Rule Changes: Third QB, Thursday Flex

49ers RB Christian McCaffrey
49ers RB Christian McCaffrey
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - The NFL passed a couple of important rule changes at the owners' meetings today, including the return of the third QB rule and flex scheduling for Thursday nights.

The third quarterback rule is a response to the 49ers running out of quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game. The emergency quarterback has to be a player on the 53-man roster, not a practice squad player elevated for that week's game. However, the third quarterback becomes an extra active player. He can only come in if the team loses its first two quarterbacks due to injury or disqualification. If one of the other quarterbacks is cleared to return to the game, the emergency quarterback must be removed from the game.

What's ironic is that the 49ers had three quarterbacks on the active roster for the NFC Championship Game! The third was Jimmy Garoppolo. So even with this rule, they would not have had an emergency quarterback available unless they had put a fourth quarterback on their active roster.

Regarding Thursday flexing: The league will be able to switch Thursday and Sunday games with at least 28 days' notice from the league office, only in Weeks 13-17. No team will be able to play more than two Thursday games, or have more than one game flexed from Sunday to Thursday more than once. Have fun changing your hotel reservations for that one week when you plan on going to Vegas for your favorite team's Thursday night game with the Raiders and then it gets moved to Sunday...

A rule to change kickoffs so that any kickoff fair-caught within the 25-yard line would be brought out to the 25 was tabled until tomorrow. This is a terrible rule.


30 comments, Last at 26 May 2023, 9:09am

#1 by dbostedo // May 22, 2023 - 7:24pm

"Have fun changing your hotel reservations for that one week when you plan on going to Vegas for your favorite team's Thursday night game with the Raiders and then it gets moved to Sunday..."

But that can only happen to a single game, as the Raiders can't have more than one game moved. So at least it's very limited. 

Points: -3

#3 by KnotMe // May 23, 2023 - 8:40am

Is this basically bc over half the Thursday games last year were terrible and Amazon got annoyed?

What is the point of that rule? It seems like it causes alot of trouble for everyone involved but doesn't really give them much more flexibility esp since they need 28 days notice. Now fans and networks have to worry that it COULD happen, but at the same time it's pretty restricted. 

I guess games that can't be flexed (first 12 weeks or after the second Thursday game) become more important, as if I'm gonna plan to go to one game, I want to make darn sure it's there. I'm expecting certian amount of fan backlash on this one unless they actually warn people when buying tickets. ('This is a game that could possibly be moved'). 

Points: 2

#5 by Chuckc // May 23, 2023 - 9:04am

It's not going to meaningfully affect the quality of Thursday games because the main reason for drop in play is that it's played on Thursday. Which teams are playing doesn't really play into it

Points: 0

#2 by Theo // May 23, 2023 - 1:57am

if the team loses its first two quarterbacks due to injury or disqualification

I find it remarkable that they included disqualification to this. 

Shouldn't it be a punishment? I guess the nfl wants games to be exciting and competitive above all else.

Points: 3

#4 by reggieDunlop // May 23, 2023 - 8:57am

The interesting thing to note is that if this rule were in place last year, it still wouldn't have helped the 49ers last year.  They didn't have any other quarterbacks on their 53-man roster to be the 3rd quarterback as Lance and Garoppolo were still on the Injured Reserve... EDIT:  I see in the gamebook that Garoppolo was listed as "Not Active" so he must have been on the 53-man roster.  So he could have come in with the new rule.  The Eagles would have also benefitted from this rule in 2020 when both Wentz and McCown were injured and Sudfeld could have come in as the 3rd quarterback.

Points: 2

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 23, 2023 - 9:30am

Garopollo could have come in with the old rule.

Points: 1

#11 by IlluminatusUIUC // May 24, 2023 - 10:54am

The bigger issue is the part where, as soon as one of the other 2 QBs is cleared, the 3rd QB has to come out.

Purdy was cleared to return. The fact that he was incapable of throwing a pass didn't factor. So this would have solved nothing at all.

Points: 2

#15 by NoraDaddy // May 24, 2023 - 12:29pm

This begs the question of what the process is to take a player out for injury and then clear a player for return.  If there's nothing keeping a team from taking a player out then clearing them for return for whatever reasons they decide than this rule just adds another active QB that just can't play at the same time as either of the other 2.

Points: 4

#18 by MJK // May 24, 2023 - 3:22pm

Yes, the old rule said once the emergency QB came into the game, all other QB's on the active roster became ineligible to return.  I wonder if such wording is in the new rule?

