NFL Injuries, a Defining Look

Shatter the mold of traditional thinking about injuries and put these simple, high-yield techniques into practice. Learning and applying the strategies outlined herein will enable you to avoid unnecessary injury risks and in the long run, help you win more and improve your Fantasy Football record.

Most people play Fantasy Football to win. But, regardless of how serious you are about winning a Championship, despite how successful you’ve been in the past, independent of meticulous draft day preparation and connections for hard-to-find NFL news, on any given Sunday, showing no respect for your knowledge, Injuries can send you for a loss! Or worse, if not properly prepared, Injuries can cost you an entire season.

So what can be done? Aren’t injuries just part of the game? Mostly all luck? The dreaded random factor?

Certainly no one is safe and in the short-run, luck plays a role. Successful injury management requires the best news, practice notes and most timely injury report information available. Clearly, some of this information is subjective and so, injury management is part Art. However, in this article, I will attempt to highlight the Science behind NFL injury status. By applying historically proven principles and leveraging fact-based research, you can gain a competitive advantage over your fellow Fantasy Coach. 

You’ll hear other less informed owners whining about how their 1st round stud-RB went down to injury. Or, perhaps they’ll gripe because they can’t find a serviceable quarterback now that their QB is seeing stars. Leave the moaning and complaining to the less informed. To win, first learn the odds and then put them in your favor as often as possible. In short, minimize the luck factor, apply information, and go with the historical odds, not against them.

Below, I’ll provide fact-based research from 1,400 recent NFL games. In addition, I’ll show you a few (of many) ways to apply the information.

Folks, we’re talking about an optimal way to manage injuries. Remember, in the long run, true odds do win out. Through complex computer and statistical analysis of the game of football, probabilities have been derived. If you don’t believe an optimal way of playing exists and long-run odds provide insights, than no matter how much I go on about computers, statistics and probability, this information will be of lesser value to you. If you think hunches and random streaks are what winning is all about, all I can really say is ‘Good Luck!’

Almost daily, someone will tell me they know how to manage injuries to win at Fantasy Football. After I ask several questions, it turns out few know even the basics. This isn’t the stuff you get from watching a glitzy pre-game show.

If you’re serious about consistently winning at Fantasy Football, I’d suggest you periodically reference these concepts and look for new ways to apply this research. Think about how you can further exploit this material when working out trades, making start/bench decisions and picking up free agents.

From a Fantasy Football perspective, one of the worst situations to deal with is the dreaded ‘Questionable’ status. For some, having your player ruled ‘Out’ is often better than dealing with a truly ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ injury situation. In fact, if you have the injured player’s competent backup at your disposal, the ‘Out’ ruling is often rather manageable. The point is clear, everything else being equal, you want to avoid player’s that will show up as ‘Questionable’ and/or ‘Doubtful’ during the regular season.

 

Can you really predict injury risk based on the past? 

The answer is yes, but not with 100% accuracy. By employing several techniques, I’ll show you how to increase your odds of avoiding injury problems.

However, first I need to get you onboard with a very important principle. In fact, if you don’t get this principle, you won’t maximize your winning potential. To get the most out of this research, you will need to consistently apply the information. Please read the next few paragraphs as many times as needed until you’re in agreement. Otherwise, you’re only going to be learning a few interesting facts and figures. And, that’s not the goal here!

Predicting injury (and reduced Fantasy Football output) with 100% accuracy would be incredible; but it’s impossible. In addition, 99% accuracy isn’t realistic either. However, to gain a true competitive advantage over your fellow Fantasy Football owner, you don’t need spot-on accuracy.

Short term, a rather inept Fantasy Football owner could easily prevail over the best owners in the world. Why? Due to the fact that football results can vary greatly from expectation. And in the short run, they often do. The following illustration brings this all together.

Visualize a jar. It holds 100 marbles, some red and some white. If you select a red marble your Fantasy Player will score big that week; pick a white marble and your player stiffs. Many Fantasy Football owners, when faced with very hard decisions, use ‘gut feel.’ In essence, the uninformed owner is randomly picking from a jar holding 50 red (winning) and 50 white (losing) marbles. Without appropriate historical facts, they simply ‘win some and lose some.’ In the short run, this type owner could certainly pick 3 or 4 red (winning) marbles. When that happens, they walk away happy. Unfortunately for them, it just won’t last.

