Coming off one of his best games of the season, James White was healthy and available to play Sunday against Washington. But the Patriots have three other running backs, and all three got the nod over White, who was forced to sit out the game, on the wrong side of the league-imposed roster limit.
For all 16 regular-season games — plus any in the playoffs — teams can only dress 46 players, per NFL rules. That means seven from the 53-man active roster won’t play, and when something happens like what happened to the Patriots on Sunday — injuries to running back Dion Lewis and tackle Sebastian Vollmer — it brings those pregame decisions on who suits up into greater focus, and renews the question about whether rosters should be expanded.
Perhaps White wasn’t needed; the Patriots beat the Redskins, 27-10, to improve to 8-0. But losing two players in a game, any players, puts a dent in any team’s depth, especially if they made the choice to go light at a certain position, like the Patriots did in suiting up just six offensive linemen for the third straight game.
After putting Lewis on injured reserve Monday, that makes eight players the Patriots have lost for the season to injury. That’s not the most; the Ravens now have 12 players on IR, and every team in the league has at least two.
Having a larger roster — say, increasing the active number from 53, adding to the 46 that can play on game day, or even bumping up the 10-player practice squad — would give teams more resources and additional options to deal with the inevitable rash of injuries that leave sidelines looking like a M*A*S*H unit every Sunday.
“They’re good questions, they come up every year, and I know that at the league meetings, those get talked about in one version or another,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “There are a lot of different aspects to it, and obviously there are a lot of other factors involved, like the [collective bargaining agreement] and the player’s association and salary-cap implications and benefits and a thousand other things.”
If Belichick supports expanding the roster — what coach wouldn’t? — he might have an ally in Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. Appearing on 98.5 The Sports Hub before Sunday’s game, Kraft was asked by the Globe’s Christopher L. Gasper about the possibility, in the wake of so many injured players around the league, of expanding the rosters.
“I think something like that makes sense,” Kraft said. “The discussion of roster expansion and the IR rules . . . the IR rules, I believe, we can do on our own. A couple years ago, we made that change where you put on ‘IR/designated to return.’ One player is allowed to do that now.”
IR used to be a season-ending designation for every player, no matter when the injury occurred. Now, teams can use the designated to return exemption on one player; the Patriots used it on offensive lineman Bryan Stork, who made his season debut against Washington and was pressed into every-down service when Vollmer left with a head injury.
Kraft went on to mention the possibility of giving something to the players — more roster spots – and the owners getting something in return. There has been discussion among league owners of playing an 18-game schedule, instead of the current 16, and of cutting the number of preseason games in half, from four to two.
Such a change would require the approval of the players association.
“There was a report earlier this year, the idea that you could go to 18 and two, but expand the roster,” Kraft said during his radio appearance. “I think those are all things that are probably going to be discussed over the coming years, and my guess would be would coalesce around when the next CBA negotiation happens.”
Belichick said one sticking point to roster expansion, with regards to allowing more than 46 to play in games, might be from a competitive point of view.
“Let’s say you allow all 53 players to play, then you get into some competitive situations due to injuries where I have 53 players but you only have 48 because you have guys that are hurt,” Belichick said. “So there is a competitive aspect to that versus the argument of, ‘Well, they’re all on the team, they’re all being paid, so why can’t we use them?’ It kind of goes back and forth on that one.”
Ever the game-plan team, cutting from 53 to 46 for games has left the Patriots in some interesting situations. Against the Jets, they dressed only two running backs (White and LeGarrette Blount), and handed the ball off just five times. The two games before that, at Dallas and at Indianapolis, the Patriots had only three wide receivers available, not counting special teams captain Matthew Slater.
In the 30-23 win over the Jets, the Patriots had only 18 players on offense in uniform. Belichick said he could not recall ever going into a game with fewer.
The 46-man game roster limit is actually the highest the NFL has ever allowed. It was 45 until the 2011 season, when it was increased by one. The training camp roster has also been expanded recently, from 80 to 90.
Could a change to the 53-man number be next? Or will teams in the future have more than 46 players available for games?
“I’m sure that the league will take a look at that every year,” Belichick said. “But in the end, it comes down to the players that are playing.”