In theory, the NFL Injury Reports should be one of the most helpful football handicapping tools there is. Every team in the league is mandated by the NFL to report all of their injuries to the league and the media. The reports are due on Friday for Sunday games, and are updated on Saturday. In 2004 they were further improved to include participation in practice, with those reports being filed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The injury reports have been in existence since 1947 when Commissioner Bert Bell implemented them to eliminate an opportunity for inside information after a football game fixing scandal the previous season. Teams are watched closely and fined if they don’t file proper reports. Sounds great, doesn’t it? These reports should be useful for sports handicappers in a number of ways. For example:
- To let you know if a key contributor – a starting left tackle, or a defensive end that sets the tone for the defense – is going to be out or is going to be at less than full strength. Handicappers can have a better sense than the public about the impact of non-marquee positions, and could therefore gain an edge in these situations.
- If a big name QB, running back, or wide receiver is listed on the report then the public is likely to go crazy. If you perceive that the injury isn’t as significant as it could be then you could sense that the public has overcompensated for the injury, and you could find value by betting on the football team as if the player wasn’t impacted.
- Second string players that are injured and out of action won’t catch the eye of the public, but if you know that a team tends to use their bench regularly during the game then you’ll know that this is more important than it seems, and than the public realizes. The sports betting public won’t often realize, for example, that teams with a stud running back often still rely heavily on the backup to contribute to the offense.
That all sounds great, but there is just one problem with it – the reports aren’t worth the paper that they are printed on. You just can’t trust them. Among the reasons:
- They are ridiculously subjective. There are four levels of injuries that can be reported. Probable means that the player has a better than 50 percent chance of playing. Questionable means that the player has a 50-50 chance of playing. Doubtful means that the chance is about 75 percent that the player will be out. Out just means that they won’t be playing. The problem is that those definitions are open to interpretation by the teams. What’s probable for one team will be doubtful for another. Under Floyd Reese, for example, the Titans virtually never listed a player as doubtful – even though every other NFL team did. Reese is old school, and he didn’t want his opponents to think the players were more injured than they were. Subjectivity robs the reports of meaning.
- Inconsistent reporting. Some teams go crazy and include too many players. In order to obscure injuries they will list every bum and bruise. The Patriots are the worst for this – Tom Brady will be listed as Probable virtually every week, but he just keeps playing. It’s not uncommon for the Pats to list 30 players on the report. On the other hand, some teams just hate using the report and won’t list anyone they don’t have to. Bill Parcells famously loathes the report, and it was far more common to see his teams with no listed injuries than for any other coach. Obviously it’s not a case that Parcells is dramatically better at keeping his team healthy than Bill Belichick, so the integrity of the report must be questioned.
- Teams know that they are questionable. Only rarely will a football team alter their preparations because of what their opponents’ injury report says – and then only if the report has been corroborated by additional media coverage. If they aren’t significantly changing the actions of teams then it would be dangerous for handicappers to let them significantly alter their approach to the games.
- The punishment for violations often isn’t timely. When Brett Favre was with the Jets he was struggling with an ankle injury, and it seemed like he may miss a game. It was probably the closest his streak had come to ending. Despite that he didn’t show up on the injury report – not even as probable. The league took exception to that, fining the team $75,000 and the head coach and GM $25,000 each. The problem, though, was that the fines didn’t happen until well after the NFL season was over. Coach Eric Mangini had been fired and hired by the Browns already. It was a toothless punishment that did nothing to ensure future compliance, and didn’t change the fact that according to the official report Favre wasn’t nearly as hurt as he actually was.
- Teams will look to use them to their advantage. Bill Cowher is a perfect example here. After he left the Steelers he admitted that though he always put players on the report, he didn’t always accurately report their injuries. If they had an ankle injury, for example, he might report that it was a knee problem so that the opponents couldn’t target the injured part. It’s hard to properly compensate for what the injury report says if you can’t trust that the injury listed is accurate.
So, in the face of all of these problems, how do you deal with in Injury Report. These three things will help:
- Use it as a guide. There are a couple of things NFL bettors can learn from the report. For example, about 90 percent of payers listed as probable end up playing, so you rarely need to worry if that’s where a player winds up. On the other hand, only about three percent of players listed as doubtful play, so if you see a player there you can probably safely plan to be without them.
- Rely more on the practice reports. It can be more significant if a football player misses two or three days of practice than if they are on the injury report. You have to be careful here, though, because veterans are very capable of missing practice and still playing at a high level in games.
- Don’t panic. Injuries often aren’t as significant as they seem, and they will almost always be overcompensated for by the betting public. There are few players that can’t be replaced reasonably well by a team – at least in the short term. If inaccuracies in the injury report are causing you a lot of headaches in your NFL handicapping and causing you to second guess solid football picks then you are probably giving injures far too much credit.