Fallout From the Spring Meetings: Emergency QBs, Touchbacks and Flexing, Oh My!

May 25th 2023

Bryan Knowles

Are you a San Francisco 49ers fan upset about the ending to your championship game? Are you an XFL fan hoping to see your kickoff rules hit the big time? Are you a human being who was affected by having to watch Russell Wilson and the Broncos play roughly eight million times on national television a year ago? If so, then the NFL Spring Meeting is the place for you!

The big activity this week – assuming, that is, you’re not dying to see Zach Wilson’s completion numbers against fourth-string backups in seven-on-seven action – was the annual league meeting, where the NFL’s owners voted on a number of rule changes and broadcast decisions to affect the upcoming season. If you thought to yourself, “didn’t they already do this in March?” the answer is yes. Leave it to the NFL to find a way to drag rules changes out over multiple months.

By my count, there were five notable decisions made at the league meetings that could impact your experience of the 2023 season – so, we’re not covering the expansion of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative, which is going to kill our metrics with the medical student population. More relevantly to most of us, they also handed out Super Bowl LX to Santa Clara and the 2025 Draft to Green Bay, neither of which will impact the 2023 season in any real way. Here are some quickfire thoughts on the five decisions that will.

Emergency QB Rule

The NFL saw what happened against the Eagles, and decided they could never let this happen again. A team running out of quarterbacks obviously ends the competitive portion of the contest, and for that to happen in a nationally televised game? The rule had to be changed.

I am, of course, referring to the Body Bag Game in 1990, where Buddy Ryan’s Eagles so battered Washington that rookie running back Brian Mitchell had to finish the game under center. After the season, the NFL instituted the third quarterback rule, allowing for a 46th “emergency” quarterback to be dressed, playing only in desperate situations – if they entered the game before the fourth quarter, both other quarterbacks could not return to the game.

It was at that point the league realized that this essentially never comes up. Yes, there were a few high-profile emergency QB games, most notably Caleb Hanie in the 2010 NFC Championship for the Bears, but for the vast, vast majority of games, the third quarterback was a wasted roster spot. So much so that in 2011, the league eliminated the rule, and just expanded active rosters to 46 players outright. You could still use it for a quarterback, sure, but now you could put them into the game at any point – a pressing issue as the Wildcat craze was still in full swing at the time, and the idea of having a Pat White or Terrelle Pryor always available for shenanigans was tempting. More practically, teams just used it for an extra offensive lineman, or another defensive back or a rotational pass rusher. It turns out, the versatility provided by having an extra roster slot week in and week our is far, far more valuable than having a spare passer with a sign saying ‘break glass in case of emergency.’

It's easy to understand why the injuries to Brock Purdy and Josh Johnson in this year’s championship game made the NFL feel like they were forced to take action. Maybe the 49ers would have beaten the Eagles and maybe they wouldn’t have, but the fact is that we lost the chance to find out early in the third quarter when San Francisco lost the ability to throw the ball. That’s disappointing! It was one of the most intriguing matchups of the 2022 season, and it ended up depressingly fizzling out. San Francisco fans have had an offseason full of what-ifs, and Philadelphia fans have to deal with their championship win being questioned by events that were outside of their control when they were already up 21-7 when Johnson went out. That’s not good for anyone! Eagles fans want their win validated; 49ers fans wanted to have a chance. An emergency quarterback would have at least helped both causes.

But we’re talking about a situation that happens roughly once a decade, at most. And with the new rule requiring that the emergency passer take up a spot on the 53-man roster, plenty of teams won’t even engage with the rule at all. If anything, this was a missed opportunity for the NFL to look at the concept of active and inactive players in general. We’re already blurring the line between the 53-man roster and the practice squad, allowing teams to temporarily promote players to gameday rosters. We’ve breached the injured reserve red line by allowing teams to designate players for return. There is a slow but steady trend towards roster expansion and roster flexibility, both to increase options available to teams and to protect player safety by making it more feasible to rest and replace players without losing them for an entire season. Adjusting roster limitations is something that could have had actual, tangible impact. Instead, the emergency QB rule is so much window dressing for something that will maybe be used twice over the next 20 years, before it’s quietly done away with once again.

Fair Catch Rules Changed

In their closed, privileged session – unusual for the owners meetings! – the NFL pushed through changes to the fair catch rules. Now, the ball will be put into play at the receiving team’s 25-yard line if there is a fair catch on a free kick (i.e., a kickoff or safety kick, not a punt) behind the receiving team’s 25-yard line. This is the same rule as currently exists in college football, and the world has yet to come to an end there. You would think this would be a relatively non-controversial move…except special teams coaches around the league hate the rule, and were doing everything they could to try to stop it from passing.

The NFL claims that the rule will only drop kickoff return rates from 38% to 31%, while seeing the concussion rate drop 15%, after their study of the rule being implemented in the NCAA. It’s about player safety, with the kickoff being the play with the highest ratio of danger to impact – if you have two teams of special teams players racing across half the field to hit one another, the risk of concussion goes dramatically up, while the odds that a kickoff return will be a particularly impactful play has never been lower. Thus, remove a little potential excitement for a lot of potential player safety. Makes sense.

