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NFL outlines procedure for using third quarterback

The NFL has brought back the third quarterback rule. This time, however, it has some new tweaks.

For starters, the third quarterback must be on the 53-man roster. This could prompt plenty of teams to never utilize it.

As to the teams that do, they’ll be permitted to dress the third quarterback without having him count against the game-day limit. And the third quarterback can enter only if the two other quarterbacks are not available, due to injury or ejection.

On Monday, the league sent a memo to all teams elaborating on the rules. For example, the player must be a “bona fide” quarterback, not a player at some other position, to be the emergency quarterback.

The memo also makes it clear that the rule should not be utilized as a way to put or keep the third quarterback in the game, and that he can stay only as long as the first two quarterbacks are not available.

“A club that activates an Emergency Third Quarterback during a game will be required to file a detailed written report to the NFL Player Personnel department stating the reason the player entered the game,” the memo explains. “The club may be asked to provide medical records of all the involved quarterbacks for review. Team doctors and members of the athletic training staff may be interviewed as well. The League office also reserves its right to send the player(s) to see an Independent Physician to verify an injury.”

The league seems to realize that, under certain circumstances, a team could be tempted to keep the third quarterback in, even if the second quarterback is ready to return. Sometimes, the third quarterback could give the team a lift. At other times, the team might want to give the third quarterback some reps.

“This rule is enacted to protect the integrity of the game and is intended only for bona fide quarterbacks. Compliance with the spirit of this rule is required and appreciated,” the memo concludes. “A club found in willful violation of this rule will be disciplined under the Policy on Integrity of the Game and Enforcement of League Policies.”

That’s fine. But good luck proving willful violations. And good luck mustering the will to prove it.

Frankly, who cares if the third quarterback stays in the game? The prior version of the rule was simple — if the third quarterback entered before the fourth quarter, the other two could not return. In the fourth quarter, the third quarterback could enter and exit at will.

Why not just do that again? Why complicate it with a procedure that creates a temptation to potentially leave the third quarterback in the game, and why put the league in a position to have to potentially determine whether an injured quarterback was really injured?

The league hopes to avoid a repeat of the situation that played out in the NFC Championship, when the 49ers were out of quarterbacks. It’s wise to do that. It’s frankly not nearly as wise to attach a bunch of provisos and prohibitions to the rule.

Keep it simple. Keep it easy. And keep teams incentivized to have a third quarterback in uniform so that there isn’t a prime-time or playoff poopfest featuring one team with no quarterback at all.