MOBILE, Ala. — Nearly 12 years after the rule’s revocation, momentum for a change swirled Sunday afternoon during the NFC championship game.
Should the NFL dictate teams carry a third available quarterback on their game-day rosters? Or perhaps at least for playoff games?
Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones says he would support that guideline.
“I really am for having a third quarterback in the game,” Jones told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday from Senior Bowl practices. “I would be pro. I’ve always been for the quarterback and increasing the number. I would be for that.”
To be clear, as Jones mentioned, NFL teams can dress a third quarterback for games right now. But the requirement to do so was revoked ahead of the 2011 season.
From 1991 to 2010, the NFL had required teams to designate on their game-day roster an emergency third quarterback who, if they entered before the fourth quarter, would deem the team’s first two quarterbacks ineligible to play the rest of the game. The league subsequently did away with that rule and instead expanded game-day rosters from 45 players to 46. Teams were no longer required to provide tertiary depth at quarterback, instead free to choose whether to continue to carry three quarterbacks, or to devote that spot to depth at another perhaps injury-laden position such as lineman.
The result: NFL teams rarely carry a third active quarterback in games.
In the San Francisco 49ers’ NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles, that proved costly.
The rule, for San Francisco, would have been of limited help. The 49ers were already starting their third quarterback of the season after Trey Lance fractured his ankle and Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot. In the conference championship game, seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy tore a ligament (the UCL) in his throwing elbow, and then veteran journeyman Josh Johnson was ruled out with concussion.
The 49ers were forced to choose between all-purpose weapon Christian McCaffrey shifting to Wildcat quarterback or Purdy playing under center while unable to throw with any strength or depth. All-Pro tight end George Kittle admitted the team’s playbook in essence shrunk to 15 plays.
The limitations doomed San Francisco to a 31-7 loss in a game Philadelphia had entered as a 2.5-point favorite.
Jones said he expects league management to review the rule this offseason. One possible change could be adding a quarterback spot to the current game-day roster number, at minimum for playoffs.
The league shifted overtime rules to allow both teams at least one possession during the playoffs after the Kansas City Chiefs rallied to beat the Buffalo Bills last postseason in an overtime where the Bills’ offense never had the ball. Could a similar pattern follow?
“That’s the best way to initiate and the best way to make decisions is when you have examples at, I would say, very sensitive times,” Jones said of changing rules that have impacted playoff outcomes. “And boy, we don’t want teams without quarterbacks in these games where 50 million people are watching.”
The league introduced more flexibility to roster restrictions in 2020 as COVID-19 sidelined players throughout the year. Practice squads were expanded, veteran practice-squad rules loosened and teams were given the option to elevate players from the practice squad to the active roster at week’s end.
A similar structure for a quarterback rule could cushion teams against quarterback emergencies while also precluding teams from stashing an unreasonable collection of talent at a single position — in a league where, arguably, the supply is already insufficient.
If players remained on practice squads during the week, only to be elevated at week’s end as emergency quarterbacks, opponents willing to commit to them on their 53-man roster could still poach them.
“You can, as we saw during the COVID, you can add [players],” Jones said. “Union wants there to be a lot more players on rosters. So from a club standpoint, then you want to be really efficient as to the numbers of players that you have on your team. This would expand that. You say, OK what you have is another roster quarterback, maybe you put one on the practice squad.
“But I do agree that we cannot ignore when we have a team that has gotten short at quarterback.”