However, by applying the strategies outlined herein, you can avoid the 50-50 jar. In fact, armed with appropriate and historically proven information, the wise fantasy owner can gain an advantage. In this example, faced with that same hard ‘gut feel’ decision, the wise owner will not be forced into selecting from the 50-50 jar. Rather, the wise owner selects from a container holding more than 50 red (winning) marbles. The actual number of red marbles depends on the expected value derived from historical computer analysis. But, as long as it’s greater than 50, the wise owner has an advantage over his uninformed competitor.

The Key Takes: First, the uniformed ‘gut feel’ player will occasionally experience good fortune and select an excessively large number of red (winning) marbles. Second, the wise player, despite using historically proven computer analysis to make all the right moves, will at times experience down turns. However, if the wise player sticks with the historically proven execution and never deviates, in the long run, they will prevail. Finally, the wise player’s advantage need not be based on 100% accuracy. In fact, when faced with what looks to be a true flip of the coin decision, the accuracy need only be 51% to gain an advantage.

All that being said, it’s important to mention, what follows is not my advice on how to manage injuries. Rather, it’s the way to manage based on looking at thousands of NFL players - exhaustive review of years of NFL action.  As such, in the near future, many responsible NFL analysts and authors will likely provide similar information.

 

Injuries and Preparing for the Draft

As was already stated, for the prepared Fantasy owner, having a player ruled ‘Out’ in advance, can often be more desirable than dealing with the uncertainty of a ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ situation.

With this in mind, computer analysis was required to develop a historically valid predictor of the Number of Games an NFL player will appear as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ in the upcoming season. In addition, I commissioned the analysis so it would be concise, exact and yet offer a very powerful strategy.

After structuring the challenge, it became clear. Predicting the number of times an NFL player will appear ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ in the upcoming season involves many factors. In some cases, factors become circular. For example, everything else being equal, better players tend to get more playing time. The more time an NFL player spends in a game, the more likely he is to get hurt. The more likely he is to get hurt, the more likely he is to show up as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ or miss a game. The more games one sits out, the less time they spend on the field. The less time they spend on the field, the less likely they are to get injured and/or re-injured. As such, they have less of a chance to show up as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’. And I said I wanted to keep this concise?

Here’s the deal. After going over numerous structuring exercises like the one above and employing advanced segmentation software (CHAID analysis), we were able to develop three simple yet generally encompassing decision rules to capture most complex situations. The idea was to keep this as simple as possible, but no simpler than that. The upshot to structuring the computer analysis revolves around the basic truth that the more an NFL player competes, the more likely they are to get hurt and end up ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful.’ Exactly how I derived and validated these rules is not in the scope of this offering (this quickly becomes a very statistical issue). What really counts is how good these strategies are at helping you avoid ‘Questionable’ and/or ‘Doubtful’ injury status situations. That’s the bottom line. I’d be the first to agree these guidelines aren’t absolute. However, based on how drastically these rules improve odds (in some cases by more than 200%), I think its safe to say, they add value. The following guidelines apply to QBs, RBs, WRs and TEs.

 

Segment #1: Long Live the Iron-man! 

Players that started 14 or more regular season games in the prior year and never appeared as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ will show up ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ 61% less often than all other players starting 14 or more games the prior season. Everything else being equal, you want to aggressively seek out and draft players that started 14 or more games last season and were never listed as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful.’

 

Segment #2: You’ve Been Warned! 

If a player started between 9 and 13 games last year and appeared ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ two or more times, you should expect trouble the following season. In fact, players with multiple ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ listings, in a season in which they only started between 9 and 13 games, are 232% more likely to appear as ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ in the upcoming season than the average NFL player. Coach Dick Vermeil is fond of saying the NFL implies Not For Long. If a player falls into the 9-13 (2+) category that often spells problems and despite how good their prior accomplishments, the torch may be getting passed. Devalue accordingly and draft with caution.

