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The NFL’s third quarterback rule is back for 2023

Remember the weird Caleb Hanie rule? It’s back.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears

Prior to 2011, the NFL had a “third quarterback rule” which allowed teams to use an inactive quarterback in certain situations with certain limitations. A famous example of this was in 2010, when the Chicago Bears played the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs and Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down with an injury.

With backup Todd Collins starting off zero-for-four in the passing game, Chicago pulled the plug on Collins and pushed Caleb Hanie into the game. At that point, because the Bears had utilized the “third quarterback rule,” both Cutler and Collins were ineligible to return for the remainder of the game — which the Packers won. In theory, if Hanie went down, Chicago wouldn’t have been able to play a quarterback under center for the rest of the NFC Championship Game. That was an absolute nightmare for the league.

The next offseason, the NFL would expand gameday rosters from 45 players to 46 players and eliminate the “third quarterback rule,” as the expanded roster spot was supposed to solve any issue regarding an emergency quarterback. Unfortunately, many teams chose to go in a different direction with that roster spot, which led to one particular blow-up in the NFC Championship Game this past postseason.

In that game, San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Brock Purdy (already in for Jimmy Garoppolo, who had been hurt earlier in the season) left the game with an elbow injury and backup quarterback Josh Johnson was also hurt. With no third quarterback rule and the 49ers electing not to use one of their 46 roster spots (48 including two call-ups from the practice squad) on a third quarterback, Purdy had to reenter the game as a handoff machine in one of the NFL’s biggest games of the season.

According to Field Yates, the NFL has decided to reintroduce the third quarterback rule once more after approval at the NFL’s Spring League Meetings. This almost certainly is a reaction from the league to what happened on the field in the 2022 NFC Championship Game. Based on the reporting of these rules, here’s how it should play out:

  • NFL teams have a base active roster of 46 players (who must be on the 53-man roster.)
  • NFL teams can call up one (if seven or fewer offensive linemen are on the roster) or two (if eight or more offensive linemen are on the roster) practice squad players each game, bringing up their gameday roster to 47 or 48 players.
  • An emergency third quarterback must be designated by an NFL team when they release their active/inactives list and he is eligible to play in games if and only if the first two quarterbacks to go under center in the game are injured. If a third quarterback enters the game and one of the other quarterbacks is cleared of injury, the third quarterback must go back to the bench. This is very different from the Hanie situation, where Collins — the second-string quarterback — was benched for a performance issue.
  • The emergency quarterback must be a member of the 53-man roster, which means that there is no promise that every team will even have an emergency quarterback.
  • NFL rosters, including practice squad call-ups, are essential 47 players + one emergency quarterback or 48 players + one emergency quarterback on gamedays, depending on how many offensive linemen that teams have on their 46-man active rosters on gamedays (almost every team hits the eight offensive linemen benchmark to be eligible for two practice squad call-ups.)

So how much will this change the product on the field? Probably not very much. The only circumstances where you’ll see any sort of change is when two quarterbacks go down on teams that already keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, which is a minority situation in the league. Maybe we’ll see more teams keep a third quarterback moving forward, but a much more impactful way to deploy this rule would have come with the expansion of the 53-man roster (like a freebie 54th roster spot for a third quarterback) or allowing the third quarterback eligibility to extend to a practice squad quarterback.