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 purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the motion for a stay pending appeal," the appeals court said.
The decision came as the second round of the NFL draft was getting under way and it ruined one of the most encouraging days the league had seen in weeks, one that saw dozens if not hundreds of players return to their teams to meet with coaches, work out and have a peek at their playbooks.
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.
Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said he understood that the lockout would be reinstated. The Vikings hosted first-round draft pick Christian Ponder on Friday, and spent the entire day trying to get him up to speed.
"When it was not a lockout, they were allowed to spend time here to get (playbooks)," 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 that the stay had been granted.
"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."
In an e-mail to The Associated Press, New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara quickly reacted to the ruling: "yes just saw.....fun while it lasted!"
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 and 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.
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.
Attorneys for the players had argued against a stay of Nelson's order, saying the owners failed to offer any evidence that they will suffer irreparable harm if the lockout is not restored. They also suggested 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 a stay -- temporary or permanent -- inflicts irreparable harm by limiting their ability to workout at team facilities and preventing free agents from signing with teams.
By Friday evening, all the smiles that were on their faces from getting back to work were quickly wiped away.
The Vikings were on the clock in the second round of the draft Friday night when the appeals court's ruling 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 wide receiver Braylon Edwards, scheduled to become a free agent, wrote on his Twitter page: "Looks like we're unemployed again."