Points: 2

#7 by BigRichie // May 23, 2023 - 11:00am

The big problem is for fans who planned to travel to a Sunday game that now gets switched to Thursday. "Boss, I know I'm out of vacation this being December and all, but you see, I now need this certain Wednesday+Thursday+Friday off ... "

I'm thinking this is going to be a disaster. Whichever game gets flexed into Thursday is going to leave however many hundreds of fans holding expensive tickets they now can't use.

Points: 1

#9 by DraftMan // May 23, 2023 - 10:24pm

The college kickoff touchback rule has now been approved as well.

Points: 0

#10 by dryheat // May 24, 2023 - 8:35am

I can't wait for this to come back once again.....when 90% of the coaches in the league lobby to make that 3rd quarterback spot open to any player, because 99% of the time, an extra offensive lineman or cornerback is more useful than a 3rd quarterback.

And the circle of life goes round...

Points: 5

#13 by ImNewAroundThe… // May 24, 2023 - 11:49am

You're 100% correct. I see 0 reason though why we still (ever?) need active/inactive/practice squad designations. Just let them all be there on the roster.

Points: 0

#14 by IlluminatusUIUC // May 24, 2023 - 12:00pm

The Active/Inactive rule makes sense since teams don't have real short-term IR. If one team rolls in fully healthy and the other team has 6-7 guys nursing injuries, the inactive list allows them to field the same # of players.

Points: 2

#22 by MJK // May 24, 2023 - 3:50pm

Good point.  Essentially, having a game day roster smaller than the team roster essentially creates an 8-man 1-week injured reserve, without the requirement that a player be injured to be placed on it.

The 53 man roster limits how many players a team can control the rights to at a time. The 45 man game day roster is a guess at how many players a team actually needs to have available to play the game. But the idea that "45" is the right number of active players is completely arbitrary, and has changed over the years.

I guess what the NFL is doing here amounts to them realizing what was realized when they got rid of the rule before... that *usually* it is far more valuable to carry an extra tackle, or receiver, or DB, than a third QB on your game day roster, and given the choice, most teams will do that.  Except of course, when you actually need the 3rd QB, as the Niners did. It's like paying for car insurance or health insurance... it's generally more valuable to not pay for insurance and pocket the money (since the insurance companies are out to make money and will always take in more money than they pay out, if their actuaries are doing their job right at least).  But when you really need insurance coverage, you're glad you have it.  When you actually need your third QB, you're glad you have one.  This is the NFL QB version of a law requiring people to carry car insurance or health insurance... an "individual QB mandate" as it were.


Points: 0

#12 by IlluminatusUIUC // May 24, 2023 - 10:56am

The receiving team can only fair catch a kick if it has yet to touch the ground. So if you want to force a return, you'll have to squib.

Points: 1

#16 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 24, 2023 - 2:06pm

I'm curious about the wording.

If its any fair catch goes back to the 25, you might as well do a pop-up onside kick every time -- if they fair catch it, they have to go back to the 25.

Points: 0

#29 by DraftMan // May 25, 2023 - 8:33pm

"...unless a player on the receiving team makes a fair catch of a free kick behind the receiving team's 25-yard line, in which case the ball will be put in play at the receiving team's 25-yard line."

Points: 0

#30 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 26, 2023 - 9:09am

I figured they wouldn't be that stupid, but I also figured they wouldn't play on Thursdays or let Dan Snyder remain an owner.

Points: 1

#17 by BigRichie // May 24, 2023 - 2:13pm

Yeah, seems to me like all this does is take away the pooch kick. Which are really pretty boring plays.

If the numbers do show they're relatively dangerous plays also, good riddance.

(guess we'll see if some team decides to then just 'fair catch' every kickoff; doubt it myself, and that could be easily addressed the following year by placing the ball at the 20 rather than the 25)

Points: 0

#20 by MJK // May 24, 2023 - 3:40pm

I think there's a lot of space between "booming it out the back of the endzone" and "pooch kick".  There's quite a bit of skill in kicking the ball far enough so it comes down at around the 1 or 2 yard line, straight enough so it's far from the end zones, and high enough that your gunners can get there, and teams the can do that well have a significant starting field position advantage that translates overall into a non-negligible increase in win percentage.  

This rule gets rid of all that, and essentially takes skill at making and covering, and by extension at returning, kickoffs out of the equation.  So while that might make Packers fans happy, it's overall a loss of one strategic and skill-based aspect of the game.  

I'm also curious if the numbers do show that they are relatively dangerous plays.  I know that's "common knowledge" that players get hurt during kickoff returns, but there's a lot of "common knowledge" out there that turns out just not to be true when you look at the statistics and properly account for biases.  (FO, in fact, was founded to address those exact questions, e.g. "run to win").  Has there been a credible, statistically correct study that has concluded that having more fair catches would reduce injuries?

