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Explaining the rules and regulations on NFL players returning from IR

With the Steelers designating Roosevelt Nix and Ryan Switzer to return from the Reserve/Injured List, it’s time for a refresher on how the rule works and who was eligible for the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL: OCT 28 Dolphins at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the news Thursday morning of fullback Roosevelt Nix and wide receiver Ryan Switzer being designated to return from the NFL’s Reserve/Injured List, there was a lot of confusion as to what exactly this move meant for the Steelers. Are the players eligible to play this week? At what point do they go back on the 53-man roster? These were many questions fans had but yet not many answers were forthcoming. So let’s look at the rules and different options the Steelers had in 2019 for using the designated to return status for any of their players who were placed on the IR.

The designated to return rule began in the NFL in 2012. Teams could designate one player when placed on the IR who could return to practice after six weeks and to the active roster after eight weeks as long as they were on the 53-main roster at some point during the season. A player could not be put on IR in the preseason and return, and the rule began with the player having to be designated at the moment they went on the list.

Since 2012, the NFL has tweaked this rule several times. Teams no longer have to designate which players they can have return at the time they go on IR, rather they can just designate them at the moment they return. This gives teams the freedom to see which players are progressing fast enough to come back. In 2015, Maurkice Pouncey was put on the designated to return list with his knee injury. Because Pouncey was hurt in the preseason, the Steelers had to keep him on the 53-man roster for at least 24 hours before placing him on IR. Unfortunately, Pouncey suffered many setbacks and was unable to play the entire season. Under the current rules, the Steelers would not have wasted the designation on Pouncey since they do not have to say which player returns until they are ready to return to practice.

In 2017, the NFL expanded the number of players who could return from the reserve/injured list to two. In 2018, the wording of the rule was tweaked slightly to where the player can return after eight games and not eight weeks in order for teams to not benefit from the placement of their bye week. One other rule when it comes to the reserve/injured list is if a player becomes healthy before they are designated to return, the team must release them so they can sign with another squad. And example of this for 2019 was Josh Gordon of the New England Patriots and Xavier Grimble for the Steelers.

Now since we have rehashed the rules, it is easy to see that both Nix and Switzer are able to return to practice this week, but are unable to play for two more games. Both players were placed on the Reserve/Injured List on November 14 during the day before the Steelers took on the Cleveland Browns in Week 11 that night on Thursday Night Football. When going by the exact date, Nix and Switzer were eligible to begin practice on Thursday, December 26 but would not be eligible to play for two more games.

Since the Steelers had not used the designated to return status on any other player, there was no harm in using it on Nix and Switzer for them to practice the final week of the season as long as they were ready to go. But what about the other players the Steelers could have used the designation? Here are the following players in which the Steelers placed on the Reserve/Injured List in 2019 and when they could have been activated if their injury situation allowed them to play.

Lavon Hooks

Defensive tackle Lavon Hooks was placed on injured reserve during training camp on August 23. The Steelers did not keep him on the 53-man roster to begin the season, so he was ineligible to return. But since he was not released by the team, he is still under contract to return for the 2020 season.

Ben Roethlisberger

Injuring his elbow in Week 2, Rothlisberger was placed on injured reserve September 16. If able to return to practice after six weeks, Rothlisberger could have been available following the Dolphins game. But with the bye week also occurring over that time, he still would not have been eligible to return until the Week 12 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately, Rothlisberger still has several months until he will be able to throw and therefore was not a realistic candidate to return.

Sean Davis

Safety Sean Davis was placed on IR the day following Ben Roethlisberger and would have followed the same timeline. While many felt Davis was the prime candidate to return from his shoulder injury, no mention of Davis’ injury has come from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even when asked about the topic by head coach Mike Tomlin during a press conference several weeks ago, he shrugged off the question as to having no knowledge of Davis’ recovery. Had the Steelers opted to use Davis to be designated to return, he would have been eligible to play for the Steelers final six regular season games beginning with the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 12.

Xavier Grimble

On September 25, the Steelers placed tight end Xavier Grimble on the Reserve/Injured List. With the severity of Grimble’s injury a mystery, he was released on October 4 when deemed healthy enough to play.

Stephon Tuitt

The Steelers placed defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt on injured reserve with his torn pectoral on October 15. Had Tuitt been able to recover from his injury, he would have been eligible to return to practice around the first of December and could have been placed on the active roster for the Steelers Week 16 game against the New York Jets. With little news of Tuitt’s progress being reported, the surgery needed to repair his torn pectoral obviously did not allow him to return in 2019.

Ulysees Gilbert III

Rookie linebacker Ulysees Gilbert was placed on injured reserve on November 5 with a back injury following the Steelers Week 9 game against the Indianapolis Colts. Gilbert would have been eligible to return the practice last week but still would not have been able to play in Week 17 against the Ravens. Gilbert’s first possible game would have been during wildcard weekend to begin the 2019 NFL playoffs.

Roosevelt Nix & Ryan Switzer

As stated before, the Steelers used the designated to return status on both of these players who begin practice on Thursday, December 26 but are unable to play until the second weekend of the NFL playoffs.

L.T. Walton

Yet another defensive lineman who ended up on injured reserve for the Steelers was L.T. Walton on November 19. Walton still would not have been able to return to practice until following the Steelers Week 17 game and could not have returned to the roster until championship weekend.

Mason Rudolph

With Rudolph going on injured reserve on December 24, he was unable to return to practice or games in 2019.

In looking over the list, the two most obvious candidates who the Steelers would have liked to had return were Stephon Tuitt and Ben Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, the reason they ended up on the reserve/injured list was their injuries were definitely of the season-ending variety. If not, the Steelers may have just held onto them for as long as possible and made they them inactive each week.

The most logical of the realistic choices to return for the Steelers would have been safety Sean Davis. But the entire situation with Davis, especially after the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade, has been somewhat of a mystery. Obviously, either Davis was not ready to return or the Steelers did not feel the need to push him back onto the roster. As for Ulysees Gilbert III, although he could’ve returned earlier than either Nix or Switzer he had not logged a single defensive snap on the season. Perhaps being a rookie, the Steelers just wanted to keep him preserved for 2020.

Since the Steelers did not use the designated to return status on any other players, there was really no harm in getting Roosevelt Nix and Ryan Switzer back to practice at the earliest possible date. Unfortunately, unless the Steelers put together a couple very nice games to both make the postseason and get past the first round, neither player will have the opportunity to get back on the field in 2019.