From Fixer Deterrent to Fantasy Lure: The History of the NFL Injury Report
Initially intended as a no-spin-zone, where injuries were out in the open so all fans—and, yes, bettors—felt comfortable they were watching an unadulterated game of pigskin, the NFL injury report has morphed into something far murkier.
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No league is impacted by injuries quite like the NFL. The litany of injuries has an effect on fans, who can rarely glom onto the career of one particular player, forced instead to give their soul to the nebulous "franchise" nearest where they happen to live. But it has an even greater effect on those with money in the game: the gamblers and the fantasy sports players who spend billions of dollars a year. This is why the NFL injury report is, and has been, one of the most important data collections in the entirety of sports.
The report, not surprisingly, has its foundation in a gambling scandal. The night before the 1946 NFL Championship between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants, commissioner Bert Bell got word that two Giants—Frank Filchock, the starting QB, and Merle Hapes, the backup fullback—had been offered bribes to throw the game. By then, rumors had spread through the betting underworld, whittling a 10-point spread for a Bears win down to 7.5 as everyone learned the fix was in. Bell responded to the late night fiasco by removing Filchock and Hapes from the game, further mussing the line, until reconsidering and allowing Filchock to play, mussing things up again. The end result was a Bears 24-14 win against a 13-point spread, a confusion of the gambling market that resulted in the country's bookies taking, as the Chicago Tribune put it, "a sound beating."
Afterwards, hoping to control the damage, Bell began to confront actions he found "detrimental to the league." This meant everything from sticking former G-men on the league payroll to spy on teams and lurk in the shadows of smoky gambling dens, to penning a Saturday Evening Post op-ed titled "Do the Gamblers Make a Sucker Out of You?" (To give a sense of Bell's position, the op-ed opens by comparing unconfirmed reports of enemy nations with poison gas during WWII to rumor-mongering in the NFL).
But Bell's most lasting contribution was introducing the rule that all teams "provide fully and completely accurate information about every player's availability." So began the life of the NFL Injury Report.
The current iteration has three different sections: one about participation in practice, one about players statuses for the game, and one about "in-game" injuries. The in-game section is fodder for broadcasters and viewers-at-home, while practice reports are benign pieces of fluff with no real significance, as banged-up players regularly rest their bodies after Week 1. (The league office, however, randomly reviews team practice footage to make sure everything is on the up and up.) It's that middle chunk—whether a player is actually going to play or not—that's the hot shit.
The report has been tweaked over the years, but this season ushered in the most significant change in nearly 70 years. Before, a player could appear on the report with one of four designations: "out," "doubtful," "questionable," and "probable." (If you're not on the report, you're good to go.) This season, however, the NFL removed "probable" as an option, which was used to signify a "virtual certainty" the player was available "for normal duty." The result is a football landscape that is far trickier for outside observers to predict.
One group remains relatively unaffected by the change, however: Vegas oddsmakers, who utilize the injury report differently from the way you might assume.
"One of the misconceptions is that oddsmakers are trying to predict what the final margin of the game will be," says Jon Campbell, the sports analyst for OddsShark, a website that analyzes gambling odds and trends. "That's not what they're doing. They're trying to predict what the public will think that margin will be."
The difference is subtle, yet important. If a quarterback gets injured, of course there's going to be a change in how the upcoming game is perceived. But if a star wide receiver goes down? Not necessarily.
"What people overlook is that Vegas has better injury information than what's available to everyone else," says Campbell, straight from beat reporters and other sources close to teams. "Injuries are already factored into the line by the time bettors see the line. The market may move the line from there based on perception."
Vegas oddsmakers are essentially using their own injury reports to create the "true" line, then tweaking based on what information the public has through the injury report. Something like, "that guy's definitely not playing, but he's listed at 'questionable,' meaning the public thinks he may play, so let's gut these suckers accordingly."
In fact, after the quarterback, the second most important position in the football gambling world isn't the receiver, or running back, or tight end, no matter how much your fantasy team depends on their numbers. It's the starting center, you know, that person in charge of the crew that allows the offense to function at all and has no place in fantasy sports. It's this disconnect between the stat-based lens of fantasy and the points-based lens of gambling that's resulted in more than a few fantasy mavens taking a bath when trying to bet lines. But it's the rising impact of fantasy—that is to say, the shift in how fans interact with the sport—that has, perhaps, led to the NFL Injury Report's recent change.
The NFL said it removed the "probable" tag since roughly 95 percent of those players played anyway, but rumors in the fantasy landscape hint at a more insidious reason: that the league is hoping the added uncertainty will keep fantasy owners further glued to injury-related news throughout the week. Having more eyes on league-owned properties like the NFL Network or NFL.com, or even just building up ancillary interest in the game, only further hypes the big performances Thursday through Monday. It's the sports equivalent of a Chris Hardwick talk show about what just happened, and anticipating what's next, on AMC's latest hit series.
"When you saw it was 'probable,' it was almost a certainty he was going to play," says Campbell. "Now you really have to dig in to see what [questionable] means." Intended or not, the removal of the "probable" tag has had an effect on fantasy sports handicappers.
"It's made life worse, I'll tell you that," says Matt Camp, fantasy football analyst for Bleacher Report and host on SiriusXM's Fantasy Sports Radio. "When I'd see a guy 'probable,' he's playing. If you had a hiccup, you'd be on the injury report. But this year, it's legitimately up in the air."
(Coaches don't clarify matters. They tend to only allow the most obvious injury information to pass from their lips to the beat reporters, so unless someone has a season-ender, they're thrown into the "questionable" stew. "Most coaches think it's within the rights of gamesmanship to try to hide injury information," says Dave Richard, a fantasy football columnist for CBS Sports. "Pete Carroll is a well-known liar, Bill Belichick doesn't even entertain injury questions.")
It all puts the NFL injury report in a strange spot. Initially intended as a no-spin-zone, where injuries were out in the open so all fans—and, yes, bettors—felt comfortable they were watching an unadulterated game of pigskin, the report has morphed into something far murkier. Coaches gonna coach, and try to keep whatever competitive advantage they believe they're getting from their empty calorie press conferences. But the newly huge net of "questionable" has created a swirling vortex of confusion and shrugs.
There's still good information out there if one knows where to look, but the days of the official NFL injury report as a legitimate source has gone the way of leather helmets and two-way players. Rather, the league's decimation of injury information has come full circle, back to when the only folks who really knew what the fuck was going on any given week was the gamblers.
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