Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

30 Jun 2005

Mum's the Word on Injuries, But Why?

Alex Marvez of USA Today looks at the growing tendency of NFL teams to be, shall we say, less than forthcoming with the truth about player injuries. The NFL passes rules to make teams be more open about injuries, and teams work harder to hide the facts from the press. According to Marvez, the Miami Dolphins are set to become the NFL's only team not to announce in-season surgeries.

Marvez also tosses his hat into the competition for "best metaphor regarding New England hiding injury information." He says it is "easier to find a cure for cancer than gauge the health of coach Bill Belichick's squad" whereas my preferred metaphor is that the Patriots would rather eat shards of broken glass than talk publicly about player injuries.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 30 Jun 2005

23 comments, Last at 01 Jul 2005, 2:46pm by Carl


by B (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:13pm

I know why the Jaguars arn't willing to talk about Taylor's injury status. If they are planning on finding a replacement for him through a trade, and the other team knows how desperate the Jags are to find a running back, that will increase the price the Jaguars have to pay. Same thing goes for signing a free-agent, a smart agent would demand a higher price for a runnig back when free agents are scarce and the team's starting back is injured.

by Russell (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:14pm

I've got a feeling the NFL is going to lay the smackdown on this practice at some point this year. The injury report helps protect the legitimacy of the point spread, and the point spread has as much to do with the NFL's popularity and economic drawing power as anything. I wouldn't expect Tags & Co. to sit idle while teams continue to blatantly lie about injuries. Look for six- and even seven-figure fines if it continues.

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:27pm

There are a few things I want to say here. First, the injuries USA Today/ South Florida is talking about are updates in the post-season. While gliding over it, Alex Marvez noted that there is no NFL policy requiring teams to be forthcoming about the injury status of players recovering during the summer.

To change that policy, they will need action from the Competition Committee, if memory serves me.

I have yet to meet a NFL beat writer who actually does statistical surveys of the injury rolls, but I would like to say something on behalf of the Patriots.

Their mandated rolls of regular season and playoff injures is NOT statistically different over a six year period from any other team. While one might see fluctuations from year to year, there is no statistically relevant disparity over the years for any franchise in the NFL.

In other words, the number of players reported to be injured in the twice-weekly reports submitted to the NFL by the Pats doesn't differ from that of the other teams.

The number of players listed by Philadelphia and New England since 1999-00 has been pretty much equal.

I have heard complaints that New England plays fast and loose with the "probable" grade for player injuries (see Dillon, Corey, last year), but leaguewide 9 percent of all athletes who start off on the "probable" list eventually progress to more serious "questionable," "doubtful" or "out" listings.

So, NE isn't alone in that regard, are they?

The important thing, to me, is that the teams in the NFL have done a very good job sharing information about injuries, beginning in the 2000-01 season, a point brought forth again by the Commissioner's office in 2003-04.

It's not a club's responsibility -- yet -- to describe the seriousness of a player's injury in the post-season. In fact, it would warrant a grievance by a player if the team were to disclose medical information beyond the scope of the NFL protocol established for the regular season and playoffs.

A team would be required to acknowledge and grade an injury during the pre-season and season. They are not allowed to list them as such in July, before the camps even begin.

This, also, is an odd statement:

"After being scratched before an overtime loss to Carolina, a frustrated James admitted that he was ailing with a broken bone and hairline fracture in his lower back when coach Tony Dungy and general manager Bill Polian wouldn't."

Guess what? They're NOT allowed to discuss the injury of the player under a federal law prohibiting this information, without the prior, written consent of the patient, in this case James.

James can say it. His team doctor, coaches and general manager are forbidden by law to do so.

They can, however, list in the next weeks' report whether their RB was P, Q, D or O, with a reason ("Back"). That's been agreed to under the CBA.

"Unfortunately, accurate injury information is becoming increasingly difficult to come by despite rules instituted by the NFL last year demanding teams do a better job providing it."

Actually, it's the exact opposite. As I mentioned earlier, since the late 1990s teams have been far more forthcoming about the actual injury status of a given player, not less.

Proof is found in a database owned by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analyzing the weekly injury reports on thousands of NFL pros since 1999 and similar studies performed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why don't reporters use statistical models to examine what they say before they say it!!!!!!!!!!

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:43pm

I decided to randomly pull up a year out of the database. In 2003-04, when NE and the Eagles were both considered the top teams in their conferences heading into the post-season, New England had listed 32 of its players on the injured list, including stars like Brady.

The Eagles listed 35.

Stop the presses! Those cheatin' Pats!

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:48pm

I shouldn't kvetch in haste:

"is talking about are" should be "are talking about"

"is NOT statistically different" should be "are not..."

Me no like English.

by Aaron (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:50pm

I think with the Pats the issue isn't as much number of guys listed on injury list, but rather explanation of injuries. I dunno, can you tell me what exactly was wrong with Ben Watson last year? Cedric Cobbs? P.K. Sam? I mean, specifically, not just "knee."

by B (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 3:51pm

Carl, the reason reporters don't do statistical modeling before they write thier articles is because they (presant company excluded) are lazy. Incidently, this is also the reason why they complain about teams not being compltely forthright about player injury, thus making them do actual reasearch instead of parroting whatever the team spokesman tells them.

