NFL teams are permitted to have 53 players on the roster. Sometimes, teams find a way to carry a 54th.
It goes like this: A vested veteran not subject to waivers gets cut late in the week, after being around long enough to get a game check. Then, immediately after the next game, the player returns to the roster. Eventually (sometime later that same week), the player is cut again.
Lather, rinse, repeat; right up until the trade deadline, after which all players who are released must pass through waivers.
For the 49ers, the 54-man roster trick has been accomplished twice this year with quarterback Josh Johnson. On Saturday, September 20, he was cut in favor of tight end Asante Cleveland. On Tuesday, September 23, Johnson was re-signed when Cleveland, who provided depth at a time when Vernon Davis had an ankle injury, was released.
Most recently, Johnson was cut again on Saturday, October 11. He has been re-signed today.
Asked Saturday by reporters to explain why Johnson wasn’t cut earlier in the week, coach Jim Harbaugh said, “Wanted Josh to get to practice.”
In other words, Harbaugh wanted the 49ers to have three quarterbacks to take the week’s practice reps. With no quarterbacks on the practice squad, the only alternatives would have been Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert.
Asked if Johnson could find his way back to the team again, Harbaugh said, “Yes. Hopefully, yes. He’s, like I said, he’s a 49ers quarterback.”
But Johnson wasn’t a 49ers quarterback when Harbaugh said that.
While Johnson could have signed with any other team after being released, the 54-man roster trick hinges on a veteran who goes along with the wink-nod understanding that the player will slide off the roster until after the game, and then return. Given Johnson’s long history with Harbaugh (Johnson played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego), Johnson becomes an ideal candidate to go along with the 54-man roster trick.
The move will entail much more risk after October 28, since any player cut at any time following the trade deadline will be subject to waivers. Which means any other team can claim Johnson or whoever the 54th man dropped from the roster may be.
The 49ers aren’t the only team to do this. But few coaches have been as candid as Harbaugh about the desire to bring back the 54th man after he’s been released.