The NFL’s emergency quarterback rule, explained

Last season the San Francisco 49ers lost both Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson in the NFC Championship game, leading to running back Christian McCaffrey taking some snaps at quarterback.

It is a situation the league does not want to see repeated.

That led to the league instituting a new “emergency quarterback” rule for the upcoming season. Here is what you need to know.

First up, teams can now designate an “emergency quarterback” on game days. That player must officially be listed on the roster as a quarterback — avoiding a scenario where teams try and circumvent the rule by designating a non-QB as the emergency quarterback and buying in essence an additional roster spot.

The designation must be made on the pregame report on the day of the game.

Under these rules, the emergency QB must be a “bona fide quarterback,” defined as follows: The player designated as the emergency quarterback must wear a number authorized for the position (again a nod towards teams trying to circumvent the rule) and be either an “established quarterback,” — a player who has “customarily” played the position in past college or professional seasons — or a player who has taken snaps only at quarterback for at least three “consecutive” weeks of practice during the regular season. Those three weeks can include weeks where the player was designated as the emergency QB.

Teams can only designate an emergency quarterback if they have two other quarterbacks on the active game day roster.

The designation can only apply to QBs on a 53-man roster. Practice squad quarterbacks are not eligible to be an emergency quarterback. This rule again seeks to prevent teams from circumventing the rule and buying an additional roster spot. According to this piece from NBC Sports Boston, the New England Patriots were trying to exploit this loophole with Matt Corral and Bailey Zappe, leading to a clarification from the league.

During games, a team can activate the emergency quarterback if the two active quarterbacks cannot play due to injury or ejection. Benching one of the active quarterbacks does not allow a team to put the emergency quarterback into the game. Should one of the active quarterbacks later be cleared to return to action, the emergency QB must be removed and can only return to the game with another injury or a later ejection. The player designated as the emergency quarterback can participate in pregame warmups.

If a team has three or more quarterbacks designated on their active game day list, then an emergency QB cannot be designated. In this situation, a non-quarterback can still play quarterback, provided they are listed on the active game day roster.

Equipment failures are not an impetus for using the emergency quarterback. Teams are required to use a timeout, or use another active player, in that situation. In addition, trick plays are not a reason for using an emergency quarterback, and this Q&A from the NFL regarding the rule specifically states that the team is not allowed to use the emergency quarterback in “Wildcat” formations.

Once an emergency QB has been put into the lineup, only they can take snaps. They are allowed to quick kick, but cannot punt or kick on special teams.

When entering or reentering the game, the emergency QB must report to the referee, at which point the referee will confirm with the team that the other two quarterbacks are unable to play due to injury and/or ejection.

The emergency quarterback can have a radio in his helmet, provided he is designated by the team as one of the three offensive players designated to have helmet radios. Under NFL rules a team can designate three offensive players to use Coach-to-Player (C2P) communication devices. If the team does not designate the emergency quarterback as one of the C2P players, then should that player have to enter the game, the coaching staff must communicate with them via hand signals or another means, and not a helmet radio.

The penalty for a violation of any of the new rules regarding emergency quarterbacks is an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

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