Special teams coaches counter that this may just incentivize teams to squib kick more, leading to chaos and injuries in and of itself, as well as potential dangers of high arcing kicks and other strategies leading to indecisiveness, confusion and, again, potentially more injuries. They were also worried about jobs – there are players on rosters solely for their special teams uses, and if kickoffs became essentially meaningless, their spots may be eliminated.

The first concern is probably overstated. As the NFL points out, these rules have been in place for several years in college, and we haven’t seen a dramatic uptick in squibs and lobs there. It’s possible that could change with NFL coaches calling the shots, especially considering they were the ones suggesting it. In practice, however, I expect we’ll just see an uptick in fair catches and most drives starting from the 25 yard line.

However, the coaches are right in that this will take out an interesting strategic part of the game, which in turn could cost players their jobs. And it appears that there is an alternative already out there that the league could easily adapt. The XFL has been experimenting with the Low Impact Kickoff, which has the two special teams units line up 10 yards apart from one another. That has massively reduced injury risk in the season and a half we have data for, and it has led to some exciting returns. The closer lineup positions allow for strategy – we’ve seen some interesting blocking schemes already as teams experiment with it. A call for more data makes sense, but it seems like it’s a direction the NFL should be actively heading towards. Considering it was an idea from outside the league, they’ll probably be hesitant to actually adapt it. Which is a shame! Good ideas are good, no matter who comes up with them.

No Onside Kick Replacement

And speaking of “cool ideas from the minor leagues”, the league opted to table once again the onside kick alternative. The Eagles were the latest team to propose it, replacing an onside kick with a 4th-and-20 play. The league opted not to vote on it, tabling the discussion for another year.

Onside kicks are bad. They weren’t great back in Ye Olden Days, when you could overload one side of the line of scrimmage with extra guys and recover them about 10% of the time. With modern kickoff safety rules, the odds are about half of that – only three of the 56 onside kick attempts in 2022 were recovered. And even if they were recovered more often, a scrum over a randomly-bouncing ball isn’t a great way for a game to be decided. Personally, I’d much rather see Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow dropping back in a fourth-and-ballgame situation, rather than watching Harrison Butker or Evan McPherson see if they can scoot a ball along the turf.

Opponents argue that this gives an unfair advantage to teams with better offenses, which, um, yes. Many parts of football give advantage to better teams! That is a feature, not a bug.

Thursday Night Flexing

By a wide, wide margin, the decision I dislike the most coming out of the owners’ meeting is to make Thursday Night Football flexible. Instead of just having the time of your teams’ game variable late in the season, it’s now possible for it to get moved mid-week, wreaking havoc on your plans to travel to a game, not to mention the impact it will have on player safety and overall game quality.

The NFL did put a number of caveats and limitations on their ability to flex games:

Only games from Week 13-Week 17 are eligible to be flexed.

The league must give 28 days’ notice before flexing a game, two weeks longer than the initial proposal.

No team can be flexed to Thursday more than once, and no team can play more than two Thursday games in a season.

This is in addition to the ability to flex Monday night games, which is new in 2023.

You can see the thought process – get good games to as many eyeballs as possible, and avoid situations like we got last year when the Denver Broncos played in primetime nearly every week despite cratering early. Amazon, in particular, leaned hard on the NFL to get this done, after being disappointed with its slate of games one year after purchasing the package for an astronomical fee – they saw a 46% drop in viewership compared to 2021’s Fox games.

But this is a nightmare for fans who plan to travel to see their favorite team play, as these plans are often made months in advance, right as the schedule is released. To make this move after the NFL pushed people to buy tickets for this year’s games as quickly as possible seems like a particularly scummy move. In addition, making it so teams play an unequal amount of Thursday games is a competitive and player safety nightmare, too. Players have long sworn that playing on short rest increases their risk of injury, and while the data on that is spotty, there has been plenty of examples of players rushing back to play too early to hit a Thursday deadline, or being forced to sit out a game because the short week was simply not long enough for them to get ready, in addition to the general bumps, bruises, fatigue and lack of recuperation provided by the short turnaround time. That’s bad for all players, but now some teams will have to deal with that twice, while others get a full season on regular rest.

This is a bad idea. If anything, there should be less Thursday football, not more of it. It’s a decision based solely on earning as much money as possible without regard to the product they’re putting out on the field.

That being said, this…

…may be a slight overreaction.

Playoff Games Coming to Peacock

Last, but not least, was the announcement that the Saturday Night Wild Card game this year will be available exclusively on streaming service Peacock, and will not be broadcast over the air.

There’s been much gnashing of teeth about this, in part because Peacock barely manages to squeeze into the top 10 for streaming services in the US – unless you’re big into WWE, or have The Office re-runs playing constantly, you may not have much call for Peacock. Which, of course, is the point – NBC is paying big money because they would really like you to sign up for their streaming service, please. Come for the Jaguars and Chargers, stick around for, uh, The Voice.

While signing up for yet one more thing is annoying, people will live. This is easier to access than the first time the NFL put a playoff game on cable, which they did in 2014. The sky did not fall. People went to sports bars, or to a friends’ house, or knuckled down and got cable. And it’s a lot easier to start and stop a streaming service than it is a cable subscription!

But if they want me to watch the freaking Office again, I’m out.