It is common for the NFL to make tweaks to rules at the Spring meeting of the owners, and this year is no different.
Per Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, these rule changes governing IR & NFI were adopted this week by the owners:
Rule change #1
Teams will be able to designate up to 8 players to return from the IR and NFI lists this season. This represents a continued loosening of the regulations that dates back to 2012. Before 2012, players on IR were ineligible to return for the whole season after being placed on injured reserve. Between 2012 and 2019, that rule was changed twice to allow teams, first, to designate 1 player, and later, 2 players for return to the active roster.
Last season, teams were initially allowed to designate 3 players for return, but, as part of the response to the challenges COVID protocols created for roster management, late in the season, teams were allowed to activate an unlimited number of players.
The limits on players returning from IR were originally put in place decades ago in an effort to prevent teams from using IR as a type of roster expansion. Before the cap, which began in 1993, roster limits were essential — otherwise the New York teams, Dallas, Washington and other rich franchises would have stockpiled huge rosters while Green Bay and Indianapolis had trouble fielding a team at all. As recently as 1992, the league front office held an investigation of whether high-revenue teams essentially were redshirting young players by claiming they were injured when they weren’t, then placing them on IR, circumventing the roster limit. The fear that rich teams were using injured reserve to beat the roster limit was one of the reasons the salary cap came into effect.
The salary cap era has changed the dynamic, but NFL owners are slow to adapt to changing circumstances, and have clung to both limitations on roster size and other rules, like limits on the number of players returning from IR.
It seems as if last season’s late flirtation with no limits on IR returns has emboldened the partially-metaphorical 32 old men to take some chances with the most liberal full-season change in IR return rules in this century.
Being able to designate up to 8 players for return will make injured reserve more of what it should be = a temporary assignment of an injured player to a reserve list that allows another player to replace him on the roster until he is ready to return.
This is a good move.
Rule Change #2
NFL owners can never give something without either getting something in return or taking something away; it’s just in the DNA of multi-billionaires. They can’t help themselves.
So, instead of players having to miss a minimum of 3 games when they go onto IR, as was the rule last season, a player who goes to IR must now miss at least 4 games. While this is dramatically better than the pre-2012 days when a player on IR was lost for the season, this rule change seems to make little sense aside from being part of a compromise to allow more players to return from the reserve list.
Another key rule change - practice squad elevations
Practice squad elevations are a fairly recent development in the NFL rules that was actually part of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement adopted in 2020.
Last year, I wrote an article that detailed a lot of the rules about this relatively new practice; here are two key elements of the 2021 rules from that article:
Gameday rosters can include up to two practice squad players elevated temporarily (i.e. just that week). To be eligible to elevate two players, the team must have 8 offensive linemen active for the game; otherwise, only one player may be elevated.
Teams do not have to elevate any practice squad players in any given week. A limitation exists that makes this decision rational: no player can be (temporarily) elevated from the practice squad more than two times in a season. If any player is put on the active roster for a third time (or more) he must be signed to a standard player contract and count against the 53-man roster.
As you can see, last year, the league said that no player could get a single-game elevation from the practice squad (that expanded the game day active roster beyond 46 players) more than two times in a season.
Per NFL.com, teams can now elevate individual players from the practice squad to the game-day roster a maximum of three times per season, rather than two, which was the rule last year.
I’m a fan of most rules that increase roster flexibility, so I like the direction of this change. For a number of years now, I think the owners have been tiptoeing towards roster expansion, and this is one more tiny move in that very slow dance.
Sort of a rule change - 16-player practice squad size
Under the 2020 CBA, practice squads were supposed to comprise a maximum of 12 players in 2020 & 2021, with an expansion to 14 players this season.
Due to the roster challenges associated with COVID protocols, the roster size was increased to 16 players in each of the previous two seasons (‘20 and ‘21). Rather than reducing from that number to the 14-man squad agreed to in the CBA, owners have voted to continue with the 16-man practice squad this year - another baby step towards eventual roster expansion.
This is mostly good news for players and fans. Of the 4 roster-related tweaks to the rules discussed here, 3 of them move the league towards greater roster flexibility, with more players allowed to be designated for return from IR/NFI, continuation of larger practice squads, and an expansion in the flexibility of single-game practice squad elevations.
The only move in the opposite direction is that players who are put onto the IR list have to stay there for at least 4 games, when last year it was a minimum of 3 games.