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NFL approves new emergency quarterback bylaw, and here’s what it means for the Patriots

The NFL approved a new bylaw that will allow teams to activate emergency quarterbacks in certain cases.

New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NFL ownership is currently holding its spring meeting in Minneapolis, and one of the first items on the agenda was voting on potentially modifying the league’s rules and bylaws.

Among the proposals on the table was the introduction of a third emergency quarterback. The idea behind it is quite simple: give teams more flexibility at the most important position in the sport.

The league’s owners indeed voted to approve this proposal, which in turn will amend Article XVII, Section 17.3 of the NFL’s constitution and bylaws. The newly added portions of the bylaw now read as follows:

Each club may also designate one emergency third quarterback from its 53-player Active/Inactive List (i.e., elevated players are not eligible for designation) who will be eligible to be activated during the game, if the club’s first two quarterbacks on its game day Active List are not able to participate in the game due to injury or disqualification (activation cannot be a result of a head coach’s in-game decision to remove a player from the game due to performance or conduct). If either of the injured quarterbacks is cleared by the medical staff to return to play, the emergency third quarterback must be removed from the game and is not permitted to continue to play quarterback or any other position, but is eligible to return to the game to play quarterback if another emergency third quarterback situation arises.

A club is not eligible to use these procedures if it carries three quarterbacks on its game day Active List [47- or 48-players in 2023].

What does all of this mean for the NFL’s clubs, though, especially the New England Patriots?

There has been some early speculation that this bylaw change might give the team the option to insert a third quarterback — one of offseason acquisitions Trace McSorley and Malik Cunningham — for select offensive packages. However, the wording of the rule prohibits this use.

Instead, the key language from the new bylaw about emergency QBs is that they can only be activated if...

a) they are on the 53-man roster to begin with, and

b) both of the top two quarterbacks on the game day team are injured and/or disqualified.

A concrete example would look like this: The Patriots enter a game with quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe active, and a third passer from their 53-man roster — McSorley or Cunningham — among the game-day inactives. If Jones and Zappe both become unavailable through injury or disqualification, that third quarterback would then be allowed to enter the game for as long as the two others remain unable to take the field.

All other uses are not allowed. This, in turn, means that the new bylaw has no real impact on McSorley’s or Cunningham’s chances of making the initial 53-man roster; they both still need to prove themselves worthy of a spot relative to depth players at other positions.

That said, their chances of joining the team at one point in-season might have improved slightly. In case Jones and/or Zappe are dealing with minor ailments, adding them to the 53-man roster as additional game-day depth would make some sense.

Of course, there also is room for some shenanigans even though it seems highly unlikely New England would go down that road. The Patriots could, for example, use dual-threat QB Cunningham as the No. 2 quarterback behind Mac Jones, with Bailey Zappe the emergency passer; this would allow the team to effectively carry three passers while still allowing for specific packages with Cunningham in the lineup. Again, however, the chances of that happening appear to be low.

The impetus to this bylaw proposal on behalf of the competition committee appears to be the San Francisco 49ers’ NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last season.

Starter Brock Purdy — the third QB on the team’s depth chart heading into the season — went down in the first quarter and had to be replaced by career journeyman Josh Johnson. Johnson himself was injured in the early third quarter forcing San Francisco to re-insert Purdy into the lineup with no other passer available. The 49ers lost the game 31-7, all while having Jimmy Garoppolo on the game day inactive list.