A modest proposal for fixing the injury-reporting system

Posted Oct. 18, 2012 @ 10:03 p.m.
Posted By Pat Fitzmaurice

The NFL’s injury reporting system is basically a sham.

The system’s noble intent is to bring the vampires of injury misinformation into sunlight. But garlic and wooden crosses have proven ineffective against Count Orlok himself, Bill Belichick, the dark prince of injury misinformation.

The Patriots listed 14 players as questionable on their Week Six injury report. Of the 14 questionable players, 11 were active for the Patriots’ loss to the Seahawks. WR Wes Welker and TE Rob Gronkowski were among the players listed as questionable. There was never any serious doubt that Welker and Gronkowski were going to play.

This week, there are six NFL teams on bye, so fantasy owners are forced to consider starting players who might not be considered as potential starters in normal weeks. Patriots RBs Brandon Bolden is a player who falls into that category. Bolden is listed as questionable this week. He was also listed as questionable last week before the Seahawks game, but he was “questionable” in the sense that Welker and Gronkowski were questionable — which is to say that he wasn’t really questionable.

But then Bolden aggravated his knee problem against the Seahawks. He missed practice early this week and seemed destined to be listed as questionable again on Friday’s injury report. But is it a bogus questionable, or a legitimate questionable? Bolden’s status also affects the fantasy value of Danny Woodhead, another player more likely to be considered as a potential starter in a week with six teams on bye.

The heavy bye week has fantasy owners thirsty for usable talent, and Uncle Hoodie is walking around with a tall, cool pitcher of sand.

The good news is that the Patriots play an early game on Sunday, so fantasy owners should know Bolden’s active/inactive status roughly an hour before kickoff of Jets-Patriots. The Patriots played a late-afternoon game in Seattle last week, so a lot of fantasy owners were forced to make a start/sit decision on TE Aaron Hernandez, who was listed as questionable, before they knew whether he was going to be active. (Hernandez played.)

The importance of reliable injury information is undeniable. NFL teams base their weekly game plans on the available personnel of their opponents. Fantasy owners depend on injury info when setting their lineups, and the league realizes that fantasy football is an enormous driver of interest in the NFL. (The NFL itself is in the fantasy business, as you already know.) Oddmakers and gamblers depend on injury information, and while the NFL officially turns its back on gambling (wink, wink), it’s another huge driver of interest in the league.

A few years ago, USA Today reporters Scott Boeck and Skip Wood did a terrific story on NFL injury reports and came up with some eye-opening numbers. From the start of the 2005 season to late November of the ’07 season, the Colts listed 527 players on their injury reports — far and away the highest total of any team. The Patriots were second, listing 461 players over that span. The Cowboys listed only 103 players on their injury reports during a period of more than 2½ seasons. The team with the next-fewest injury listings was the Bills, who listed 190 players.

Obviously, the enormous disparity between the number of players listed by the Colts and Cowboys — the Colts listed more than five times as many players on their injury reports during the same period — can’t be chalked up entirely to pure luck or to the relative competence of the two teams’ training staffs. Clearly, the Colts and Cowboys (and Patriots, too) were using the injury reports as instruments of deception. The Colts over-reported injuries, attempting to create confusion through sheer volume. The Cowboys under-reported, attempting to disguise injuries, or to project an aura of strength to upcoming opponents.

The Titans never once listed a player as “doubtful” in either 2005 or ’06, according to the USA Today report, and almost 90 percent of the players they listed were described as “questionable.” Jeff Fisher, then the coach of Tennessee, told USA Today that he didn’t participate in the compilation of the Titans’ injury reports. Perhaps Belichick isn’t actually involved with the compilation of the Patriots’ injury reports, although that possibility seems remote, given what we know about Belichick’s capacity for gamesmanship. And even if Belichick isn’t responsible for those injury reports, head coaches are supposed to know everything that goes on with their team. Just ask Sean Payton.

Why rely on teams to provide their own injury reports? This seems like an absurdly outdated concept in our multimedia age. Yes, team officials are privy to what’s going on in their training rooms; reporters are not. But if some teams aren’t willing to fully disclose that information, what does their inside intelligence matter?

The media can’t be relied upon as the sole source of injury information either. Some media sources are more thorough than others. Some have better access and get better information.

Why doesn’t the NFL simply deputize a single league employee, or perhaps a small team, to generate the injury reports?

Teams are already required to report which players aren’t participating in practices, and which players are being limited in practices because of injuries. There’s a wealth of collected information on how long particular injuries typically keep players out of action. In most instances there’s actual footage of the injury taking place.

The league could even use a medical practitioner to make the “doubtful,” “questionable” and “probable" designations. How about someone like Dr. Jene Bramel, the esteemed Football Guys injury expert, whose blog is essential reading for all serious fantasy football owners. Bramel is usually spot-on with his injury assessments. If he pegged a player as “questionable,” we’d know that player’s status was truly uncertain for the next game.

Not that the league needs a medical professional to provide more reliable injury information than some teams are providing. It’s just a matter of putting injury reporting in the hands of someone with unquestioned integrity. And if the league were to bring the compilation of injury reports in-house, it could compel teams to cooperate, and levy fines against the teams that don’t. The league has that power now — it just doesn’t exercise it as often as it should.

How about it, Mr. Goodell? Extend a helping hand to fantasy owners and contribute to the integrity of the NFL by taking the responsibility for injury information out of the hands of those who have incentive to mislead people with it.

Follow Pat on Twitter @FitzPFW.