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Reviewing the NFL’s “Third Quarterback Rule”

NFL teams were able to have a third quarterback dress for the game for 1991 through 2010.

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The NFL is a reactionary league. When something goes wrong and some part of a fan base is outraged, they tend to react in order to remedy the situation. When it happens in the postseason, it gets amped up to a whole new level.

One example of this was the no call on a pass interference play at the end of the 2018 NFC Championship Game which helped aid the Los Angeles Rams in defeating the New Orleans Saints. Because of the play, the NFL had pass interference penalties reviewable with instant replay for the 2019 season where one such overturned a call that did not follow the requirements of the rule and aided the Seattle Seahawks in defeating the Steelers and Week 2. Needless to say, this rule was abandoned after one season.

If a more recent example is needed, look no further than the 2021 NFL postseason. When the Buffalo Bills allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to have a 0:13 drive to kick a field goal and tie the game, the Chiefs won the coin flip and scored a touchdown to where the Bills never touched the ball again. Because too many deemed this “unacceptable,” the overtime rules for the postseason changed for 2022 where even if a team scores a touchdown on the first possession of overtime the other team would also get a possession.

So when problems arise in the postseason for the NFL, changes are often made.

One change, or perhaps better stated as a re-implementation of a previous rule, may be on the horizon for the 2023 season. In the 2022 NFC championship game, the San Francisco 49ers were faced with the situation of having to play what was later found out to be a seriously injured quarterback as their second option was knocked out of a game with a concussion. With the only downfield pass coming courtesy of running back Christian McCaffrey, the 49ers barely threw a pass for the final 27:30 of the game and gave themselves next to no shot of a comeback victory at a trip to the Super Bowl.

But what if the 49ers had another quarterback available to come in after the first two options were injured?

In 1990, an NFL game saw two quarterbacks for Washington knocked out of the game and running back Brian Mitchell had to finish the game at quarterback which resulted in a 28–14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In reaction to the situation, the NFL implemented a rule for the 1991 season which was known as the “Third Quarterback Rule.” The rules at the time had 45 active players on game day for NFL teams with eight players being inactive. But what the new rule allowed was for one of those eight players to be the team’s third quarterback who would be in uniform and ready to go in case of emergency. If the quarterback entered the game prior to the start of the fourth quarter, then neither of the other two quarterbacks on the team could come back into the game for any reason. If it was the fourth quarter of a game and whether it be through to injury or a game which was out of hand, then the third quarterback could take the field with no restrictions to the others returning.

So for 20 NFL seasons, this was the rule. The third quarterback would appear on the inactive list but they would still be in uniform in case of emergency. And it took until the third-to-last game of those 20 years before this rule was even utilized and it probably didn’t even need to be.

The only time in the span where a team brought their third quarterback in prior to the fourth quarter was the 2010 NFC Championship Game. After Jay Cutler was lost to injury and Todd Collins simply could not complete a pass, the Chicago Bears brought in third quarterback Caleb Hanie when they received the ball with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. The first two plays of the drive were both runs by Matt Forte, so it just as easily could have been Collins in the game. But instead it was Hanie who was tasked with trying to overcome a 14–0 deficit with just over 15 minutes left in the game.

For those who may not remember how it played out but do know that it was the Green Bay Packers who faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, Hanie led the Bears on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Unfortunately, his two interceptions were very costly as one was returned for a touchdown and the other ended the Bears last scoring chance and put the Packers in victory formation with a 21–14 win.

The ensuing offseason brought on the NFL lockout as the Players Association and league were at odds in settling on the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. As various things got ironed out, one thing NFL coaches wanted was another player active on game day that did not have to be a quarterback. The concession was made and teams increased their game day actives to 46 players and the Third Quarterback Rule was no more.

But after the events of the 2022 NFC championship game 12 years later, will the rule return in some form?

First, it should be noted that there was nothing keeping the San Francisco 49ers, or any NFL team, from dressing three quarterbacks on game day. Every team is allowed to do so. And with the expansion of the 46 players active on game day to now being 48 players, there’s even more room for teams to have an emergency quarterback.

The argument on the other side is that many teams don’t even have their backup quarterback take the field in a game. With one player at a position already possibly receiving zero snaps, it’s very costly to have even another one take up an active roster spot in case a scenario occurs that happens quite rarely.

However the NFL decides to do it, look for there to be some discussion this offseason about teams being able to dress a third quarterback without counting on the game-day roster. Having the active roster based on a player’s position would not be throwing anything additional into how the NFL handles things as teams now currently must have at least eight offensive linemen active in order to use all 48 spots. If they don’t, they are only allowed 47 game-day actives. So making a rule based solely on the quarterback position is not out of the question.

Looking at the situation from the NFC Championship Game and how the on-field product suffered could hurt the NFL’s bottom line. And when money comes into the equation, look for a change to at least be discussed.

So what do you think? Do you think some form of the Third Quarterback Rule is something the NFL should look into for next season? Would you be opposed to the rule? Do you have an idea that could work better than how it was implemented before? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.