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Why does the NFL have inactive players on game day?

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Vocal dislike of the game-day inactive list

For years, I’ve been reading comments and occasional articles about the NFL that pomote the idea that every player on the roster should be active on game day. “Just let everyone play” is the usual argument. Critics of the inactive list think of it as taking players away, but proponents of the current rules say that the inactive lists and the practice squad are actually methods of roster expansion designed to increase roster flexibility and depth while maintaining reasonable competitive balance.

The real argument probably shouldn’t be about whether the inactive list is good or evil, but what the “right” number is for the list of active players on game-day. For several years now, the number has been 46; under the new CBA, starting this season, each team has the opportunity to have up to 48 players active on game day.

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A brief history of roster sizes in the NFL

CBA nuggets: Changes in the new agreement and what they mean - Roster Size

CBA nuggets - Updated Practice Squad rules

To make it easier to focus on the reasoning behind the game-day inactive list, I’d like to take the discussion away from the question of whether 46 (or 48) players is enough, and even whether the inactive list is the right way to approach the issue of roster management in the NFL. Let’s instead, go through an imagined scenario — a thought process to see where the inactive list originated, and why we have it today.

First, an acknowledgement of the unlimited roster size proponents

In discussions of roster size, some fans argue that the salary cap is the only limit that is needed. These fans argue that each team should be able to carry as many (or as few) players as they want, so long as they meet the demands of the salary cap. One team might choose to take the field every week on Sunday/Monday/Thursday with just 40 players, but paying a much bigger slice of the salary cap pie to a few uber-talented superstars, while another might take the view that 55 lower paid players who can specialize and stay fresh all game provides the best opportunity to win. Competitive balance is maintained by the salary cap without the need for roster size restrictions.

Personally, I don’t object to this point of view, but I’ve never seen it seriously discussed as an option for the NFL. So, while I acknowledge that the idea has merit, it won’t really form part of the discussion in this article, which is focusing on the system the NFL has used for more than three decades; that is, a roster combination of active and inactive players on game day.

Step One in our thought experiment - expand the game day roster significantly

The biggest argument against the inactive list is that the remaining list of active players is too restrictive, and it doesn’t always leave teams with enough available backups to cover multiple injuries on game day.

As a first step, I’m going to wave my magic wand and expand game-day rosters significantly. I have arbitrarily chosen 60 players as the magic number for NFL game day active rosters because I think most people would agree that this should sufficiently cover most NFL teams against injury in any given week.

Abracadabra...poof! Now, every team in the league can have 60 players active on game day. It’s a huge jump from 46 or 48 players, and now every team should be deep enough to survive game day injuries.

Thanks to my magic wand, every team in my thought experiment league has 60 guys and all of them can play every week.

Step two - Do we have a competitive imbalance?

It’s Week 6 of the thought experiment season, and the Jets are playing the Bengals. Injuries have hit hard on the team from NY. They’ve got two sprained ankles, two hamstring injuries, one receiver with turf-toe, a lineman with a few broken finger-bones, and a running back with mononucleosis. The game-day roster is down to 53 players.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, has had a mostly injury-free season. They’ve got one wide receiver out with a sprained AC joint, but the other 59 are healthy.

So, the Bengals have a 6-man advantage on the Jets.

Some fans would say that doesn’t matter; just play the game. Others would argue that this creates an unfair competitive advantage for the AFC North team, and a relative disadvantage for the AFC East team.

Of course, there is one option available to the Jets — they could put some or all of the players on IR and replace them on the roster with healthy players. The downside of that is that a player who goes on injured reserve is out for the rest of the season. It’s Week 6, and the injured Jets players should all be ready to play again in a couple of weeks, so the coach doesn’t want to move them to injured reserve.

This is a lousy choice for the Jets coach — play this week disadvantaged by his limited number of healthy players on the roster, or move players to IR, losing them for the season and replacing them with (probably) inferior players.

Step 3 - let’s try to restore some of the competitive balance

The league decides that it’s not good to have the situation seen in the Jets - Bengals game, so they decide on a rule change in the off-season. Under the new rule, each team can add 8 more players to its roster, bringing the total to 68 players, but each week, only 60 can be active on game day. Eight players have to sit out the game.

The eight inactives are designed to allow the coach to give players with relatively minor injuries a week (or more) off to rest and recover, while still keeping them on the roster (meaning that they don’t have to end their seasons by being placed on IR). If the team doesn’t have eight injured players, then they still benefit by having 8 extra players to develop for the future or to be available “just in case” they are needed at the end of the year. Under this rule, the Jets and Bengals each still field 60 player, but the Jets sit their 7 injured guys + one other, while the Bengals sit one injured player + 7 others.