 

Segment #3: Keep Up Your Guard! 

Players falling into this segment often draw less fantasy interest at the beginning of the season. But not always, so be sure you don’t get caught off guard. Here, you want to avoid players that started in 8 or fewer games last season and appeared ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ multiple times. These players tend to be really banged up and/or small in stature. In any case, on average they will appear ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ 196% more often in the upcoming season than similar players that managed to avoid multiple injury report listing the prior year.

 

A few side notes:

#1) On draft day, if faced with a virtual toss-up between drafting an individual player or a team defense, consider drafting the defense. Certainly the entire defense won’t end up on the IR list. In addition, this can be especially effective late in the draft. Historically, defenses have been hard to gauge before the start of the season. The chance of obtaining a top tier defense late in the draft is much better than predicting which journeyman wide receiver might suddenly have a breakout year.

#2) Over the past several years, the Tennessee Titans have consistently avoided classifying players as ‘Probable.’ Frankly, when a player is ‘Probable’, more often then not, Coach Fisher submits the player as ‘Questionable.’ As such, almost all injured Titan players end up on the official injury report as ‘Questionable.’ Given this, the above segmentation rules need to be applied with care when considering a Titan player.

#3) To monitor a player's cumulative injury status, be sure to visit the 4for4.com Cumulative Injury Report. In season, this report is updated weekly.

 

Regular Season - Expected Value, Recent Injury

Fantasy Football owners often focus on their player’s health and playing status for the upcoming week. And with good reason! You certainly want to know if your player is hurt this week and if he’s going to play this Sunday. However, as you are about to see, this is only part of the equation.

Let’s suppose draft day has come and gone. It was a classic. On draft day, you craftily avoided several injury time bombs and had some outstanding value picks along the way. Your team is all set. In addition, you got a chuckle as one of the other owners drafted three players (in rounds 1, 2 and 3) from the high-risk ‘You’ve Been Warned’ injury segment.

Life is good and a number of weeks pass. But then, out of the blue, one of your key iron-man players shows up on the official NFL injury report. At first you’re disappointed, but you remember you can’t always pick a red (winning) marble, even when the odds are in your favor. However, this raises a few questions.

On average, does just one appearance on the official NFL injury report signal a possible decrease in Fantasy Football output for the remainder of the season? In other words, if a starting NFL player has been ‘healthy’ this season (never been listed as Probable, Questionable, Doubtful or Out) and then suddenly shows up Probable, Questionable or Doubtful for the upcoming week, what should you expect from this player during the rest of the season?

To address this issue, over 1,400 regular season NFL games were examined and we focused on NFL starters. To facilitate comparisons, we used the following Fantasy Scoring System: 1 point per 10 yards rushing or receiving, 6 points for each rushing or receiving TD, 1 point per 25 yards passing, and 6 points per passing TD.

In the process, we exhaustively found every occurrence from 1995 to 2000, when an NFL starter enjoyed good health and then appeared on the NFL injury report. ‘Before Injury’ simply refers to all regular season games before the player appeared on the injury report. Likewise, ‘After Injury’ reflects all games after the injury was officially announced.

Next, we carefully identified, examined and compared ‘Before Injury’ and ‘After Injury’ Fantasy production for almost 500 NFL starters.

Some amazing and useful things started to crystallize. Clear as day, player production decreased 60% of the time in the ‘After Period.’ That means you can actually use the official NFL injury report as a partial leading indicator for the rest of the season.

If a starting NFL player is listed as ‘Probable’ (football related injury), ‘Questionable’ or ‘Doubtful’ just once, that’s not a good sign. Based on hundreds upon hundreds of occurrences, you can expect a decrease in Fantasy Football production relative to what that player had achieved earlier in the season.

Within a given season, on average, you should expect a 15% decrease in Fantasy Football production among NFL starters after their first appearance on the official NFL injury report. By position, expected decrease is as follows.

 

Rest of Season, Expected Decrease 
(after being listed on NFL Injury Report)

Position

Expected
Decrease

QB -14.5%
RB -11.0%
WR, TE -17.7%

 

 

There are several points to be made here.

