Photo by Christine Troyke
Lockout has turned into limbo for NFL players and owners, and everyone is stuck there for the time being.
''It drives me insane, that's what it does,'' said Chicago rookie J'Marcus Webb, who was told he and a handful of other Bears couldn't use the team's weight room Tuesday. ''I'm trying to eat healthy and work out, do my job and right now I'm just stuck at home working out and watching cartoons all day.
''What's up with that? Let me get back to what I do best.''
That could take a while. The 2011 season, and the business between 32 teams and their thousands of anxious players, is in a holding pattern. With more court fights and appeals expected, the NFL said it needed ''a few days to sort this out'' and provide some rules for everyone to follow.
''We are in the process of determining throughout the league as to just how we'll proceed and when we'll open the new year across the league, the new football year,'' Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. ''We have not done that.''
At least the draft will be held this week, even if free agency and personnel swaps are up in the air.
In one of the oddest days in NFL history, players showed up at their team headquarters and most were told that they were welcome to come inside as long as they didn't participate in any sort of ''football activities.''
Most left in a matter of minutes with more questions than answers about where the $9 billion business is headed. And there was no consistency -- some teams allowed players to work out (Giants) while others turned them away altogether (Bills).
No rules, not yet. Just uncertainty.
In a question-and-answer memo distributed by the NFLPA and obtained by The Associated Press, free agents were told they can contact teams and shop their services, putting pressure on the NFL to set up a free agency system that complies with antitrust laws.
The document also told players that teams are responsible for care of any football-related injury, meaning it's ''safer for players to work out on club property.''
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson lifted the 45-day lockout late Monday, but that did nothing to clear this up. The NFL asked her to put her order on hold, and she agreed to weigh the request after the players' response is filed today.
That means the questions will linger at least another day and if the NFL loses again, it will place its hopes with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
With Nelson's decision pending, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said 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.
Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy said the owners were concerned about restarting league operations -- and then perhaps having another ''un-start'' in two months.
''One of our lawyers described it as trying to unscramble an egg,'' Murphy said. ''I think that's what we all want to avoid.''
Little was clear Tuesday as both sides seemed to make up the rules as they went along. And the vast majority of players simply stayed away.
''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 laws.''
Cleveland wide receiver Josh Cribbs and a small group of Browns players showed up at the team's training facility and were greeted by Lew Merletti, senior vice president and director of security. Merletti handed them an official letter.
''It basically told us to be patient,'' Cribbs said. ''It let us know we can't go upstairs and can't have any personal contact with coaches or staff. It was kind of awkward because we don't talk to our security staff unless there is a security issue, so the security issue was us.''
Buffalo cornerback Leodis McKelvin said he was turned away at the security gate, told to expect a call from his coach for clarity on when he could return.
One concern, particularly for teams with new head coaches such as Tennessee's Mike Munchak, is lost time for players learning the new schemes. Titans right guard Jake Scott left his team's headquarters after 10 minutes, told no staff was available to meet with players.
Then there is the issue of offseason bonuses built into existing contracts. Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is in that position, one reason he joined Armstrong in showing up for work.
''I wanted to make sure I took full advantage to come up here and work out because I don't want some technicality to happen later: 'You didn't show up. You didn't come.' And then I'm out of my workout bonus,'' Armstrong said.
Lawyers and leaders for the players accused the league of essentially fostering the confusion by not being clear or consistent about how players could use the facilities.
''It was a little weird,'' Washington Redskins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong said after a brief stop at team headquarters. ''It felt like you were sneaking into the club or something like that, and they knew you weren't supposed to be in there but they hadn't done anything about it yet. Just a little awkward.''
NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah blamed the league for ''chaos.''
''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.
Said New York Jets defensive lineman Mike DeVito after a fruitless visit to his team's facility: ''It was like a ghost town in there.''
''I think it was a little bizarre today, given the fact that the players couldn't work out, but that's apparently what the NFL decided to do,'' said James Quinn, a lawyer for the players from Weil, Gotshal and Manges in New York. ''They will set up the rules, and if we think they're reasonable and legal, then God bless. If not, then we'll keep fighting about it in court.''
Pash said the league had ''some dialogue'' with lawyers about the question of which rules would govern the launch of a new league year if the lockout remains in place.
If Nelson's injunction is upheld -- by the judge herself or the appellate court -- the NFL must resume business in some fashion. It could invoke 2010 rules requiring six seasons of service before players can become unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire. There also was no salary cap in 2010, meaning teams could spend as much -- or as little -- as they wanted.
Seth Borden, a labor law expert at McKenna, Long and Aldridge in New York, said he thinks the chaos could help the owners' cause for a stay.
''The confusion, about trades, free agency, signings, workouts, possibly provides the league with an argument that until the appeals can be heard, it doesn't make sense to go forward with a new league year,'' Borden said.
Owners imposed the lockout after talks broke down March 11 and the players disbanded their union. Nelson ordered the two sides into mediation. 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 without any sign of progress.
They are not scheduled to meet again until May 16, four days after another judge holds a hearing on whether players should get 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 get into full swing, the more likely it becomes that regular-season games could be lost.