams prep for picks without free agency or the ability to swap personnel.
Quinn, an attorney for the players, said the pressure is on the league.
"They better act quickly, because as of right now there's no stay and, presumably, players could sign with teams," Quinn said. "There are no guidelines as of right now, so they have to put something in place quickly."
Nelson's ruling was another rebuke of the NFL in the federal courts in Minnesota, which was established years ago as the venue for the league's collective bargaining system. Three weeks ago, NFL attorney David Boies suggested to Nelson that she shouldn't have jurisdiction over a dispute with an unfair bargaining accusation against the players pending with the National Labor Relations Board.
In her ruling, Nelson rejected that contention and recognized the NFLPA's decision to "de-unionize" as legitimate because it has "serious consequences" for the players.
Nelson even referenced her colleague, U.S. District Judge David Doty, who has frequently ruled for the players in the past. Not only did she declare that players are likely to suffer harm from the lockout, a legal requirement for granting the injunction, Nelson wrote they're already feeling the hurt now.
Nelson cited their short careers, arguing that monetary damages wouldn't be enough relief.
What Nelson didn't do, however, was tackle the issue of the antitrust lawsuit filed last month when the union decertified. That, she wrote, "must wait another day."
In an opinion piece posted late Monday on the Wall Street Journal's website, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that Nelson's ruling "may significantly alter professional football as we know it. ... By blessing this negotiating tactic (recognizing the players' right to dissolve their union), the decision may endanger one of the most popular and successful sports leagues in history."
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down last month and the players disbanded their union.
Nelson heard arguments on the injunction at an April 6 hearing and ordered the two sides to resume mediation while she was considering her decision. The owners and players, who failed to reach consensus after 16 days of mediated talks earlier this year, met over four days with a federal magistrate but didn't announce any progress on solving the impasse.
They aren't scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after Doty holds a hearing on whether players should receive damages in their related fight with owners over some $4 billion in broadcast revenue.
With appeals expected, the fight seems likely to drag on through the spring. The closer it gets to August, when training camps and the preseason are normally in full swing, the more likely it becomes that regular-season games could be lost.
In a statement, the NFL expressed confidence in its appeal.
"But we also believe that this dispute will inevitably end with a collective bargaining agreement, which would be in the best interests of players, clubs and fans," the NFL said. "We can reach a fair agreement only if we continue negotiations toward that goal."
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said players were eager to resume court-ordered mediation to resolve the fight.
"My hope is really is that there's somebody on the other side who loves football as much as our players and fans do," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.