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Players change teams so often in major American team sports that it’s sometimes difficult to follow who’s playing for which team. New National Football League fans might wonder why, during the ever-important playoffs in late December and all of January, teams don’t sign new (and hopefully better) players.
During the NFL playoffs, teams may sign any player who is not legally indebted to a contract with another club. These newly signed players are then free to play in upcoming games, playoffs or not.
Most other sports, particularly baseball, don’t allow similar roster maneuvering. The NFL system has been controversial in recent years, with talks of changes, but the NFL has a lot of things that other sports do not: injuries. The violent aspect of NFL play makes it a challenge to keep the same players on the roster at all times.
In January 2023, the kicker for the Dallas Cowboys was injured during a first-round win, meaning unless he healed fast, the team would be without a field goal expert moving forward. Kicker Brett Maher did indeed return, but in the season finale loss he did miss an extra point attempt.
He was replaced that summer.
At the time of Maher’s injury, it was reported that under NFL rules, the Cowboys’ options for a temporary kicker were limited to about six unsigned kickers ~ four unsigned, and two on practice squads for other teams. (They also could gamble with players from other leagues like the Canadian Football League, or even with professional soccer players).
Rules for the NFL’s playoff signing system has quirks. Teams cannot trade players during the playoffs, so that option is out.
Clubs can sign players off of other teams’ practice squads ~ but during the playoffs they can only do so from practice squads of teams still alive in the playoffs. (NFL teams carry many extra players just for practice purposes, men who do not play in real games unless signed to do so otherwise).
At the time of the Cowboys’ kicker’s injury, only two kickers were on practice squads of teams still participating in the playoffs. It became a moot point as Maher returned for the next game, but he (and the team) did not perform well in a season-ending loss.
First off, let’s clarify: in major North American sports, with few exceptions clubs are free to sign players whenever they wish. The issue is when those newly signed players can get to play in real game action.
In Major League Baseball, for instance, once September rolls around, teams that are even close to making the playoffs through that month must submit a list of players who they might use in playoff competition. This is called the postseason roster.
Players not on that list cannot play in MLB playoff games.
However, unlike the NFL, Major League Baseball has a robust minor league system providing backup players for each club.
Plus, the MLB has a very generous injured list (IL) system where players with any ailment can kind of be “stashed” away for future use if needed. That is, if the club submits a postseason roster list with that player’s name on it.
Official MLB rosters are 26 players ~ only these 26 dudes can play in real games at that time. However, clubs can move players on and off that active roster whenever they feel like it.
The MLB also has a quirky 40-man roster arrangement, where players must be on that list to be eligible to be placed on the 26-player active roster.
So at the start of September, MLB teams really have to choose the 40 players who might be needed or help them the most come October.
Another MLB playoff roster quirk is that during the championship tournament, before each round teams must submit their official active roster just for that series. Some players might be active in round one, but after that the team could decide to swap players between the active (26-man) and inactive (the other 14) roster for competitive purposes.
For instance, say the Yankees win their first round playoff series and now face a team that has a whole bunch of left-handed pitchers. It is well-established that left-handed hitters do not perform as well against left-handed pitchers compared with facing right-handers.
So, for that second round, the Yankees might stack their roster with right-handed hitters. Some lefties will be just out of luck. This happens every year, by the way.
The NFL has very specialized positions like kicker, who besides kickoffs, field goals, and extra points also is expected to tackle a ball carrier now and then. They get hurt, and no one else on the team knows how to kick a ball through goal posts raised 10 feet off the ground.
Same thing with the position of center on the line of scrimmage. While all NFL teams always carry a backup center in case their starter gets hurt in a game, they don’t always have a backup center who can do the long snaps needed for field goals and punts. (The punter, by the way, is another very specialized NFL position).
Not all NFL teams use the same center on regular offensive plays (where the center hands the ball directly to a quarterback between his legs) as in so-called “special teams” plays, which means field goals, extra point attempts, and punts. During these kicks there is not a direct, safe exchange of the ball as with regular offensive plays.
There are actually guys who make a career out of having this great skill of long snapping for kicks. In a game of inches where every single point counts, many NFL teams gain peace of mind by signing long-snappers who are accurate and consistent.
Most long-time NFL fans understand just how frustrating it is when a long snap on a kick flies over the head of the punter or kick holder. Mayhem ensues, and the end result is rarely good.