While the Bears did not make the playoffs in their first season with QB Jay Cutler at the helm, they did have an unsung advantage that they are not accustomed to. Because of recent rule changes and Cutler's durability — he has not missed a start due to injury in his career — he gives Chicago an extra roster spot.
For the past decade, the Bears automatically penciled in three roster spots dedicated to the QB position, but the addition of Cutler — with 53 consecutive starts — meant they could subtract a third quarterback.
With NFL game-day rosters limited to 53 players — eight of whom are inactive on any given Sunday — every spot counts.
After 22 starters between the offensive and defensive sides and at the very least three special-teams players — kicker, punter and long-snapper — NFL teams are left with 20 active roster spots. That's not even enough to have a backup at every position.
Week to week, these roster spots change depending on injuries, matchups and performances. And each team has its own philosophies of how to complete its game-day roster.
During the past decade another factor has affected how teams fill their depth chart — NFL rule changes.
As new rules have been created to protect quarterbacks, more teams have abandoned the third-string QB on the 53-man roster, freeing up a coveted roster spot.
In 2000, every team suited three quarterbacks on its 53-man roster for at least 10 of the 16 regular-season games.
In the seasons since, the numbers have fluctuated, but as the NFL protects its quarterbacks more, more teams have downsized to just two passers on their rosters.
Prior to the 2001 season, the NFL ruled it would strictly enforce roughing the passer. That same year, only the Colts kept two QBs on the game-day roster for 10 or more games.
In '02, no team kept only two QBs on its 53-man roster for 10 or more games.
Before the '03 season, the NFL increased its protection of quarterbacks a little more — hitting a QB helmet-to-helmet any time after a change of possession is illegal — while teams with only two quarterbacks on their rosters for 10 or more games increased to four — Titans, Redskins, Bills and Chargers.
The '04 season saw a drop to three teams — Broncos, Saints and Colts — while the '05 season dropped once more to just the Broncos and the Colts.
Prior to the '06 season, the NFL added a rule that forced rushing defenders to make a conscious effort to avoid low hits on QBs. As a result, nine teams kept only two QBs on the game-day roster for 10 or more weeks — Patriots, Ravens, Colts, Texans, Titans, Broncos, Cowboys, Panthers and Saints.
One year later, in '07, only four teams had two-QB rosters for more than 10 games — Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Broncos.
Before the '08 season, the NFL announced it would re-emphasize the third-QB rule, stating that a third QB does not up a take roster spot on 45-man game-day roster, and that the first two quarterbacks do not have to be injured for a team to use its third QB. Four teams kept only two QBs on their rosters for more than 10 games that seasons — Colts, Texans, Jaguars and Broncos.
Before the '09 season, the NFL installed the "Tom Brady rule" — defenders knocked to the ground can no longer lunge at a quarterback and make contact below the belt. Last season, seven teams kept only two quarterbacks on their rosters for 10 or more games — Patriots, Titans, Jaguars, Giants, Redskins, Packers and Bears.
The three longest consecutive-start streaks by a quarterback of all time are held by current players — Brett Favre (309), Peyton Manning (210) and Brady (128) — with Favre's and Manning's streaks still active.
The Colts have taken advantage of their iron man by keeping only two QBs on the roster in five of the past 10 seasons.
Favre — the best example to date — is the godfather of durability. Even at age 40, the 19-year veteran has never missed a start due to injury.
Prior to this generation of quarterbacks, the longest consecutive-games streak was held by Ron Jaworski, who started in 123 straight games between 1977-84. For more than 15 years, Jaworski's record went uncontested. Three current players have already passed Jaworski, and at least three more are well on their way — Eli Manning (94), Philip Rivers (71) and Cutler.
While the third-string QB roster spot is often dedicated to developing a younger player or as a contingency plan, it doesn't seem to be necessary in today's NFL.
Teams like the Steelers, Ravens, Falcons and Jets in recent seasons have started rookie quarterbacks and won, so the developmental process has shown it can be accelerated successfully. The NFL is a win-now league, and an extra roster spot is invaluable. Teams need every player to play, and there is no room for a roster spot dedicated to a worst-case scenario — two quarterbacks injured in the same game — when the future is now.
As long as the NFL continues to protect the QB position, look for more teams to go with a similar "less is more" strategy when it comes to quarterbacks.
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