In each city the message was the same:

Welcome back; see you later.

In New Jersey, the Giants met outdoors in a town park at 10 a.m., sent out for pizzas and made up their minds to end their strike and go back to work. But work wasn't in the cards.

"George, we're back," one shouted to General Manager George Young when their car caravan pulled up to Giants Stadium. Bystanders laughed, but Young never invited the players inside, where replacements were practicing for Sunday's game at Buffalo.

In south Philadelphia, the Eagles met in a motel room for two hours before deciding to return to work. But when they showed up, Eagles President Harry Gamble met them and advised them to go home. They could stick around and work out separately from replacement players, he said, but they wouldn't get their salaries and they wouldn't play Sunday. Next week, Gamble said.

The Seattle Seahawks arrived in a convoy of cars, including rookie Brian Bosworth's white Corvette. The message was the same: No pay, no game Sunday.

Around the National Football League yesterday, the story was played out in a dozen different ways in a dozen different cities, but the result never changed: The NFL Players Association cried uncle; NFL owners said, "Not just yet."

There was confusion, disappointment and anger among players, who had accepted defeat at the bargaining table and elected to get on with their careers. "We offered our services to play Sunday. They said they would not pay us, so basically that's a lockout," said Falcons offensive tackle Mike Kenn in Atlanta. "So we went back out."

But management claimed union members had missed their chance to come back to work before a management-imposed 1 p.m. Wednesday deadline. Players who didn't return by then were ineligible to play this weekend.

"They're too late. The deadline was Wednesday," said Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm.

"I don't know what they were doing" by coming back, said New Orleans General Manager Jim Finks. "They knew what the rules were and they knew at 9 o'clock this morning that the rules would not be changed. And yet, here they came at 1 o'clock with their horns blaring and their game faces on."

Saints players shouted insults at two teammates who had crossed the line earlier this week, ahead of the owners' deadline. Striking quarterback Bobby Hebert showed his anger by threatening to avoid passing to wide receiver Tony Elliott, a strike-breaker, once the regular team is reunited.

In Los Angeles, a Rams regular was overheard shouting at replacement players, "Scabs, get the heck out of our locker room."

But elsewhere players sat glumly, pondering their next step. About a dozen Eagles stuck around to watch their replacements work out, but left after 20 minutes without incident. Eagles management was more hospitable than some others, moving replacement players' gear out of locker rooms to make room for the returning regulars if they chose to stay and practice separately.

But players regarded the Eagles' terms as a rejection, anyway, and walked out. "They didn't accept us back," said tight end John Spagnola, the team player representative. "It just shows that management doesn't care about the players or the public," said defensive lineman Ken Clarke.

Broncos player representative Ricky Hunley said he advised his players to go back to work after a conference call yesterday morning among union leaders. But he said it was a "personal decision," not a union directive.

"This thing was falling apart," Hunley said of the players' strike. "It was like being in a war and losing your bullets. There was nothing left to fight with."

The dozen or so teams, including the Redskins, that chose to return to work yesterday were all apparently acting on their own initiative. It wasn't until late afternoon that NFL Players Assocation Executive Director Gene Upshaw announced that all 28 NFL teams had voted to go back to work.

Until then, confusion reigned, as some teams went back to work and others didn't. But there was nothing confusing about the owners' response.