The NFL playoffs have a way of highlighting weaknesses in the game, and the San Francisco 49ers were the latest victim of that fate.
In the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, 49ers rookie quarterback -- and former 3rd stringer -- Brock Purdy left the game with an injury to his throwing arm. Enter backup veteran Josh Johnson.
Johnson struggled to keep pace with the Eagles’ high-powered offense, but things went from bad to worse for the 49ers in the start of the third quarter when Johnson had to leave the game with a concussion.
With no other quarterback options to turn to, head coach Kyle Shanahan was forced to send Purdy back onto the field despite being unable to throw and essentially rendered a nonfactor.
Just over a decade ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.
But the NFL has a history of responding with rule changes. Look no further than last year’s AFC divisional round game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills that inspired a change in the overtime rules.
Could the 49ers’ quarterback crisis be the catalyst for a rule change? Luckily for the NFL, they might not have to reinvent the wheel with the help of a lapsed policy known as the Third Quarterback Rule.
What was the Third Quarterback Rule?
From 1991 to 2010, the NFL allowed teams to dress an additional quarterback in addition to the starter and backup without counting towards the 45-player limit.
If the quarterback designee entered the game at any position in the first three quarters, the starter and backup were immediately ruled ineligible for the rest of the game.
When did the NFL end the Third Quarterback Rule?
Ahead of the 2011 season, the NFL announced plans to end the Third Quarterback Rule, instead opting for a more flexible roster expansion. This increased the team's active game-day rosters from 45 to 46, with many teams favoring other positions to fill the new spot.
The issue, of course as the 49ers learned, is that once a team moves through its quarterback options, there are very few positions that can naturally move into that role as a play caller and passer.
What is the current quarterback rule?
To this day, teams are allowed three quarterbacks in uniform for both regular season and playoff games. But, as mentioned above, rarely do teams utilize that third spot, considering the likelihood of running through two quarterbacks is slim.
However, that might be changing.
In Week 4 against the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants had to turn to running back Saquon Barkely when Daniel Jones and backup Tyrod Taylor both left the game with injuries. Similarly, the Miami Dolphins probably would have benefitted from a return to the third quarterback rule. The Dolphins never found themselves in a mid-game situation as dire as the 49ers, but injuries to Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater continued to strain Mike McDaniel’s offense.
In both of these cases, much like Josh Johnson in the NFC title game, concussions and head injuries played a role in the depleted roster.
As the NFL faces growing scrutiny and responds with more clearly defined and enforced concussion policies, the quarterback shortage could increase.
Is the quarterback rule different in the regular season versus the playoffs?
NFL teams don’t get any relief in the playoffs. They’re still limited to 46 suited-up players.