The NFL adopted a 46-man active roster beginning with the 2011 season, it having previously been 45 players dressing for games. In exchange for the additional helmet, however, the league removed the right for teams to dress a third quarterback without it counting against the active roster.
That third quarterback was an ‘emergency’ quarterback who could only enter the game if the first two went down with injuries, and could not exit the game (unless himself injured) once inserted. In essence, it gave teams the opportunity to decide what to do with the 46th helmet rather than it being required to go to an emergency quarterback. Virtually all teams elected not to dress the third quarterback.
In light of this past season’s NFC Championship game, however, during which the San Francisco 49ers were forced to return an injured starter to play after their backup quarterback exited the game with a concussion, the NFL is reportedly expected to reinstate the emergency quarterback.
This is in spite of the fact that the league has since raised the active roster to 47 players, allowing a 48th player to dress as well if he is an eighth offensive lineman. Now we should have 49 players dressing, assuming that the rule gets proposed and passes that reinstates the emergency quarterback.
Frankly, it’s an obvious decision, and it should go further. An emergency player is just that: an emergency backup. Teams should be allowed to dress every player on the roster in the event of an emergency, because no team should be forced to send an injured player back into the game when a healthy player is available to play his role.
It’s a matter of player safety, literally, to do everything reasonable to avoid situations in which teams have no choice but to play somebody who is injured. The principle of the inactive list is to avoid imbalances accounting for teams with rosters that featured more injured players, but that logic falls out of favor in this situation.
After all, if you have to play an emergency, let’s say defensive lineman, then you’re also dealing with injuries. What do you do if a team is down to one healthy defensive lineman who is active for a game? Ask players to play out of position in the trenches? Then that adds further injury risk by asking players to do things they’re not familiar with and which do not suit their body type.
I say reinstate the emergency quarterback no matter how big the active list already is, and don’t stop there. Make every inactive player, hell, even the practice squad, gameday emergency players. Have an entire ‘emergency’ list of players who would be available to play and dressed in the event that an insufficient number of players at a given position are healthy enough to play without risking further injury.
After all, with the inactive list being announced 90 minutes before kickoff, how stupid is it that you could have an injury or ejection minutes before the game and then have to play the entire game down a man? The Steelers nearly had to do that this past season when wide receiver Steven Sims suffered an eye injury before a game.