EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Welcome back, players.
The NFL cleared the way for some basic football operations to begin at 8 a.m. EDT Friday, four days after a federal judge declared the lockout illegal and nearly seven weeks after it began.
“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 in his first public comments about the dispute since he became a named plaintiff in the antitrust lawsuit filed against the owners.
In a conference call with New York Jets season-ticket holders, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will hold a conference call later Friday morning to address player transaction rules. The guidelines for free agency, trades and other roster moves have been uncertain in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. That expired March 11, the same day the players’ union was disbanded to clear the way for a court fight.
“What we’re doing right now is having to adjust, obviously, to court decisions,” Goodell said. “We are opening our gates this morning to the facilities. … The most important things for us is to obviously respect the decisions of the court, and secondly, make sure we proceed in an orderly fashion and inform all 32 of our clubs, to make sure we’re doing it in a responsible fashion.”
Players all over the league started reporting to team facilities in the morning, from Tony Romo in Dallas to Chad Greenway in Minnesota and DeAngelo Hall with the Redskins.
About a dozen Carolina Panthers players were spotted entering Bank of America Stadium, where a voluntary meeting was planned and players were expected to receive their playbooks from new coach Ron Rivera.
One of the first to arrive was quarterback Jimmy Clausen, whose job is in jeopardy after Carolina drafted Auburn’s Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick on Thursday night. Fellow QBs Tony Pike and Matt Moore, who is unsigned and recovering from a shoulder injury, also arrived.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when I walk in the door,” Moore said, “but I’m happy to be here.”
Center Ryan Kalil said the lockout has been good in some ways because he’s been able to rest more and spend more time with his family. But Kalil was eager to reunite with his teammates.
“I don’t think anyone thought it was going to get to this point and it did. It got uncomfortable I think for everybody,” Kalil said. “It’s nice there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, and we get to come back and get out of that funk. We’ll see what happens moving forward.”
For the first time all offseason, players have been cleared to talk with coaches, work out at team headquarters and get playbooks. All were turned away from team facilities since U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s decision Monday to lift the owner-imposed lockout.
The Tennessee Titans’ main gate, which had been chained, was open Friday morning. Guard Jake Scott, the team’s player representative, was among three players who arrived. Scott was turned away on Tuesday and Thursday, when he was met at the locked gate by two armed security guards.
The owners and players have been embroiled in a bitter battle over how the NFL’s $9 billion pie is sliced, a fight that has been taken to the courts.
The rhetoric was venomous at times, but Brady said that has not compromised the close relationship he has with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“I think our relationship is much deeper than that,” Brady said. “I don’t think it’s Tom Brady suing Robert Kraft. … It’s certainly not personal. He was at my wedding. We have a great relationship. We’ve always had (one). And I’m sure that’s going to continue.”
But the legal fight is far from over despite the halting steps back toward football. The league has asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis to restore the lockout as soon as possible, hoping for a friendlier venue than the federal courts in Minnesota.
The league wants the appellate court to put Nelson’s decision on hold 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 midday Friday, and the NFL’s reply to that is due on Monday morning.
Goodell, who was roundly booed by passionate and impatient fans at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, said he feared the fight could last for a while.
Friday morning, he said he gets why fans booed him: “It’s the fans’ frustration, and I understand that.”
“It’d be great to have everybody back in the building, but the real thing is we’ve got to get back to the negotiating table and get a CBA,” Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said.
At least for now, football activities can take place.
Mandatory minicamps and voluntary offseason practices can begin under rules of the old CBA. Team-supervised workouts will count toward bonuses in player contracts, and players also can work out on their own at team facilities if they have health insurance in place.
The league also will arrange for substance abuse and drug programs to start back up, and players can participate in team-sponsored community and charity functions.
At least 11 Redskins showed up at the practice facility at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., including Hall, Kedric Golston, Graham Gano and Lorenzo Alexander, who was turned away from the workout room the previous three days.
Players also started trickling in with the Giants, Chiefs, Bears, Jets, Seahawks and Dolphins, including receiver Brandon Marshall, who recently was hospitalized following a domestic dispute. Marshall’s wife, Michi Nogami-Marshall, was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after authorities said she stabbed him with a kitchen knife.
Giants receiver Devin Thomas flew in from Michigan on Thursday night so that he could be sure to get in a workout and talk to his coaches. His only problem? The tubs weren’t filled up.
“I was geeked; I had to get back,” he said.
The Detroit Lions already have scheduled organized team activities for Wednesday, and the Bears have set a rookie camp for next weekend.
“There is a little uncertainty because we know we can get started and they can pull the plug on us, so that’s the part that is upsetting,” Thomas said. “We’re going to do what we have to do.”
The longer the lockout is lifted, the better for a rookie class that enters the league with unprecedented uncertainty surrounding their arrival. Getting as much work in as possible, especially for the four quarterbacks taken in the first 12 picks, is paramount as they make the adjustment from college to the NFL.
“Yeah, it’s going to be huge and for me as a rookie quarterback,” said Florida State’s Christian Ponder after being drafted 12th by the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday. “It’s all about putting in my time and getting myself prepared for whatever role I’m going to have this coming season.
“So I know I’m going up there (Friday) and I already asked coach if I was going to have a playbook. And he said yeah, there will be one ready for me and we’re going to talk some ball once I get up there so I’m excited about it.”
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