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New York Jets: The Unfortunate Necessity of Keeping Four Quarterbacks

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

EDIT: Or not. I guess the Jets decided it wasn't worth losing that roster spot.


An unheralded rule change the NFL made four years ago altered roster strategy.

Before the 2011 season, the NFL had what was known as the third quarterback rule. Teams were allowed to activate 45 of their 53 players for each game. In addition to this, teams were allowed to designate one inactive player as an emergency quarterback. This player was allowed to suit up for the game and play. There was a catch, though. If the emergency quarterback entered the game before the fourth quarter, neither the starter nor the backup quarterback were allowed to play for the rest of the game. This was done to make sure teams did not cheat the rule by designating a regular player like a special teams ace as the emergency quarterback just to add an extra player.

Some teams still tried to bend the rule. You might remember that when Vinny Testaverde got hurt for the Jets in the 1999 opener, punter Tom Tupa replaced him at quarterback until the fourth quarter started. That was because Bill Parcells designated his actual backup quarterback, Rick Mirer as his emergency quarterback. Tupa was listed as the backup quarterback to try and create an extra roster spot since Tupa was active anyway. It wasn't as crazy as it sounds. In addition to being a punter, Tupa was a quarterback in college and had actually started 13 NFL games at quarterback. Because Parcells handled things the way he did, he was faced with a choice. His first option was to play Tupa at quarterback. His second choice was to put Mirer into the game immediately. Since Tupa was the backup quarterback, that meant he would have had to leave the game, and the Jets would have lost their punter. (Mirer entered in the fourth quarter and actually was less effective than Tupa.)

The third quarterback rule provided teams an incentive to keep three quarterbacks. The NFL was essentially gifting teams an extra roster spot for a third quarterback. Yes, it was about as useful as Homer Simpson's dragon insurance policy, but there was no harm in it. Without a third quarterback, teams would not gain anything. They just lost a spot that could prove useful in an extremely unlikely crisis situation.

Before the 2011 season, the NFL eliminated the third quarterback rule. Instead of activating 45 players and one emergency quarterback, teams were allowed to activate 46 players. The 46th player could be anybody. This took almost all of the incentive away from teams carrying a third quarterback. A 46th player could help a team. A third quarterback will not. Just think about all of the NFL games you have watched in your life. Now think about all of the times either team had two quarterbacks knocked out of the game due to injury. It doesn't happen. A 46th player might be a good special teamer or a reserve who has a role for a few snaps.

The elimination of the third quarterback rule eliminated the incentive for teams to carry three quarterbacks on its active roster. In the days where the NFL handed teams an extra active player on gameday as long as it was a third quarterback, it made all the sense in the world to carry three. Without that incentive, it does not. Many teams noticed and started carrying two quarterbacks.

I hear two arguments for carrying three quarterbacks, and neither really holds up.

Argument 1: What do you do if your first two quarterbacks get hurt during a game?

This happens once in a blue moon, but that is irrelevant anyway. It would not matter. Teams these days only activate two quarterbacks for games. On your 53 man roster, 46 are eligible to play in a game. NFL teams only make 2 of these 46 quarterbacks. That is standard practice.

Let's take a look at the Jets last season. Weeks 1 through 8, the Jets had only two quarterbacks on their 53 man roster, Michael Vick and Geno Smith. Matt Simms was signed off the practice squad for the Week 9 games against the Chiefs. Why was this? Geno Smith was hurt and was inactive for the game. Vick and Simms were the only two quarterbacks active for that one. Week 10, Geno was healthy. Simms was inactive. Week 11 was the bye. Simms was inactive every other game for the rest of the season. For the second half of the season, the Jets had three quarterbacks on their roster, but only two were active in every single game.

What if Vick and Geno had both gotten hurt in Week 14? Having Simms on the team would not have helped. He was not active for the game so he could not have come in.

Argument 2: If somebody gets hurt, you'll have to sign a quarterback. That guy won't know the playbook so you'll have to run a limited offense.

This is the second argument for keeping three quarterbacks. It sounds convincing when you first hear it, but not if you think about it. Think about the type of third quarterbacks the Jets have had. They are guys like Greg McElroy and Matt Simms. They are very limited players. That's the way third quarterbacks are. Think about how many good quarterbacks there are in the league. Teams are lucky to have one. In rare cases, a team might luck into having two at the same time. Nobody has three. Anybody halfway decent in the NFL is a starter or a backup. A third quarterback almost by definition is a very limited player, a Simms or McElroy type.

If you are starting a third string type of quarterback, I have news for your. Your playbook is going to be limited anyway.


This leaves two types of situations where carrying a third quarterback makes sense.

1. You have a quarterback injured, and you need to sign somebody to have two active quarterbacks for your next game.

2. You have a young, developmental quarterback whose future would be hurt by seeing the field at this point in his career.

For the young, developmental quarterback, there is another condition. The team also must feel he could not be placed on the practice squad. Remember, to be placed on the practice squad, a player must clear waivers. The player has to be cut, and the 31 other teams are all given a chance to claim him without giving up anything in compensation. The odds are pretty good of a rookie midround pick getting claimed. At least one other team probably thought that quarterback was draftable.

That is the position the Jets find themselves with Bryce Petty. They think he is worth trying to develop. Based on what we saw in preseason, he looks a long way from being able to play so he cannot be a top two quarterback on the depth chart. There isn't much chance the Jets could get him on the practice squad. They traded up in the fourth round because they thought somebody else was going to take him. Surely a team would claim him before the Jets put him on the practice squad.

Given the circumstances, carrying three quarterbacks makes sense for the Jets. Geno Smith's broken jaw left the Jets in a dilemma. They were down to two healthy quarterbacks. One of those was Petty, who still should not be playing this season. Getting a second quarterback active for an early season game meant signing another veteran. Since Smith will still be on the roster while he heals, the Jets will be keeping four quarterbacks.

What is the loss here? Somebody will have to be cut. A spot that could have gone to a young developmental player will have to go to Matt Flynn or Josh Johnson. That player will go through waivers where other teams will have a chance to claim him. If nobody does, he will end up on the practice squad where teams can still poach him. In addition, that player will bump somebody else from the practice squad so the Jets will not even have that second player in the building working for them.

Is this is big deal? That is tough to say, but it is a loss. Let's say the Jets were in this position three years ago. If they needed to cut one player, the choice might have been whether to let Josh Bush, Aaron Berry, or Damon Harrison go. The players at the bottom of the roster aren't necessarily going to help a team this season. It is about using the practice field to develop them into future contributors. It is a very hit or miss game, mostly miss. A team does not know for sure which young players will develop into future contributors. They are all lottery tickets. They try and find the best bets based on the information they have, but there are bound to be surprises in a venture so inexact. You would have hoped they would have deemed either Berry or Bush least likely to contribute and cut one of them. It easily could have been Harrison, though, and another team could have scooped him up.

Is having a fourth quarterback going to cost the Jets the next Damon Harrison? Probably not, but they will lose one of those lottery tickets. In the NFL, teams start out equal. Everybody gets the same resources to build a team. The teams that are good to be over the long haul tend to be the ones that find the little advantages. The Jets are going to lose one of those little advantages.

It's not a knock on the front office or the coaching staff. It is what they have to do. This is just an unfortunate necessity based on the team's situation.