Stat Analysis
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Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Guest Column by Jared Cohen

Tuesday, in the first part of this article, we looked at injury stoppage patterns during the 2014 season in an attempt to look for evidence of injury faking. What we saw was a suspicious pattern: defensive injury frequency tends to increase as offensive plays per game increase, and that's the only game situation in which there's a significant correlation.

But in only looking at 2014, there is potential for an outlier that's inconsistent with history. So I took the next step and brought in every regular-season game from 2010. That's a five-year run, and more than 3,100 injury stoppages. As noted in Part I, this data comes from play-by-play descriptions from every regular-season game.

The first thing we noticed in the 2014 data was the dramatic increase in injury stoppages as the game progresses (i.e., the fourth quarter sees twice as many injuries as the first). With our expanded data set, do we see the same pattern?

I would say that's consistent. But do we see the same pattern in terms of where the injuries occur? On the defensive side of the ball?

Again, consistency. Defenses suffer significantly more injuries as the game goes on, while offenses and special teams show a more consistent pattern.

So now, the big analysis -- breaking down injury frequency vs. number of plays by different game situations. Remember from Part I, I divided the game into four types of situation for injury:

1. While on offense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Offense)
2. While on defense, your own team suffers an injury (Own-Defense)
3. While on defense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Offense)
4. While on offense, your opponent suffers an injury (Opponent-Defense)

In each of these situations, we compare a teams' injury rate to the corresponding offensive or defensive plays per game. Below is the framework that I used, illustrating the relationships we looked for in terms of injury frequency vs. type of plays per game.

Across our five years of data, here are the correlations between injury rate and plays per game:

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Almost exactly as we saw in our initial 2014 analysis. There's a slight negative relationship between offensive plays per game and offensive injury frequency, which suggests that teams playing up-tempo offenses are more effectively conditioned/trained for it. There's seemingly no relationship whatsoever between defense injury frequency with defensive plays per game or offensive injury frequency and opposing defensive plays per game (so when offensive players run more plays because their opponent's defense is bad, they don't get injured more frequently).

But the correlation between opposing defensive injury frequency and offensive plays per game is 0.38, meaning there's a strong positive relationship between the number of offensive plays a team runs and the rate at which its opponents generate injury timeouts. Here is a scatter plot of all our observations (160 team-seasons):

What could have been an outlier in 2014 turns out not to be an outlier at all.

What's even more interesting is a quick look at the teams that had the highest rate of defensive injuries against between 2010-2014. Below is a list of the top 10, along with their respective rank in terms of offensive plays per game within our 160 team-season data set:

Offenses with Highest Rate of Defensive Injuries Against, 2010-2014
Year Team Offense Plays
Per Game
Rank Opposing
Defensive
Injury Rate
2013 NE 71.1 4 2.0%
2011 NE 67.6 22 1.9%
2010 ATL 68.6 12 1.8%
2014 PHI 70.4 5 1.7%
2014 IND 69.1 10 1.7%
2014 NYG 67.9 21 1.7%
2014 HOU 66.4 35 1.7%
2012 TB 63.0 99 1.6%
2013 DAL 59.8 148 1.6%
2014 DET 65.3 46 1.6%

It's kind of funny to think that of all the teams to potentially be victimized by fake injury gamesmanship, it would be the Belichick Patriots.

But what's also immediately noticeable is that four of the top 12 fastest offenses in terms of plays per game had some of the highest opposing injury frequencies. Each of those teams had almost 20 injury stoppages against their offense from opposing defenses in their respective season, when the average team in our sample had just under 10 a year.

Again, you can argue that this is because NFL defenses aren't in shape to face up-tempo offenses, and that means they get hurt more often. But if that's the case, why don't we see injury frequency increase with number of plays in any other situation? I think it's more likely that NFL defensive players are, at the margin, faking injuries against high-tempo offenses.

So what, if anything, do we do about it?

Solutions

Is there a way to address teams that fake injuries? There are certainly options, but some of them are impractical. The NHL has a penalty for diving, but you really can't ask NFL officials to diagnose injuries and try to penalize fakers. You could charge a team a timeout, which the NFL already does if an injury occurs in the last two minutes of a half. That's much easier than trying to penalize teams, but also provides incentive for coaches and players to hide injuries (also, what do you do in the case of a "Body Bag Game?")

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One idea I think might actually be workable is to tweak the NFL's current rule for injured players. As it stands today, an injured player who causes a stoppage has to miss at least one play. Well, if you want to eliminate fake injuries, you should raise the cost to those players for faking, and you can do that simply by making them sit out longer. What if, when a player is injured and causes an official stoppage, they must sit out not for just one play, but for the remainder of that series or until a change of possession?

Missing the rest of a series is more significant than missing just one play, but not nearly as extreme as missing the rest of the game, and is something that could balance the equation on faking injuries. It also dovetails nicely with the NFL's stated emphasis on player safety. (Interpret my use of the term "stated" as you will, based on your own level of cynicism.) If there are fake injuries happening, such an increase in missed time might be enough to keep anyone from acting hurt.

