The National Football League is resurrecting its "inactive third quarterback rule," which previously gave teams added game-day flexibility during a span of two decades. Anticipation of the proposal being passed may have influenced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' decision to sign former Rams quarterback John Wolford two weeks ago.
On Monday, during the league's Spring Meeting in Minnesota, the teams voted to approve 2023 Bylaw Proposal 1A, amending the procedure by which active and inactive players are named on game days. In addition to the 48 players a team may keep active for a game, it can also now name an emergency third quarterback from its list of inactive players. That quarterback would be permitted to enter the game if the first two quarterbacks on the active list left due to injury or disqualification.
The NFL listed "integrity of the game" as its reason for passing the proposal, which was submitted by the Competition Committee, and it was surely prompted by the circumstances of last season's NFC Championship Game between San Francisco and Philadelphia. The 49ers' starting quarterback, Brock Purdy, suffered an elbow injury early in the game and was replaced by reserve Josh Johnson. After Johnson suffered a concussion in the third quarter, the 49ers were forced to put Purdy back in but he did not attempt a pass for the remainder of the game. Philadelphia won in lopsided fashion, 31-7. The 49ers had a third quarterback on their game day inactive list in Jimmy Garoppolo, though he was also injured.
At the NFL's Annual Meeting in March, during which discussion of this same proposal was tabled, Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles said the eventual outcome of the vote would play into what type of quarterback his team would eventually add behind Kyle Trask and Baker Mayfield.
"There's room to add one," said Bowles. "Its early in the process. We'll see how the voting goes with this third quarterback to see what kind of quarterback you want to add. That will have a lot to do with it as well. We'll wait and see how this process goes and that will tell you whether you want to go young or old."
Wolford has been in the league since 2018 and has prior starting experience with Los Angeles over the past three seasons. Wolford started two games in 2020, including one in the postseason, and another three last year and has a 3-2 record as a starter. The Buccaneers did not select a quarterback in the recent NFL Draft and have not, as of yet, signed an undrafted free agent at the position.
The NFL first instituted a similar "third quarterback" rule in 1991 and kept it in place through the 2010 season. There is one significant difference to the new rule, in that an injured active quarterback is allowed to come back into the game after a third quarterback has played. Under the previous rule, if the third quarterback entered the game within the first three quarters, the first two were then rendered ineligible to play.
The rule also has one other new caveat: A player has to be on the 53-man roster to be eligible to be named the inactive third quarterback on game day. In other words, a team may not use the relatively new practice-squad elevation option to line up an emergency quarterback.
As a practical matter, the new rule is likely to prompt most teams to carry three quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters. That was the common practice from 1991 through 2010, but some clubs chose to carry only two quarterbacks on their active roster after the third-QB rule was originally revoked. This won't represent a significant change for the Buccaneers, who have gone with three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for the majority of the last 12 years.