The NFL’s Emergency QB Rule; Does It Really Help?
I’ve always been amazed at how NFL franchises roll the dice when it comes to signing backup quarterbacks to the 53-man roster. In case you haven’t heard, the NFL changed the “emergency quarterback rule” this past off-season. It was an attempt to head off another QB shortage disaster like the one we experienced in the NFC Championship game in January when the 49ers lost 31-7 to the Eagles after finally running out of quarterbacks.
The rule change now says that NFL teams can activate an emergency QB from their game day inactive list. But the emergency QB must already be on the 53-man roster to be activated. Hold it. Let’s look a little deeper. Last week all NFL clubs were required to cut rosters down to 53 players. Teams have the option to keep as many QBs on that roster as they see fit. The facts are that 18 teams decided to keep only two QBs while 14 kept three. Teams can also sign as many as 16 players to their practice squad including additional Quarterbacks. But, here’s the rub. Only QBs that are signed to the 53-man roster are eligible to be activated as an emergency QB on game day.
53 Actually Means 46 on Game Day
Most fans don’t realize that on game day each NFL team must designate 46 players from their 53-man roster as “active.” The remaining seven are ineligible to play. Except now the emergency QB rule stipulates if both active QBs are unable to play due to injury or disqualification, the team may activate a 3rd QB during the game. But, that QB must have been on the 53-man roster and not the practice squad. So you are still rolling the dice by carrying only two QBs. You would not be able to activate a QB from your practice squad.
Mr. Irrelevant Proves Otherwise
In 2022 the 49ers were a great case study in QB disaster management. They started the season with former 1st round pick Trey Lance as their starter. In week two Lance broke his ankle and was out for the season. Enter Jimmy Garoppolo. While Garoppolo has demonstrated signs of brilliance (he’s 40-17 as a starter) he’s also been VERY prone to injuries. Sure enough, in week 13 Jimmy G broke his foot and like Trey Lance was out for the season. The 49ers had the foresight to carry 3 QBs on the 53 man roster. They just didn’t expect the 7th round draft pick out of Iowa State to be leading them into the playoffs. But Brock Purdy surprised all with his poise and competitiveness, going 7-0 and leading the 49er offense to rank #1 in scoring over his seven starts.
But on the 6th play from scrimmage in the NFC Championship game against the Eagles, Purdy was hit by blitzing LB Haason Reddick and went down with a torn UCL in his right elbow. Enter “journeyman” QB Josh Johnson who was just signed in December when Garoppolo went down. As a former backup QB I always hated the “journeyman” designation given to backups. But in Josh Johnson’s case it’s a fair description, as Josh has been on 14 teams over a 15 year career! It’s the NFL record for most teams by any one player. Anyway, the 49ers felt they had a chance as Johnson is still quite athletic and had proven his mettle in tight games throughout his career. Except on the opening series of the 3rd quarter the Eagles’ Ndamukong Suh broke through for the sack that would leave Josh Johnson with a game-ending concussion! You can’t make this up, right?
You Can’t Win a Super Bowl with the Wildcat!
So, the 49ers had finally run out of QBs after four went down in 2023 and they were forced to finish out the NFC Championship game with a non-throwing Brock Purdy (he did complete one pass for 3 yds but was clearly ineffective) and eventually utilizing RB Christian McCaffrey from the Wildcat formation. The Quarterbackless 49ers, winners of 12 straight games in 2023, went down quietly 31-7 to the Eagles. It was painful to watch.
The Most Vulnerable Quarterback Rooms to Start the 2023 Season
While many pundits are ranking the best Quarterbacks in the NFL to start the 2023 season this weekend, I want to take a look at the most vulnerable Quarterback rosters. My criteria is a combination of QB talent, QB depth and experience, type of QB ( legs vs arms), and supporting cast. For example, the 49ers had an offense that was not built around the Quarterback, which is why a 7th round rookie had a chance to thrive within the system.
Obviously, the teams with the least amount of talent at the QB position are the most vulnerable to failure (won/loss records). So are teams with one great Quarterback and no established backup. Toss in the wildcard of great QBs who are aging and/or with a history of injury, paired with a Quarterback room without established depth, and you may be on the brink of a disaster.