Points: 1

#23 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 24, 2023 - 5:47pm

The rate is higher.

Basically, the higher the delta-v between two players, the higher the likelihood of injury. Kickoffs (and punt returns) have high-delta-v collisions.

It is interesting to observe, and I've been quietly commenting about this for going on two decades, the efforts to open the game up also result in higher-delta-v collisions.

Points: 1

#19 by MJK // May 24, 2023 - 3:36pm

I think this new kickoff rule could have profound effects on how kickoffs are played, some of them possibly unintended.  Possibly to the extreme that teams will start carrying completely different kinds of special teams players... the receiving team may move exclusively to people with great hands and no speed, and just fair catch every kickoff, and play for a possible surprise onside for every play, while the kicking team may move exclusively to really fast players with no tackling ability.  Which will then prompt receiving teams to start actually returning kicks to take advantage of poor tacklers... will be interesting to see the pendulum swing and where it settles.

Think about it.  Right now, assuming a normal kick (not a squib or an on-side attempt), teams are strongly disincentivized from ever returning it.  If you catch it deep behind the 25 yard line, you have a lot to lose by attempting a return and a very small probability of a gain.  If you're catching it just behind the 25 yard line, you have only a little to lose, but even less chance of getting a decent return.  If you're catching it past the 25 yard line, even if the rule is written as "25 yard line or where you catch it, wherever is better", then you've already baked in a solid starting field position by fair catching and have almost no chance of any return (since the gunners are probably right on top of you at that point).  And in all three cases, not fair catching non-negligibly increases the chance of muffing/fumbling and of injury to the returner.  So most teams will fair catch most if not all of the time the ball is kicked up.  

Given that, it would make sense for the receiving team to put just three-ish guys back with good hands to try to catch the ball, and (since they're never going to try for a return and there's no need to block), dispense with blockers and fill the rest of the roster up with "hands guys" and putting them in place to defeat a surprise on side attempt or a "pop up" onside attempt.  So surprise onside kicks will become even more rare and less successful than they are.

For the kicking team, unless they can find benefit in squib kicking to force a return (which would be made a less effective strategy by all the "hands" receivers at short and mid range), they would just have to settle for giving the receiving team a 25 yard line start every time, and their optimal strategy would be to put as many people around the receiver to recover in case he muffs... so they prioritize fast guys that can get there, and not necessarily tackling ability.

Points: 0

#24 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 24, 2023 - 5:51pm

Looking at typical return formations, there's a fair amount of room to work with if someone can get good at advanced squib kicking.

Points: 0

#25 by duh // May 24, 2023 - 6:35pm

Yep guys will start trying to kickoff like they're skipping a stone or something 

Points: 1

#21 by MJK // May 24, 2023 - 3:41pm

The rule change on kickoffs is supposedly to improve player safety.  You know what else would improve player safety?  Getting rid of tackling.

Points: 1

#26 by eggwasp // May 25, 2023 - 7:49am

Or indeed bringing in rugby tackle rules - you have to make an effort to wrap up the ball carrier, not just hit them - so its not just a collision at full speed.  Also you could remove the armour which makes players think their are invincible.  You dont have to worry about people tackling head-first in rugby because those people don't last very long. 

And of course they still have a concussion problem - which is why the French have brought in a rule that you can only tackle below the navel. (moving to England as well I think, especially for kids). 

It would be an interesting thing to trial at some point anyway... 

Points: 0

#27 by Aaron Brooks G… // May 25, 2023 - 10:41am

  1. Rugby absolutely has a player injury problem, but the sport is in more denial about it than American football is.
  2. Neither blocking nor throwing are legal in rugby, so the environment in which tackling occurs is completely different.
  3. Football has padding precisely because people were getting killed.
  4. Tackling at the knees is just as dangerous as tackling up high. There's a chapter in Schneider's Head and Neck Injuries in Football that discusses collisions with ballcarrier's knees. It crippled and killed a bunch of players. There's an older reference from the leather days which talks about it, too. The other result was facial injuries, which is in part why helmets have face guards.

We've been down this road before. It was paved with lessons learned in blood.

It is interesting to observe that American football is rugby if rugby had soccer's off-sides rule.

Points: 1

#28 by MJK // May 25, 2023 - 12:34pm

To be clear, I wasn't advocating getting rid of tackling.  It was meant to be tongue in cheek, to highlight the fact that attempts to improve the safety of the game will inevitably cause significant changes to the game as we know it.

Points: 1

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