Some would argue that this isn't even a problem worth focusing on. But if fast-paced offenses gain greater acceptance in the NFL (which will happen if more of them succeed), the issue will only become more prominent (beyond the realm of the paranoid Eagles fan) and could materially impact the game.

Bonus: More Jevon Kearse All-Stars

In Tuesday's piece, I recognized players I call "Jevon Kearse All-Stars," after the ex-Eagles/Titans defensive end who always seemed to get injured in the middle of games. Just for fun, here's a look at the players whose in-game injuries forced the most timeouts over the entire five-year period studied above:

  • Ryan Clark, FS, PIT/WAS (16)
  • Branden Albert, LT, KC/MIA (15)
  • Kyle Arrington, CB, NE (14)
  • James Ihedigbo, SS, NYJ/NE/BAL/DET (13)
  • Rodger Saffold, T/G, STL (13)
  • Samson Satele, C, OAK/IND/MIA (11)
  • Vontaze Burfict, LB, CIN (11)

That's 11 injury stoppages for Burfict in just 37 games played. Ouch.

Jared Cohen is a contributor to EaglesRewind.com and the author of the book How I Got on Jeopardy…and Won. He can be reached on Twitter @jaredscohen.

Comments

25 comments, Last at 02 Apr 2015, 2:34pm

1 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Not surprised that teams are faking injuries against the Pats. Pats fans have had suspicions about this for a while. Another interesting thing about the data is that defensive injuries are more prevalent than offensive ones. So it is a better idea to spend your cap space on offensive players than defensive ones.

10 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Well, in the last couple of seasons it's happened vs. the Patriots at least twice, because the network has shown a replay of a defensive coach pointing and waiving at a defensive player standing on the field and then pointing excitedly at the ground. The player takes about two seconds to comprehend the message than comically collapses to the ground as if he were shot.

I don't think there's any doubt that it happens, it's just a matter of how often, and how well players can sell it.

11 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Interesting that I don't remember any Patriot neither basically admitting nor admitting anything like this.

I do know there is one somewhat controversial Willie McGinest injury against the Colts one game which was probably a stalling tactic -- and I think that's the game you mention. But I certainly don't remember a pattern of injuries -- real or faked -- in those classic Colts/Patriots games.

24 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

It was only in that game, the 2003 regular season game.

I believe it was Ty Law said that they were coached to go down if they felt anything when the Colts were running the no huddle, and that to use it as a stalling tactic.

I tried to find the quote but I can't.

I may be misremembering, but basic point is that no team is really immune from this type of behavior, or what seems like this type of behavior.

25 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

This does sound familiar to an admittedly biased Colts fan, but what I remember more clearly after the "Willie McGinnest game" is the kind of wink-wink player responses that were reported years later (and this may even be in the coverage you refer to) where a player is asked about an injury situation and they respond with a big grin and say "man that hurt" or "what injury?" You know how sarcasm doesn't come across well in print? If you read it straight it's nothing, but if you look for/pick up the insinuations, it's unprovable shabby gamesmanship.

4 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

But what's also immediately noticeable is that four of the top 12 fastest offenses in terms of plays per game had some of the highest opposing injury frequencies.

It's equally true that 4 of the top 20 fastest offenses are on the list.

The faking injury thing may not be as bad as you think. You have to be careful when picking a range that makes the result look the most extreme.

Still, it certainly looks like having a lot of offensive plays is correlated with injuries for the opposing defense. But is that cause or effect? And is play count a good proxy for fast play for most offenses? I thought high play counts were mostly about being efficient at getting first downs, or having a good defense to get the ball back for you.

5 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

To that last point, you could find the correlation between injuries per play for the defense and seconds between plays for the offense, if you believe seconds between plays is a better metric of speed than raw number of plays. I believe those two metrics are very highly correlated, though, so not sure you'd see a different result here.

3 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Is there a way to determine how many snaps an injured player missed in the play-by-play data? I don't think so, but if there were, you could determine how the share of injuries where the player missed only 1 play compared to missing >1 play changes as the offense's plays per game increases. If the share of injuries where only 1 play is missed goes up, that's more evidence for faking.

6 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Is there a way to address teams that fake injuries?

Correlation does not equal causation. There are very legitimate reasons that could cause more stoppages in play against an uptempo offense vs a standard tempo offense. A defensive player not seriously injured often will have time to get off the field against a deliberate offense but not an uptempo one. Are you checking for all players coming off the field injured? Probably not. In fact, those cases are often not accounted for in the play-by-play because it's not relevant to the play. The dinged player may not even want the offense to know he's not 100%. Also, uptempo offenses are designed to wear out less-conditioned defensive players which likely leads to more injuries.