As we enter the NFL opening weekend there are 18 teams who have decided to roll the dice and keep only two Quarterbacks on their 53 man roster, while 14 teams have opted to keep three. These roster positions are fluid numbers as a few teams are expected to drop and add QBs right up to their season opener. But as of today, here are my selections for franchises most vulnerable at the QB position:
5) Tampa Bay Bucs: QB1 Baker Mayfield, QB2 Kyle Trask
From riches to rags in Tampa Bay. The Bucs are two years removed from the Tom Brady driven Super Bowl win and one year following his real retirement. No, fans, he’s really not coming back this time because he just bought into a soccer team, and an NFL team (Las Vegas), and an airline (new motivator of training and communications at Delta Air Lines)! Unfortunately, it appears as though the team didn’t have a succession plan for their 45-year-old QB. Baker Mayfield, QB1, was acquired as a free-agent this past off-season after stints in 2022 with the Carolina Panthers and the LA Rams. The former Heisman winner out of Oklahoma showed signs of stardom with Cleveland (including some great commercials), but in the end was released by the team. He has experience, with 69 NFL starts (31-38) and 102 TD passes, but at this stage of his career he seems more valuable as the QB2 and coming on in relief.
QB2 is where the Bucs Quarterback room gets really thin. Kyle Trask was a 2nd round pick of the 2021 draft out of Florida, where he passed for an FBS-leading 43 TDs in 2020. But development opportunities have been slow to develop for Kyle, first behind Brady and now being leap-frogged by Baker Mayfield. The bottom line is that in two NFL seasons Kyle Trask has played a total of one game and completed 3 passes for 23 yards and no TDs. Kyle may have it and we just don’t know. He’s 6’5”, 236 Lbs, and signed a $5.5 million deal when drafted. He simply has not been given the ball. All the above add up to a very thin quarterback room in Tampa Bay. Could colt McCoy be far away? Or, perhaps Caleb Williams? Drake Maye? Right now the Bucs are rolling the dice.
4) Los Angeles Rams: QB1 Matthew Stafford, QB2 Brett Rypien
The Rams don’t make this list because of a weakness at QB1. I am a huge fan of Matthew Stafford. Great college career at UGA, 1st pick in the 2009 draft, and competed admirably for 12 years with the Detroit Lions, until he was rescued by the Rams in 2021 and delivered a Super Bowl championship to LA in his first trip to the Big Game. Stafford has a great release, cannon arm and the guts to back it all up. He has passed for over 50,000 yards and has 333 career TD passes. In March of 2022 Stafford signed a four-year $160 million contract extension with the Rams. He also had surgery on his right elbow to relive pain experienced in the 2021 season. The 2022 season would not be a repeat as the Rams lost some key players contractually as well as to injury. In week 9 Matthew was put in concussion protocol following the loss to Tampa Bay. Consequently he missed game 10 vs the Cardinals. He would return in week 11 vs New Orleans only to be knocked out of the game with another concussion. By week 13 the team would announce that Stafford had suffered a spinal cord contusion which would end his season. I don’t know what a spinal cord contusion is, but it sounds serious.
Enter 2023 and the Rams draft Georgia QB Stetson Bennett lV in the 4th round. Most of us know the miraculous career Bennett posted at UGA, winning back-to-back championships and winning all the MVP awards in each of those 4 playoff games. Some of us also know Stetson has not been the most mature about how he has handled success. But he has now been gifted with a very mature “big brother” from UGA in Matthew Stafford; A great way to break into the NFL while you watch and learn from one of the best. Bennett played all three exhibition games in 2023 training camp with mixed results. But in the end the club waived the 2022 backup, Brett Rypien, to the practice squad and kept Bennett on the 53 man roster; Until they didn’t. It turns out Stetson Bennett has a shoulder injury and is now out indefinitely. Rypien has been elevated to the roster pending additional moves following week one. Rypien logged 4 years with Denver (not all active) and has started 3 games in the NFL (2-1) with 4 TDs and 8 Ints.
For a team looking to bounce back to Super Bowl status, this is a precarious QB position. Stafford, a proven winner, is now only a concussion away from missing substantial PT. And there is no proven backup to step in and lead the team to Super Bowl LVlll at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada. Look for a Ram trade to add depth to the QB room in LA.