First, recalibrate your expectations after a player appears on the injury report. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this player will keep trucking along despite the announced injury. If you do, you’re going against the odds! Also, don’t assume that after your player has supposedly ‘completely recovered’, his production will return to ‘Before Injury’ levels. Perhaps it might, however the facts show, on average, he’s not going to deliver as much as he did before the injury.

Next, don’t overreact! If your ‘A-game’ stud receiver shows up ‘Questionable’ one week, expect a decrease in his production the rest of the regular season. However, 85% of a high-end player’s output is often still top-rate.

Finally, be sure to take full advantage of the fact that you have a proven leading indicator, explore a trade. As soon as your player appears on the official injury report, flag him and look for another owner’s player. The other owner’s player should be equal in value to your player before he was reported as injured. After several weeks, assuming your guy is still playing and the other owner’s player has avoided the injury report, pull the trade! Most owners will almost completely disregard the fact that your player was ‘Questionable’ several weeks ago. However, you know, on average, his production will drop by 15%. In addition, if the two players in the trade were truly of equal value prior to the injury announcement, then everything else being equal, you have a 60% chance of winning the trade.

Some might ask why trade if you ‘only’ have a 60% chance of winning. Certainly, we’d all like more. However that’s the point. Unless you victimize a clueless owner, you’re not typically going to be able to get away with highway robbery; the other owner wants a good deal as well. To properly consider 60%, consider the long run!

In Fantasy Football, the more you go with the odds, the more likely you’ll walk away a winner. In the case of doing a trade based on a historically proven leading indicator, the more trades you make, the closer your results will be to the expected return. Several of my statistician friends call this the ‘Law of Large Numbers.’ The long run power of having a 60% likelihood of winning a single trade is illustrated below.

 

Long Run Probability of Improvement 
(given a 60% chance of winning each trade)

Total 
Number
of Trades
Overall
Chance of
Winning
1 60%
10 78%
25 81%
100 93%

 

 

The table points out that if you make 100 different Fantasy Football trades, and have a 60% chance of winning each trade, the likelihood that you will have improved, as a result of all 100 trades, is 93%. Finding anything in Fantasy Football with a 93% chance of success is a winning habit you need to take advantage of.

Now I realize, unless you’re a very busy trader and participate in several dozen leagues, you won’t be making 100 trades this season. Don’t worry! The idea here is that over a period of time, and perhaps a number of leagues, you’ll work your way into the long run. In the end, you’ll have been a better owner 93% of the time as a result of ‘grinding out’ a 60% tactic. I’ve seen this principle work for many successful Fantasy Football owners. In the long run, it simply works!

One final thought for those of you thinking just one appearance on the official injury report can’t possibly signal a decrease in a player’s rest-of-season output. First, realize the burden of proof is on you. Exhaustive computer analysis of every starting NFL player shows it’s a fact. Saying you can expect a decrease in Fantasy Football production after a player appears on the injury report, just once, is like saying you expect a fair coin to yield a similar number of heads and tails after you flip it 500 times.

To continue the argument, and reinforce the value of properly using the NFL injury report, consider this thought.

Would you want to by a used car if you knew it was in an accident? I didn’t think so. What if the salesperson told us the car’s alignment was ‘Questionable’ and now it’s fine? Even if we knew the salesperson was telling the truth, I’d still be reluctant. For one thing, the accident could have weakened or jarred something else in the car. Folks, a vehicle is made of steel, but no matter how strong and well conditioned, NFL players are only human. Often, Fantasy Football owners fall into the trap of thinking ‘it’s only a groin pull.’ Injuries and time take a toll on athletes. The human body is not fully resilient. This applies to almost all sports injuries, even if they appear independent and have been spaced over time. In doing this research, I found many respected medical professionals (Sports Medicine, General Practice, etc.) share this opinion.