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:02pm


I agree with you, but the problem of listing injuries as "Back" or "Knee" or, my favorite, "Head" has a lot to do with HPAA and the CBA, and less to do with teams trying to disguise what's really going on.

As a reporter, I want as much info as anybody else. I would like the teams to put down, say, MCL tear, rather than "Knee." Of course, the problem is that knee injuries often involve several parts of the the thing (including patella, etc.) that would make an injury report somewhat lengthy.

Players usually chalk up any knee injury as a "meniscus" problem. We've discussed before that, most likely, the actual ailment is more than a meniscus issue, but that's what they say. They aren't lying, it's just what they're focusing on during their rehab.

The columnist is right about the Dolphins, by the way. They have a very aggressive policy about never discussing any medical-related information except what the league requires.

But that doesn't mean you can't ask! Players, I've found, are usually forthcoming about their woes, even if teams aren't. This is especially true if they feel they're hurt more than the team says they are, and want that second opinion (which was negoatiated by the NFLPA) heard by the fans.

While the system isn't perfect, the NFL's injury reporting system is far better than any other professional U.S. sport (not as good as Australian Football, but that's a different discussion), and even more detailed that what most industries report to OSHA/BLS, except possibly mining under MSHA.

by MDS (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:05pm

I saw Shanahan interviewed one time and someone asked him about a player who had hurt his leg. The interviewer asked, "Which leg is it?" And Shanahan gave him a cold stare and said, "We don't get into right or left."

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:09pm

“We don’t get into right or left.�

Neither do players, who often ask you NOT to tell the public whether it's the left or the right.

The reason? Linebackers on the opposite team will target that very knee, leg or rib during legal tackles, often taking players out of the game.

RBs will tell you that they often intentionally limp on the wrong ankle so that when the upcoming foes study the game film, they'll guess wrong on the injured part.

It's a rough game.

by Mike (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:27pm

One thing a lot of people say in defense of "sparse" injury reports, during the season, is that coaches and players are reluctant to say exactly where and how a player is injured, for fear that if the injured player does play, the other team might go after the injury to knock him out. For instance, if a star reciever or QB is suffering from a bruised rib or shoulder or leg that could get worse if it gets hit in a certain way, the fear is that an unscrupulous coach might send in a 3rd string defender to late hit the guy out of the game (see Dallas Cowboys vs Buffalo Bills). That's an extreme case, but if you're a safety and you know a WR is playing with an injury, wouldn't you be temped to hit him on that injury in hopes of slowing him down more?

Also, Bellichek has as much as said that being as vague as is allowed about a key player injury gives a slight edge--the opposing team for the next game has to have multiple game plans--one for if the player plays, and one for if he doesn't.

Personally, I could care less about the Vegas line, or fantasy stats, and will support anything that gives my team an edge, and promises to help the players on my team avoid worsening their injuries.

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:38pm

Typo. Should be HIPPA, a federal law that protects disclosure of health data.

Click on name for checklist of provisions.

by Pat on the Back (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:41pm

Personally, I like this better than what they do in hockey. Before the last game my boys played, the injury report had this:

Thorton (upper body)
Rebeiro (lower body)

by Led (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 4:52pm

I could be wrong,* but it seems like players ability to avoid and recover from injuries and willingness to play hurt is becoming a bigger focus with the press and fans. That is, players are being criticized for not being "tough" enough or for being selfish when they sit out as a result of injuries. Maybe this is because cap management makes everyone more sensitive to the cost of injuries; maybe proliferating media outlets need new story angles (seems like "can't win the big game" is a more frequent story angle now than in the past). Anyway, if I'm right about this trend, a sensible reaction for teams would be to reduce the amount of public injury info to protect players from that type of criticism.

* This impression could very well be the result of recent experience with the team I follow closely.

by Carl (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 5:07pm

Again, the statistical survey shows that teams began reporting twice the rate of injuries in 2000-01 as they did in 1999-00, and this rate has remained somewhat stable (peaked in 2002-03, fell slightly in 2003-04, rebounded a bit in 2004-05).

I would not trust data from all teams in 1999-00, but the numbers from 2000-01 to 2004-05 have remained about the same for every franchise.

No one wants to screw with the commissioner on this. Teams don't like mortgaging the future in lost draft picks over stuff like that.

A bigger issue, by the way, was the use of practice squads and IR to "hide" prospects for future play. The teams moved to close that loophole, too.

Old timers who come in here might want to mention the infamous "taxi squads."

by PerlStalker (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 6:05pm

Shanny got fined a year or so back because he told a reporter at halftime that Plummer had an arm injury when he really had a concussion or something. (My memory of the details is fuzzy and I'm too lazy to dig up the old stories.) His stated reason for the deception was that if Plummer had to come back in, it would put him at risk of more serious unjury because the defense would target that spot. After the fine, he came out and told the press that the team would no longer discuss injury status beyond what was required by the league.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 8:41pm


Over here, sports injuries (at least to big names) get covered in minute and obsessive detail. Jonny Wilkinson has calciferous deposits in his arms where none should be, and we all know about it next day. David Beckham hurts his foot, and suddenly 50 million people know what a metatarsal is.