I'm not saying players have never faked injuries. But you can't just jump from there is a correlation to accusing it outright. I seriously doubt this is a major problem, though it can feel that way when your team runs an uptempo offense.

7 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Does anyone else hate it's called the "Jevon Kearse All-Stars" and the author didn't even bother to confirm whether Kearse is guilty of this in any way? It's ripping off Bill Simmons' shtick, not just in the naming convention, but being the worst mix of cutesy, obnoxious and probably not even true.

8 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

How difficult would it be to break the injury rates up by positions groups (say front 7 and back 4 for defense, and QBs/WR-RB's-TE's/OL on offense). That could give us a bit more refined data.

12 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

I agree with all the correlation != causation comments, that I'm still not convinced this PROVES teams fake injuries to slow up tempo offenses.

However, I am equally convinced that teams DO fake injuries to slow up tempo offenses. It's something that gives an advantage (or rather, reduces the opponent's advantage) and is impossible to police, so why wouldn't a team do it?

What I'm still undecided about is whether it is something that needs fixing. The author's suggestion of making a player come out until the next change of possession is intriguing, but I'm worried that it might work against player safety--an important player who has a minor ding (or who is just really tired and needs a one-play break--and playing tired increases injury risk), that would normally ask them to step out for a play, will now be incentivized to hide the injury and try to tough it out, so they aren't forced to sit out for the rest of the series.

Two other suggestions. First, if a player injury on defense stops the game, the rest of the defense is not allowed to substitute for the next play unless the offense also substitutes. I.e., if the offense runs play A with a certain 11 guys, a defender get's injured and play has to stop, and then the offense goes to the huddle with the same 11 guys, the 10 uninjured defenders who were on the field for play A have to stay on the field for the next play. You could even stipulate that the player that replaces the injured player has to play the same position. This would prevent a defense from faking an injury to get a substitution opportunity if the up-tempo offense has caught them in an unfavorable matchup.

The other suggestion is that the injured player has to stay out until the offense next substitutes (or until the defense would next have the opportunity to substitute, e.g. at the 2 minute warning). This is a little less harsh than making him sit out till the next change of possession, but it allows the offense's tempo to keep a player who faked an injury out of the game.

16 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

I'll assume (hope) this is tongue-in-cheek. It would seem weird to award an offense that caused a real injury to a defender (say, with an illegal-but-unflagged cut block) by giving them an 11-on-10 play. And asking the officials to make important calls based on their ability to discern real from feigned is not a good place to go.

20 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Good thing this isn't the justice system. I'm willing to wrongly convict the .01% who actually have a spontaneous cramp at the most convenient time in order to put an end to this.

There are other solutions. The NHL has penalties, fines, and suspensions on the books for diving. It's trying to draw a penalty vs. trying to stop the clock, but it might work.

14 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

IDK. I'm not convinced. But even if it's true, is the difference enough to warrant action? Seems negligible. Still, if the league were inclined to act there are two options. Punish the defense/fakers. Or slow the tempo. Plays per game was always a steady 60 for a long time. Now its rapidly approaching 75-80 per game for a lot of clubs. That's what, the equivalent of ~4 extra games per season? And the league still wants to bump the sched to 18?

The O have enough advantages as it is. If the D has this, I can't get too worked up over it. If you tried to penalize ths legit injuries with the fake by blocking reentry into the game, players will try to play thru and risk themselves worse.

If they want to expand to 18, they needed to address up-tempo anyways

17 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Are teams more likely to be injured on running plays or passing plays? My guess is that defensive players are most often injured on passing plays, those plays involve more sudden changes of direction and unexpected collisions. In the 4th quarter teams are often passing more to catch up, hence more injuries.

22 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

What this topic really brings to light is how fundamentally important respecting the rules is for any game. A game is elevated when all players treat the rules, and their opponents, with respect. When a culture of doing whatever you can get away with becomes endemic, the game always suffers, and no refereeing nor rules changes can prevent that.

23 Re: Are Teams Faking Injuries? Part II

Not sure I agree. In every sport, always, players play to how the rules are enforced, not to what's officially on the rulebook. (And when someone, like Belichick, actually uses a rarely-known rule as it's written to get an advantage, we hear screams of how he did something unfair because it goes against the spirit of the game).

Should pitchers not use parts of the strike zone because technically, by the rules, they're not part of the strike zone, even though they're not called that way? Should a baserunner who knows that the tag was in time to get him declare himself out even if the umpire called him safe?

In the NFL, it's technically illegal for a pass rusher to swipe at or attempt to hit the QB's arm--but that's never enforced. Should all defensive ends refrain from attempting to cause sack-fumbles because they're technically not supposed to?

The shotgun snap, while technically legal, is an exploitation of a loophole of allowed formations put in to allow punts. It was not originally intended to be used on normal offensive plays. Would the game be better without shotgun snaps?

Maybe it would be better if, given how hard it is to prove someone was faking, we should just allow the defense to pause the action any time they way, but be forced to sub a player...