3) Cleveland Browns: QB1 Deshuan Watson, QB2 Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB3 PJ Walker
You might say, “Hey, this QB1 is one of the primo talents in the league,“ and you would be correct. But Deshaun is still not out of the woods legally and it could come back to bite the Browns in the $230 million guarantee. Twenty-five lawsuits have been filed against Deshaun by women claiming they were sexually harassed. None have gone to trial before a jury, as 23 have chosen to settle out of court. It should be noted two grand juries failed to indict Watson, apparently due to a lack of evidence, but two lawsuits remain. The NFL personal conduct policy allows the NFL to punish players even in the absence of criminal conduct or charges. To wit, the NFL already suspended Watson in 2022 for 11 games and fined him $5 million. If the two remaining cases reveal new evidence, it could prove problematic for Watson and the Browns. Recently (June 22), the Houston Texans were added as a defendant to one of the remaining lawsuits for essentially helping to keep his alleged inappropriate actions quiet.
Browns’ plan B? The Browns traded their QB2, Joshua Dobbs, to Arizona on August 24. They were apparently pleased with the development of rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a 5th round pick out of UCLA. The Browns also signed “journeyman“ PJ Walker, a former undrafted free agent out of Temple, who has had limited stints with the Colts, Panthers, Bears, and now the Browns. He has career stats of 5 TD passes and 11 Ints. Behind Watson the Browns are incredibly inexperienced. If Deshaun Watson faces more suspension time the Browns could be in QB disaster control.
2) Green Bay Packers: QB1 Jordan Love, QB2 Sean Clifford
Jordan Love was a surprise first round pick out of Utah State by the Packers in 2020. In doing so, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers began a QB spiral that finally ended with Rodgers moving on to the New York Jets. Thus ended the Packers run of a Hall of Fame QB running the offense for the past 31 years. Together Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers passed for 1,001 TD passes. They won 314 regular season games, second only to the New England Patriots during that period. They appeared in 3 Super Bowls (winning two), and 43 playoff games (winning 23), again second only to the Patriots.
By all accounts Jordan Love at 6’4” and 220 lbs is a very gifted athlete. He runs a 4.7 forty which is not bad. He has studied under Aaron Rodgers for three years, which should be a tremendous advantage. But Love was inactive for every game in 2020. His first NFL start was in 2021 during a 13-7 loss to the Chiefs. He would not start another game until this weekend. He has thrown a total of 83 NFL passes with 3 TDs and 3 Ints, while rushing for 23 yards and zero TDs. Clearly, the Packers believe in sharing the “Love” with their Packer fans in 2023, but there remain huge gaps in his proven development.
So you might think that Green Bay is doubling down with some experience in the QB room? So far that’s not the case. Backing up Love at QB2 will be rookie Sean Clifford. Clifford is a 5th round draft choice out of Penn State where he created a fabulous legacy as a starter over 4 seasons. But Sean Clifford has thrown exactly zero passes in an NFL game. If Jordan Love has rust or is injured, Sean Clifford better be the next Brock Purdy or the Pack is in trouble.
1) Arizona Cardinals: QB1 Joshua Dobbs, QB2 Clayton Tune
We know the Cardinals are still without Kyler Murray who signed the monster 5 year $230 million ($160 million guaranteed) contract extension in April 2022. In week 14 of the 2022 season Murray went down with a non-contact knee injury which was diagnosed as a torn ACL and later surgically repaired. He is currently on the PUP list (physically unable to perform ) and is ineligible to play until after the Cardinals 4th game. Since Murray’s injury back in December, the Cardinals have swept out the front office and now have a new GM, Monti Ossenfort, who immediately hired Jonathan Gannon as head coach. It’s not clear if the new regime is sold on Kyler Murray. In fact, it’s been suggested by some media-types that the Cardinals are positioning the team to draft USC’s Caleb Williams as their QB of the future. That remains to be seen.
What is known is that Arizona cut the presumed interim QB1, Colt McCoy, in training camp. McCoy is one of the most experienced backup QBs in the NFL, having been drafted out of Texas (got to be a happy camper today after big win over Alabama!) in 2010 and posting 13 years in the league with 5 teams. Colt has started 36 career games in the NFL and passed for almost 8,000 yards. It is still a mystery why the Cardinals would release McCoy and essentially “trade” him in for the inexperienced Joshua Dobbs. The Cardinals traded for Dobbs on August 24th by sending a 5th round 2024 pick to the Browns (Cards also get a 7th round pick from Cleveland along with Dobbs). Not much of an investment for a QB that has all of 2 games in the NFL (0-2) and thrown 2 TD passes to go with 3 picks. It is presumed Dobbs will be the starter for Arizona in today’s opener at Washington. Behind Dobbs it’s even thinner. The QB2 for Arizona will be rookie Clayton Tune, a 5th rounder out of Houston. Yikes.