I guess the reason must just ultimately be legal.

by ABW (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 8:44pm

Carl, I think you are right on the money to bring up HIPPA and the CBA. If teams released more information than they are obligated to, aren't they potentially liable? If Shanahan had told the reporters that it was the right leg, and then in the next game that leg got targeted and the player got hurt, isn't there potential liability on the part of the team? Or if a team released information on a player's injury, and then negotiated an injury settlement with the player so that he was a free agent? The market for that player could be affected by what info the team released. Maybe these kinds of liability are covered under the CBA, but I don't know that. Maybe one of the more knowledgable guys around here knows.

IMO, releasing as little information as possible is the only thing that makes sense from a competitive and legal standpoint for the team, and I see no reason why any team would ever do more than that. If players want to release more information on their injuries because they feel their injuries are being portrayed inaccurately in the media, that's well within their rights as patients and they should feel free to do that, but I see no reason why any team would ever release more information because reporters are asking them to.

by Vern (not verified) :: Thu, 06/30/2005 - 9:05pm

This is yet another instance of the media whining because they have to work harder to do their jobs. This has been a sore spot in the whole NE media vs. Belichick battle. Nick Cafardo wrote yet another bit chastising the Pats for it just weeks back (linked on name, see "case disclosed" at bottom of article).

Of course, my thought was, if the media just stopped speculating on whether someone was tough since they don't even know the medical facts, then that would solve the problem too. The better writers already do this today.

Another note, the more you know about a specific injury they more you can predict what a player can or can't do when they return. For example, being more specific than "knee" could help a team figure out what type of cuts a reciever can or can't make, or for a QB's arm, what kinds of throws they can or can't make. I remember teams cheating up on Pennington last year because they knew his throws sailed due to his arm.

So keeping the opponents in the dark actually helps a player contribute more because all of their skills still have to be respected.

by Jim A (not verified) :: Fri, 07/01/2005 - 1:29am

A bigger issue, by the way, was the use of practice squads and IR to “hide� prospects for future play. The teams moved to close that loophole, too.

How was this loophole closed? It seems like every team has a couple young guys stashed on IR with injuries that are not usually considered season-ending. Rookies often have their injury "splits" (amount of salary paid if they get injured) negotiated directly into their their contracts. From the player's point of view, it's probably better than being cut, but it also restricts their ability to catch on with another team if their injury is not really serious but they are not yet good enough to stay on the 53-man roster.

by Jim A (not verified) :: Fri, 07/01/2005 - 1:34am

It's often stated the the reason for the official NFL injury reports is to reduce the incentive for gamblers hanging around the team looking for inside information. Anybody know when this policy was put into place? Were there any documented problems with gambling associations that motivated the league to take such action? Have the official reports been a success in this respect?

by Carl (not verified) :: Fri, 07/01/2005 - 12:07pm

HIPPA is pretty straight forward about what can be disclosed beyond the client and physician. In this case, team doctors are agents (or, in some people's minds, employees during medical malpractice torts) of the franchise. Their diagnoses cannot be shared with reporters (or anyone else) unless a waiver is signed by the injured player.

The NFLPA, in conjunction with the league's management and competition committees, have worked out an arrangement that allows teams to release weekly injury reports, during the practice schedule and before the games, that lists the affected body part ("Knee," "Back," "Arm," etc.), but doesn't get into in depth discussions about the exact ailment, the treatment for it or an expected time table for rehabilitation.

Believe it or not, the vast majority of team doctors base these P, Q, D or O rankings on an SF form that's submitted to the league, state labor agency (including workers' compensation boards) and OSHA/DOL as part of the reporting requirements on workplace injuries.

Many people see the "probable" ranking and fail to understand that it's still a serious injury. For players who start out as a "P," 91 percent will progress (or, regress) to more seriously graded Q, D or O rankings.

For the most unlucky, they find their way to the IR, which kicks in other CBA-mandated compensation requirements if said player is dumped.

ABW is exactly right about the legal ramifications of carelessly disclosing medical information. On the other hand, players and their appointed agents may communicate more detailed medical information to the press and, as I have found, will do so.

In fact, the one thing athletes understand is the consequences of injuries on their performance. Too many reporters -- but not ours because they are outstanding -- fail to understand this part of the game, which is a shame.

Players respect you more, and are more open, if you try to understand the very great pain they play with, the tortured health decisions they make to play this game, and their fears of future ailments because of their sacrifices today.

While I very much respect and read this columnist's work, in this case the statistical survey and understanding federal laws that go beyond the playing field, would have made for a more informed article, most likely with a different premise.

by Carl (not verified) :: Fri, 07/01/2005 - 2:46pm

By the way, there's an interesting study appearing today in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery.

Click on name for synopsis from Science Daily.

It's a study of precursor symptoms of hand degeneration among professional baseball catchers.

Some WRs have wondered whether they, too, are at risk of future problems because they catch a great many passes at very high velocity and with no protection for their hands and fingers.