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NFL drops third quarterback rule, 46 active players on game day

Washington Redskins v Chicago Bears

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 24: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears talks with teammates including Caleb Hanie #12 on the bench during a game against the Washington Redskins at Soldier Field on October 24, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Redskins defeated the Bears 17-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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With everyone focusing on how the league’s finances will change for the 2011 season and beyond, little attention has been paid to the rules changes that will affect the teams on game days. But one change that the owners and players to agree to will come into play on Sunday afternoons.

The owners and players have agreed to expand game day rosters from 45 to 46 active players. The No. 3 quarterback will no longer be an “emergency” inactive player.

In other words, a team can insert its third-string quarterback for a short period at any point in the game, then take him out and put the starter back in. Previously, the first and second quarterbacks couldn’t re-enter the game if the No. 3 quarterback played before the fourth quarter.

That rule came up most prominently last season when the Bears bungled the backup quarterback situation in the NFC Championship Game. After starter Jay Cutler went down and backup Todd Collins struggled, Bears coach Lovie Smith inserted No. 3 quarterback Caleb Hanie into the game just in time for him to hand off twice in the third quarter. Smith’s decision to put Hanie in the game in the third quarter instead of waiting for the fourth meant that if Hanie had suffered an injury, the Bears would have been without a quarterback for the rest of the game.

In 2011, the lack of a third-quarterback designation could be helpful for teams with third-string quarterbacks who are running threats: Now the third-stringer could be inserted as a wildcat quarterback for a play or two and then be replaced by the starter. That could be worth considering for whatever team selects Terrelle Pryor in the supplemental draft.

But the most likely result of the change to 46 active players on Sundays may just be that teams will add another active player at another position and keep two quarterbacks active on Sundays. For most teams, having extra depth at another position will be more useful than the ability to insert the third quarterback into the game whenever they please.