In my mind, there's really only one thing to say about this rule change: It's about time.
To me, it has always seemed a little draconian to force a team, when a key player has sustained a major injury within the first few weeks of the season, to decide whether to end that player's season right then and there or commit to holding a valuable roster spot long term with no guarantees.
These all-or-nothing roster decisions put teams in tough spots when the players involved are core players and regular starters, and when there's no way to know for sure if the player might come back in a couple of months or if his season truly is over.
Ryan Grant in 2010 is a perfect example. Coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, Grant broke his ankle in the opener at Philadelphia. There was a chance he could come back by season's end, but there was no way to predict the length of his post-surgery recovery.
With another running back already on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list in rookie James Starks, the Packers decided to play it safe and keep their roster as close to full strength as possible. Grant was placed on injured reserve, and Dimitri Nance was signed from Atlanta's practice squad to give the team another back.
It all worked out fine for the Packers in the end, of course. Starks provided a jolt to the running game in the postseason and the offense was fine when it mattered most, even without Grant. But it seems only fair, to both the team and the player, to have the chance to re-activate that player if he's healthy enough later in the season. Pending approval from the players' union on this rule change, that will now be possible.
The arguments against this rule involve, of course, the potential for abuse, that teams won't use the rule as it is intended but as a way to hang onto talented players they may need should injuries arise, without exposing those players to waivers.
I think the rule's particulars will help to avoid that potential for abuse, though. First, any player given the IR exemption must be on the 53-man roster for Week 1, so teams will have to use a roster spot for that player at first while exposing all their final roster cuts to other teams.
Second, the exemption is limited to one player per team, per year, and the player must be "tagged," so to speak, with the exemption at the time he is placed on IR. No switching things around and changing minds later on. If a team is trying to stash a potentially valuable backup (and not a "marquee" player), then that team doesn't have its exemption when its "Ryan Grant" breaks a bone.
No rule is going to be perfect, and at some point a team will lose a starter in Week 1, put him on IR with the exemption, then lose a more valuable starter in Week 2 and have fewer options. The rule isn't going to solve all the difficult, injury-related roster decisions that must be made from time to time.
But it will at least alleviate one potential tight spot and give a key player a chance to come back from a long-term injury. It's good for the team and the player.
The league has built some nice controls into this rule, for the purpose of not permitting a violation of its spirit, but mark my words, somebody will find a way to use the rule as a means for stashing talent on injured reserve.
Hey, we've been down this road before. A long time ago, the NFL allowed teams four moves from injured reserve to the active roster in a season. The only stipulation was that a player had to spend a minimum of four weeks on injured reserve before he was eligible to return to the active roster.
It was a wonderful rule, or at least the spirit of the rule was. Why make a team play shorthanded by requiring the injured player to stay on the active roster? Just swap out the injured one for a healthy one, and when the injured player is recovered from his injury, let him play again?
I'll tell you how badly the spirit of that rule was violated. It was violated so badly that the owners elected to lose a guy for the season if put on injured reserve, subsequently causing owners to pay a guy for services not rendered, rather than let teams use the injured reserve list as a supplemental roster.
That's what they were doing. I remember a certain defensive lineman whose name I won't divulge. He was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. He was a good, young prospect on a team with a really, really good defensive line. He wasn't good enough to put on the active roster, but he was too good to cut, especially considering that a lot of the really, really good defensive linemen were nearing the ends of their careers.
"Sorry to hear about your knee injury," I said to the young lineman.
"Oh, yeah," he said, shaking his head as he grabbed his right knee.
"I thought it was the left one," I said.
"Oh, yeah," he said, grabbing the left knee.
Not until the "coach's challenge" rule, was the spirit of a rule more violated than the four-back-from-IR rule. The league's best franchises had an IR roster that would've beaten the league's worst teams.
That won't happen with this rule for a few reasons: 1.) It only pertains to one player and that player must be designated as the "marquee player" when he's assigned to injured reserve. It doesn't mean he has to be a marquee-type player, but he must be so designated and he is the only player who will be so designated. In other words, intent must be proclaimed. 2.) The league may have a medical examiner verify the player's injury, though the league has long maintained that same power and seldom employed it.
Will this "marquee player" rule be abused to the degree the old four-back-from-IR rule was? No, it won't, but mark my words, somebody will find a way to use it to acquire a competitive advantage, and some coach, owner or columnist will cry foul.
The spirit of the rule would seem to pertain to a player such as Chad Clifton, who was lost for the majority of last season to a severe hamstring injury. Clifton was a left tackle, which certainly qualified him as a "marquee player." He missed the requisite eight games, and more, before returning at the end of the season so he might step back into the starting lineup for the playoff game against the Giants.
Good rule, right? As it pertains to Clifton's case, yes, it is.
Now let me give you a baseline example of how the rule might be, uh, manipulated.
You're the coach of a team with two Matt Flynns, which is to say two very good young quarterbacks whose rights you want to retain. You only need one on your roster now, but you don't dare put the other one on the practice squad because you'll lose him. If you keep him on the active roster, you're wasting a spot, but you'd sure like to be able to bring back that quarterback should one of your other two become injured.
Marquee player? The No. 3 quarterback? Hey, all you have to do is designate him as such.
Pick a knee; either one would be fine.
Cast your vote in the poll on the right, and if you leave a comment below, it might be used in an "After Further Review" video segment later this week.