NFL QB Risk Management Honorable Mentions:
The following three teams are starting the season with first round draft choices as their QB1; always a gamble in terms of wins/losses but also in terms of the individual QB development. However, in all three cases these teams are risk-managing the gamble with strong backup QB rooms. They include:
Indianapolis Colts: QB1 Anthony Richardson, QB2 Gardner Minshew, QB3 Sam Ehlinger (Minshew has started 24 games with 44 TDs vs only 15 Ints)
Houston Texans: QB1 CJ Stroud, QB2 Case Keenum, QB3 Davis Mills (Mills may have moved ahead of Keenum at this point)
Carolina Panthers: QB1 Bryce Young, QB2 Andy Dalton (in my opinion the best QB2 in the league right now with 162 games started and 244 TD passes)
The Complete List of QBs on NFL 53-Man Rosters
Baltimore Ravens: QB1 Lamar Jackson; QB2 Tyler Huntley
Cincinnati Bengals: QB1 Joe Burrow; QB2 Jake Browning
Cleveland Browns: QB1 Deshaun Watson; QB2 Dorian Thompson-Robinson
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB1 Kenny Pickett QB2 Mitch Trubisky QB3 Mason Rudolph
Buffalo Bills: QB1 Josh Allen; QB2 Kyle Allen
Miami Dolphins: QB1 Tua Tagovailoa; QB2 Mike White; QB3 Syklar Thompson
New England Patriots: QB1 Mac Jones
New York Jets: QB1 Aaron Rodgers; QB2 Zack Wilson
Denver Broncos: QB1 Russell Wilson; QB2 Jared Stidham
Kansas City Chiefs: QB1 Patrick Mahomes; QB2 Blaine Gabbert
Las Vegas Raiders: QB1 Jimmy Garoppolo; QB2 Brian Hoyer QB3 Aidan O’Connell
Los Angeles Chargers: QB1 Justin Herbert; QB2 Easton Stick
Houston Texans: QB1 CJ Stroud; QB2 Case Keenum; QB3 Davis Mills
Indianapolis Colts: QB1 Anthony Richardson; QB2 Gardner Minshew; QB3 Sam Ehlinger
Jacksonville Jaguars: QB1 Trevor Lawrence; QB2 CJ Beathard
Tennessee Titans: QB1 Ryan Tannehill; QB2 Malik Willis; QB3 Will Levis
Chicago Bears: QB1 Justin Fields; QB2 Tyson Bagent; QB3 Nathan Peterman
Detroit Lions: QB1 Jared Goff; QB2 Teddy Bridgewater
Green Bay Packers: QB1 Jordan Love; QB2 Sean Clifford
Minnesota Vikings: QB1 Kirk Cousins; QB2 Nick Mullens; QB3 Jarin Hall
Dallas Cowboys: QB1 Dan Prescott; QB2 Trey Lance; QB3 Cooper Rush
New York Giants: QB1 Daniel Jones; QB2 Tyrod Taylor
Philadelphia Eagles: QB1 Jalen Hurt; QB2 Marcus Mariota; QB3 Tanner McKee
Washington Commanders: QB1 Sam Howell; QB2 Jacoby Brissett
Atlanta Falcons: QB1 Desmond Ridder; QB2 Taylor Heinecke; QB3 Logan Woodside
Carolina Panthers: QB1 Bryce Young; QB2 Andy Dalton
New Orleans Saints: QB1 Derek Carr; QB2 Jameis Winston; QB3 Jake Haener
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB1 Baker Mayfield; QB2 Kyle Trask
Arizona Cardinals: QB1 Joshua Dobbs; QB2 Clayton Tune
Los Angeles Rams: QB1 Mathew Stafford; QB2 Stetson Bennett
San Francisco 49ers: QB1 Broack Purdy; QB2 Sam Darnold; QB3 Brandon Allen
Seattle Seahawks: QB1 Geno Smith; QB2 Drew Lock