In sports, the practice squad, also called the taxi squad or practice roster, is a group of players signed by a team but not part of their main roster. Frequently used in American and Canadian football, they serve as extra players during the team's practices, often as part of the scout team by emulating an upcoming opponent's play style. Because the players on the practice squad are familiar with the team's plays and formations, the practice squad serves as a way to develop inexperienced players for promotion to the main roster. In addition, it provides replacement players for the main roster when players are needed as the result of injuries or other roster moves, such as bereavement leave.
During the 1940s, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown invented the "taxi squad," a group of promising scouted players who did not make the roster but were kept on reserve. The team owner, Arthur "Mickey" McBride, put them on the payroll of his taxi company, although they did not drive cabs. The name stuck, and the practice of retaining a squad of ready reserves spread throughout professional football. However, the NFL did not officially recognize the existence of taxi squads until February 18, 1965. On that date, the NFL team owners formally adopted a 40-man active roster supplemented by a taxi squad of unregulated size, which was officially termed the "future list." Over the next few seasons, the NFL gradually limited the allowable number of inactive players to seven, and regulations were established in relation to injured reserve and waiver practices. In 1974, the NFL eliminated the taxi squad altogether, moving the seven inactive spots into an expanded 47-man active roster. Beginning in 1977, a more limited inactive system was introduced (often consisting of either two or four players, depending on the season), and these players were sometimes referred to as taxi squad members. The NFL has since reintroduced larger reserve squads, now known as "practice squads."
As of 2017, each NFL team may keep up to ten members on its practice squad in addition to the 53-member main roster. A majority of those on a practice squad are rookie draft picks and undrafted free agents (UDFAs) who were cut in training camps. A practice squad also includes veterans, up to four as of the 2016 season. Players may be signed to a practice squad for several reasons: for lack of space on the team, due to injury, or because they require more development.
A player cannot participate on the practice squad for more than three seasons; he is eligible for a third season only if the team has at least 53 players on its active/inactive list for the duration of that player's employment, or have no prior accrued seasons in the NFL (an accrued season is six or more games on the active roster); or if he has accrued a year of NFL experience on a club's 53-man active roster. If the player was on the active list for fewer than 9 games during their "only accrued season(s)", he maintains his eligibility for the practice squad. Games in which a player is listed as the third-string quarterback (a designation that has been abolished as of 2011) do not count as being on the active list. Former quarterback Mike Quinn, who was listed as the third-string quarterback for several teams throughout his career, is a notable example, being practice squad eligible during his 8th NFL season.
Practice squad players practice alongside regular roster players during the week, but they are not allowed to play in actual games. They can be paid considerably less than active squad players; in 2012, the minimum salary for a practice squad player was $5,700 per week, and the minimum rookie salary was $390,000. Some practice squad players are paid considerably more, however. In 2006, the New England Patriots paid third-year player Billy Yates the full $425,000 he would have earned on the active roster.
Practice squad players are free agents; they can be signed to any team's 53-man roster at any time during the season. In other words, NFL teams are free to "poach" other teams' practice squads without compensating the teams, with one exception: a team cannot sign another team's practice squad players if they are playing against each other in the immediate future, a restriction that prevents using the tactic solely to steal game plans. This went into effect after former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher accused Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin of signing many of the Steelers practice squad guys just before matchups between the two teams when they were both in the AFC Central.
The practice squad has also been used by the NFL and their teams as a way to bring in and train players from outside the United States or Canada, where gridiron football is not a popular sport. The NFL has operated programs in which selected international players were assigned to teams' practice squads as an extra member who did not count towards a team's maximum practice squad size.
The first, called the International Practice Squad Program, began operation in 2004. In 2005, Rolando Cantu of Mexico was promoted to the Arizona Cardinals' active roster after spending the previous season on the practice squad as a member of the program. Players from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Japan, and Russia also participated. In 2008, the program sponsored sixteen players, the largest amount to date. The program was discontinued for 2009. The rule allowing for an extra practice squad player of international origin, however, remained in the NFL's rulebook and teams attempted to use the rule even after the demise of the program. For example, in 2013 the Detroit Lions attempted to use it to add Norwegian kicker Håvard Rugland to their practice squad, but were rejected by the NFL, which stated that the rule was meant to be used for players from NFL Europe, which folded after the 2007 season.
A new program, the International Player Pathway, was created in 2017. This new initiative started as a trial involving only NFC South teams. Each team in the division was allowed to sign one international player to its practice squad who would not count against the normal 10-player limit, but would not be eligible to be activated during the season after being signed. The pathway was expanded to 8 teams (NFC South and AFC North) for the 2018 season.
Additionally, several international players have tried to find their starts in the NFL through spending time on teams practice squads without having been part of these programs, such as Efe Obada, Moritz Böhringer, and Jarryd Hayne.