Seen as the result of this line of thinking, the inactive list isn’t a roster reduction, but an expansion.

The inactive list has been a part of roster expansions throughout the history of the NFL

My short thought process is a simplified version of the complex process of rule changes that have comprised the evolution of roster sizes in the NFL for the past century. The trend across the 101-year history of the NFL has been roster expansion, though there have been short-term roster reductions at times.

  • In the 1920s, roster sizes fluctuated between 16 and 18 players.
  • For most of the 1940s rosters were between 33 and 35 players.
  • For a decade, from ‘64 to ‘73, teams comprised 40 players.
  • Since 1978, 45 or 46 players has been the standard roster size, with roster expansion taking place mostly via the inactive list, practice squads and changes to IR rules.

People think of the inactive list as limiting the roster but if you think back to its reason for being, the inactive list was used to expand the roster and allow teams to minimize movement on and off of the injured reserve list.

When I was a kid, the games roster was 40 players. If you weren’t one of those players, you were on IR our you weren’t on a roster.

Part of competitive balance is maintaining limited rosters. The NFL allowed teams, via the inactive list, to add more players to the roster, but not to put them all in the field on game day. This helps maintain competitive balance, allows teams to carry a player on the roster who has a short term injury without penalty, and provides the opportunity to carry a player or two in the roster who might be PS quality at the moment, without risk of that player getting poached by another team.

Obviously, the establishment and expansion of the Practice Squad system in recent years has been a second step with some of the same goals that also aims to help make up for the lack of a developmental league for the NFL. With the new CBA, the line between the 53-man roster and the practice squad is getting burred.

Provisions in the new CBA that allow teams to temporarily “elevate” one or two practice squad players to the active roster weekly (with a limit of two games per PS player per season) are designed to move the league a half-step toward roster expansion while retaining the edifices built over the past couple of decades. For example, from 1991 to 2011, the NFL had a rule that allowed “emergency” QBs. At the time, the math was 53 players – 8 inactive (if one was an emergency QB who could only play if the other 2 QBs were injured) = 45 active. In 2011, they simply expanded the active game day roster to 46 players and got rid of the emergency QB rule. I suspect we’ll see a similar transition to a larger roster in 2030 when these new PS elevation rules are scrapped in favor of something more elegant.

The NFL has grudgingly expanded rosters throughout its history in response to increasing specialization and situational substitution, but it’s a slow process, and I think it should be. We’ve seen in recent years how rule changes aren’t always for the best, and no rule is more fundamental than roster size.

‘The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images’ Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Remember that Sammy Baugh, possibly the greatest player in franchise history, played QB/tailback, DB and Punter. In the days of 2 or 3-way players who were on the field every down, a 40-man roster would have seemed unnecessary, as half the team would never have gotten in the field.

From 1973 to 1993, the NFL tinkered almost annually with roster sizes, IR rules, inactive lists, taxi squads, developmental squads and practice squads, looking for the right balance. It finally settled on the inactive list as an alternative to season-ending IR, and I like that it adds 7 (or now 8 or 9) players to the roster, because it really is roster addition, and not subtraction. In combination with the Practice Squad and more liberal IR rules, it provides teams with a fair amount of roster flexibility, while still providing a strong measure of competitive balance.

The inactive list — especially when it was expanded from 2 players to 8 in conjunction with making IR a season-ending move in 1993 — provides teams with expanded rosters and the ability to better manage short-term injuries.

My final thought here is that Inactive lists are good for players — even one of the most vocal advocates for players’ rights, Geoff Schwartz, believes it:

And no, you can’t just dress everyone who’s healthy that week. It would lead to uneven gameday size, and the team with more healthy players would have a huge advantage.


What approach do you like best?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    I like the current program of 53 players with 7 inactives
    (53 votes)
  • 26%
    All 53 should be active every week
    (58 votes)
  • 9%
    Salary cap should be the only limiting factor — let each team decide the size of its roster independently
    (20 votes)
  • 33%
    Roster size should be bigger, maybe as many as 65 players. The important part is that teams should always have enough guys available to replace injured players during a game.
    (72 votes)
  • 2%
    Get rid of the salary cap
    (6 votes)
  • 2%
    I have a different way of thinking about this
    (6 votes)
215 votes total Vote Now