NFL sends out "Emergency Third Quarterback" Q&A

The NFL is notoriously reactive, rarely proactive. The biggest reactionary move from the 2022 season was sparked by the NFC Championship, which saw the contest between the 49ers and Eagles become borderline unwatchable after San Francisco lost both of its game-day quarterbacks to injury.

And so the NFL reacted, but not with a meaningful fix. The league brought back the emergency third quarterback rule. As written, the rule creates no real incentive to use it.

The problem with the resurrected rule flows from the fact that, to be dressed as an extra player on game day, the third quarterback must be on the 53-man roster. This requires teams to use an official roster spot on a third quarterback.

It has not moved the needle. Last year, before the return of the third quarterback rule, 12 teams had three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. This year, 13 have three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

Most teams, then, will roll the dice on going with two quarterbacks. It's a safe bet. How often are both quarterbacks injured in the same game? Besides, for most teams, the third-string quarterback is the third-string quarterback for a reason. If he ever has to play in a given game, the cause is already lost.

And so, as a practical matter, the return of the third quarterback rule likely won't do much to prevent a repeat of what happened in Philadelphia. But at least if it ever does happen, the NFL can say it tried — and then maybe it will try harder the next time.

Despite the fact that the rule likely won't be used very often if at all this year, given that both QB1 and QB2 must be injured or ejected for QB3 to even get in the game, the league has sent out a Q&A on the emergency third quarterback rule.

The word "bona fide" gets thrown around in the rule and the Q&A. It's a term aimed at making sure some coach doesn't try to game the system by making a running back or a receiver the emergency third quarterback. And the third quarterback must leave as soon as one of the two primary quarterbacks is cleared.

That's the one angle to watch. If the starting quarterback is injured and the backup has, for example, a concussion evaluation or some other blue-tentable bump or bruise, QB3 enters. If QB3 does well, the coach will be tempted to tap the brakes on the process of clearing QB2.

It's a mindset that turns the typical pressure a coach would place on the medical staff upside down. Instead of wanting his guys to get a prompt thumb's up to return, the coach might want the doctors and/or trainers to take their time — if QB3 is providing a much-needed spark.

In theory, that could happen. That's why the league should have brought the rule back the way it previously was formulated. If QB3 enters in any of the first three quarters, neither of the first two can return. As of the fourth quarter, any of the three quarterbacks can play.

The league also should let teams elevate the game-day emergency quarterback from the practice squad, saving a roster spot for a non-quarterback. That would result in more teams having a third quarterback in uniform, which in turn would guard against a team having no healthy quarterbacks in a high-profile game, when an audience of millions might be inclined to promptly quit watching.

The last time it happened, the NFL reacted with a rule that won't change much. The next time it happens, perhaps the NFL will dump the half-measure for a full one.