We’re going to start with the one thing you need to play a football game, other than a football:
There are 53 men on each NFL team. Clearly, they don’t all play at the same time. Here’s the breakdown:
So each week, 46 men dress to take the field. Those are the “active” players. The 7 players on the practice squad (also called the scout team) are “inactive” players – they are still on the roster, but they aren’t allowed to enter the game.
We know that even though a team might have 3 tight ends, 4 running backs, and 5 wide receivers on their active roster that not all of them are going to be on the field at the same time. Not only would that be a massacre waiting to happen (the offensive line does more than just protect the quarterback), it would also be illegal: each team can only have 11 men on the field at one time. Is the offense on the field? There can only be 11 guys out there. Defense? Same story. Special teams? Nothing special here: there are still only 11 men allowed on the field
from each team at one time.
So why are there so many men on the roster? If each unit only fields 11 players (and the special teams unit doesn’t even have it’s own specific set of players other than the 3 shown on the diagram), why are there 46 guys on the active roster?
Reason #1: Injuries. If one guy gets injured (and over the course of the season, pretty much every guy is getting injured), he’ll need a replacement. One of the second or third or fourth string guys will take the field to replace him.
Reason #2: Formations. Remember when we talked about personnel groups? And when we talked about defense before the Super Bowl? Teams utilize different players in different formations depending on the game plan they have in place. Maybe the offense sees that the other team’s defense is showing a weakness in the secondary so they want to try a passing play. They might field 10 personnel – 1 running back, 0 tight ends, and 4 wide receivers – to give the offense the best chance possible of gaining yardage on a long pass. Or maybe the defense, seeing that the other team’s offense is successfully converting on passing plays, wants to substitute in more defensive backs in either a nickel (5 DB’s) or a dime (6 DB’s) package to defend against the pass. Using different formations is an essential way that a team keeps the other team on it’s toes, guessing what they’re going to do.
If 53 men on the roster seems like a lot, remember that teams are allowed to bring 90 players into training camp. 90 players! So nearly half of those players get cut and keep training for their next opportunity. Being the coach who makes those cuts is a tough gig.
SO: 53 guys on a team. 46 active. 7 on the practice squad, or inactive. 11 on the field at one time.
For more about who’s on the field, check out these posts:
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