Sometimes it seems like the NFL Competition Committee has too much time on its hands and makes decisions based on little more than they have the power to do it.
On Sunday, ESPN reported that the NFL will be modifying the weekly injury reports teams submit every week they play during the regular season, eliminating the designation of probable, because probable had been worded as a virtual certainty to play.
Where the issue comes in is the origin of the injury report to begin with.
As with many sports rules, their roots are based in gambling. In the post-World War II era, the NFL enjoyed a resurgence as young 20-somethings returned from the war and the game thrived.
There was also an unprecedented growth in the rise of organized crime and one of the outlets mobsters took was a bigger hold on gambling. Sports betting has always been popular, but the renegade NFL of the 1940s was more easily infiltrated than baseball, which went through its own gambling scandal three decades earlier.
As the story goes, a pair of New York Giants players were approached to fix the 1946 NFL Championship Game. The plot got uncovered and the players got suspended, but NFL Commissioner Bert Bell felt the influence that known criminal elements had on teams – knowing what injured players likely wouldn’t play on Sunday when the general public didn’t – and the best way to keep teams honest was to list on the Friday before games who would and wouldn’t be playing.
That list got modified over the years to define the injuries and probability of playing – probable, questionable, doubtful and out. The problem then was that teams weren’t always telling the truth.
Teams would routinely list players as being questionable when they were fully confident they were going to play. It came to a head in 2006 when rival coaches Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy were preparing to meet one another in a huge midseason game.
Between the two of them, they listed 36 players as being questionable and almost all of them played. For five years, Belichick listed Tom Brady on the injury report with “throwing shoulder” as the problem. As a way to react to prevent that from continuing, teams were required to come up with daily practice listings from Wednesdays to Fridays (for Sunday games). Players would be listed as full, limited or non-participants in practice – the most accurate way of knowing whether a team is resting players or they are legitimately injured.
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The league is still going to keep its practice reporting designation and the Friday injury report. The only difference is that the three designations now will be “questionable,” “doubtful” and “out.”
The only question now is will coaches continue to abuse the injury report to their own benefit? For the sake of disclosure, the Minnesota Vikings have been organizationally consistent in their listing of players. For the most part, if a player didn’t practice, he didn’t play, and those listed as doubtful typically didn’t either. Although it should be noted that when the Metrodome roof collapsed, Brett Favre went from “out” to starting.
The league will attempt to maintain some policing. According to the verbiage of the changes, if teams don’t list injured players as being questionable or doubtful and they are deactivated on game day, there are disciplinary steps in place.
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Perhaps eliminating the probable designation made sense, because, according to league research, in recent years 95 percent of players listed as probable actually played.
Perhaps what should be asked is what teams were responsible for the one in 20 players listed as probable that didn’t end up playing.
In a league of secrecy where discussing injuries has always been strongly discouraged, eliminating one of the injury designations likely won’t change things all that much. There’s a way to work the numbers on limited and full practice participation and some teams list players as questionable that they already know will or won’t play.
It’s just part of doing business in the NFL. Follow the rules, but push them when you can. Just don’t get caught.