 

A brief anecdote --- A former veteran NFL coach, whose name I won’t mention, occasionally used the injury report as a complete smoke screen. In one situation, this particular coach had two excellent veteran QBs at his disposal. His starter was doing well, especially by Fantasy Football standards. However, the coach really favored the backup. But, since the starter was the incumbent and had an outstanding season the prior year, this coach didn’t want to be the ‘genius’ that benched the team’s winning QB. So what did he do? He shrewdly reported his starting QB had a health issue (in fact, I know it was truly rather minor). However, several weeks later, the Head Coach cited the injury as the reason for pulling the starter. If the backup didn’t get the job done, guess what, the original starter’s injury would have magically turned into a non-issue. This wise and fairly ruthless veteran Head Coach covered all the bases, including covering his own butt! For the casual observer, it appeared the injury triggered the benching. Now, regardless of outcome, this foxy old coach came out unchallenged. Albeit in a rather unusual way, injury status yet again properly predicted a decrease in player production.

Next, I’ll address what typically happens the week a player is listed as ‘Questionable.’ Here, we focused on all QB, RB, and WR listed as ‘Questionable’ in a given week. We removed all other players from the analysis. Also, if two weeks prior to being listed as ‘Questionable’, the player was listed on the NFL injury report, we removed him from this analysis. This process provided us with 175 players to analyze (32 QBs, 61 RBs and 82 WRs). Now, we examined how the 175 players performed the week they were listed as ‘Questionable.’ For the quarterbacks, we tallied how many TD passes they threw and how many passing yards they gained. For the RBs and WRs, we tallied total yards gained from scrimmage and total TDs.

 

Table I: Production of 175 NFL Players listed as "Questionable"

Position n= Passing
TDs
Passing
Yards
Yards from
Scrimmage
TDs
QB 32 27 6,384 - -
RB 61 - - 2,543 15
WR 82 -   2.608 17

 

Next, we determined what these 175 players usually produce (when they’re NOT listed on the official NFL Injury report). We went back to each of the 175 players and reviewed their performance two weeks prior to being listed as ‘Questionable.’ Recall, in these prior games, all 175 players did not appear on the official NFL Injury report. The results are again summarized below.

 

Table II: Production Summary for the 175 Players 
when they  DID NOT appear on the NFL Injury Report

Position n= Passing
TDs
Passing
Yards
Yards from
Scrimmage
TDs
QB 32 37 6,545 - -
RB 62 - - 3,872 29
WR 82 - - 4,160 34

 

What are the two tables of data telling us? As you might expect, everything else being equal, NFL players, on average, do indeed perform better when ‘healthy.’ What do you know, those injury reports actually contain a degree of truth in them after all! In fact, by utilizing the two analysis tables above, we can quantify the expected decrease. Here are a few rules of thumb:

#1) When a QB is listed as ‘Questionable’ expect a 25-30% decrease in his TD passing production that week. But expect only a 2-5% drop from his usual passing yardage.

#2) If an RB is listed as ‘Questionable’, plan on a 45-50% decrease from his normal TD production. Also, count on a 30-35% drop in yardage.

#3) If a WR is ‘Questionable’, you can also plan on a 45-50% drop in TD production. In addition, plan for 35-40% fewer yards than normal.

In doing this research, we found a number of exceptions to the three guidelines above. But, as you can see, in each and every statistical category, we found a clear decrease in performance when a player goes from ‘healthy’ to ‘Questionable.’ As such, I suggest you use this information as a guidepost when the NFL distributes their Official Injury Report on Wednesday evening. 

 

The Role of Updated Injury Information

By Friday evening, after examining how a player practices and/or how the coaching/training staff addresses the issue, we usually have a very good idea on just how ‘Questionable’ a player is that given week. These insights and related information are always posted here at 4for4.com. This "soft" information is critical to fully evaluating your player's health that week. While the three guidelines formed above certainly apply (overall), you must also fully leverage specific injury updates and late week rankings to maximize all "hard" and "soft" information.

In closing, I’d ask you to think about the research, techniques and guidelines presented here and consider your Fantasy Football situation. Then, when appropriate, put this research into action. In general, outside of this guide, little viable and quantifiable research exists on this topic. As such, being able to apply just a few of these techniques can often result in a competitive advantage.