How to interpret new injury report language

Will teams continue to lack transparency under the NFL's new approach to the injury report? Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

'Tis the season. Football is upon us once again.

Just as the real NFL games begin in earnest Thursday night, fantasy football enthusiasts will be watching their draftees – or those of their opponents -- rack up points. Before the games begin, every fantasy owner’s goal is to post the best possible lineup, taking into consideration skill, matchups, home field advantage, weather and anything else that could possibly influence a particular player's ability to perform on any given night.

But one element plays a greater role than perhaps all others combined. That, of course, is injuries. Anyone who has played an ounce of fantasy football knows lineup decisions are dependent upon the pregame injury reports teams are required to submit to the league office in advance of every game.

This year, however, there is a new wrinkle. The language in the pregame reports has changed. Based on recommendations from the NFL Competition Committee, the league has removed one category from the game status portion of the injury report and altered the definitions of others.

There are two key changes:

The "Probable" tag no longer exists

Probable was formerly used to designate players who were expected to play. If a “probable” player was a surprise inactive, the team had to be prepared to explain why his status changed. The Competition Committee’s rationale for doing away with the probable designation was that in past years, approximately 95 percent of players labeled as probable ended up playing on game day. One could argue however that the overwhelming number of players who did, in fact, play after being listed as probable on the game status report indicates teams were properly utilizing the designation. Theoretically, the game status report will be streamlined since those players who would have been listed as probable will no longer appear on the report; they will be presumed to be available and active at game time.

"Questionable" has a different definition

Formerly, the term "questionable" indicated a player had a 50-50 chance of suiting up on game day. According to the revised language recommended by the Competition Committee, questionable now means "uncertain" to play. But what does uncertain look like? It seems a fair question. Uncertainty for a team could mean "we really don't know when we file the report with the league office whether this player will indeed be healthy enough to play in two days." But teams could also make the case for the following interpretation: "We think he's got a good chance to play, but we really can’t be certain, two days in advance. In both cases, the result could be a designation of questionable. The former interpretation is how the new language appears intended to guide teams. It’s hard to find literal fault with the latter interpretation, however, given the nuances of individual injury situations combined with the vague nature of the language.

"Doubtful" also has been revised

While the term “doubtful” used to reflect a 75 percent chance a player would sit out a game, it now means the player is unlikely to participate. This change appears as if it will have very little impact. Most players previously listed as doubtful did not play, and the revised language will not likely alter the result.

Will the modifications of the game status section of team injury reports add confusion or clarity? The answer likely depends on how teams choose to proceed, something that does not bode well for fantasy owners trying to interpret those reports. Some teams have always been more transparent than others when it comes to providing information related to injuries, often a reflection of the philosophy of the coaching staff. Why should anyone expect that to change, especially when the revised language appears to provide more latitude in the realm of “uncertainty” regarding a player’s status?

The league could find itself in a difficult position when trying to determine whether teams are utilizing the questionable tag as intended. Some scenarios might be obvious enough to raise a flag. For instance, if an athlete appears on the practice injury report throughout the week but takes his full complement of reps daily (a justifiable situation as all athletes who are receiving treatment for an injury are to be listed, even if taking all reps in practice), it would be somewhat surprising for him to be labeled as questionable. This is a situation in previous years where the athlete likely would have been listed as probable heading into game day. Now, with the probable tag removed, the expectation would be that the athlete in this scenario would not appear on the game status injury report. Still, could a team not make the case that despite the athlete practicing well, the nature of the injury makes his status “uncertain,” and therefore designate him as questionable?

The first few weeks of the NFL regular season will serve as the litmus test for this new game status report language. There is likely going to be some initial confusion for teams and for fans, which is to be expected until everyone gains familiarity with the new definitions. In an ideal world, with time would come increased clarity. Unfortunately, if some teams are determined to remain more “uncertain” than others about the status of their players, there will be more question marks, not fewer, when it comes to the pregame injury reports.