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Fan Mailbag: How Does the Third QB Rule Work?


Wondering about a player's status? Trying to recall a past game? Want some insight on the Redskins?'s Gary Fitzgerald opens up the mailbag on Tuesday and answers fan questions.

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Question: Can you explain the NFL's third quarterback rule? Why the restrictions around any quarterback coming back into the game at any time?

-- Rod R.

Gary: This rule came into effect after the infamous "body bag game" between the Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles in 1990. Redskins quarterbacks Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge were sent to the sidelines with injuries and the Redskins had no third QB available. They had to use Brian Mitchell the rest of the game.

In explaining the rule, here's what the NFL says: "[In 1991], the third quarterback rule was instituted to enable teams to have an emergency quarterback available who was not on the 45-man game day active roster, since many teams for strategic purposes only carry two quarterbacks on their game day roster...The rule states that if a third quarterback is inserted before the fourth quarter, a team's first two quarterbacks cannot be used for the remainder of the game at any position...It is a coach's decision as to whether a third quarterback will be used. The active quarterbacks do not have to be injured for a team to use its third quarterback."

Why the restrictions? Because the third QB is kind of a 46th man on the game day roster and is technically inactive for the game. He is for emergency purposes only. If a team carries three quarterbacks active on game day, then the coach has no restrictions putting any of them in the game at any time.

Of course, this is a problem the Redskins don't have to deal with right now. Jim Zorn decided to go with Jason Campbell and Todd Collins as the only quarterbacks on the roster. Third-stringer Andre Woodson was signed to the practice squad.

Question: Hello Gary. When are we going to see some of Marko Mitchell? During preseason and training camp, Marko seemed to catch almost everything thrown to him and I think he could be a nice addition in third down and red zone situations.

-- Brandon O.


Gary: Jim Zorn has said that it takes time for rookie receivers to run pass routes at the right depth and speed. That's the case with Mitchell. He was a deep threat in college, but with the Redskins he must learn the shorter routes of the West Coast offense. In preseason, Mitchell showed he had potential, leading the team with 11 catches and three touchdowns. He was playing against backups and third-stringers, though. Right now, coaches continue to work with second-year receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, but Mitchell could catch up later in the season.

Question: Why did coaches bench Chris Horton? Do they seriously think Reed Doughty can play safety in this league?

-- Rickey M.

Gary: Regarding Horton, I'll let Greg Blache speak: "Chris has struggled a little bit. He had a play [against Detroit] with bad eyes and we got a big pass interference call. It's not that we're down on him, but we have a guy in Reed who is close [in talent]. It gives you an opportunity to bring a guy in who can give Chris a chance to catch his breath, re-focus and come back strong. It's a long season." What about Doughty? Said Blache: "Reed had the surgery on his back [last year], his back is better and now he's playing as well as he has ever played for us. He has experience. He's a very savvy player." In the Tampa Bay game, they both had a lot of playing time; Horton had three tackles and a fumble recovery while Doughty had nine tackles.

Question: When are the Redskins going to do the right thing and put Colt Brennan in as QB?

-- Steve P.

Gary: Nice to see Colt Brennan questions continue even as he is on injured reserve. Your answer: Maybe next year. Brennan can't play at all this year after he underwent hip surgery in early September. He kept on experiencing hamstring soreness and the hip surgery was expected to help resolve that. Next offseason is going to be key for Brennan. He needs to show progression after a disappointing preseason this year.

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