The New England Patriots say star quarterback Tom Brady has had a sore right shoulder — for more than 2½ seasons. Asked recently about his ailing joint, Brady all but smirked. "It's feeling good," he said, but "I'm sure it will show up on the injury report."
Just as it has every week since the start of the 2005 season, giving the two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player another distinction: He's the only NFL player who has been on the league's official injury report before every game during that time, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
The remarks by Brady — who has started 104 consecutive regular-season games, dating from Sept. 30, 2001 — reflect a not-so-hidden fact about the inner workings of the NFL. The injury list, designed 60 years ago in part to prevent gambling interests from getting inside information on players' health, has become the focus of so much gamesmanship that coaches and teams put little stock in it.
Media outlets (including USA TODAY) make the NFL's injury list a staple of their coverage, but many teams aim to meet the league's reporting requirements while offering as little meaningful information as possible to their foes. Some teams (the Patriots and the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, for example) have done so by reporting every little nick to a player, making it difficult to tell who's really hurt.
"If you want to be real technical about it," former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson says of the injury report, "you could list the majority of your team," because in a sport as violent as pro football, nearly all players "have something that's not 100%."
Meanwhile, other teams — in recent years, the Cowboys under former coach Bill Parcells, for example — hardly list anyone as injured unless they are totally unable to play.
Then there are teams that have used sleight of hand in reporting injuries.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who resigned last January after 15 seasons with the team, acknowledges telling a fib or two to try to protect his players.
"Sometimes when a guy had an ankle (injury), I might list it as a knee, just because I didn't want people knowing where to take shots at my players," Cowher says.
On the Patriots' injury list, Brady has been listed as "probable" every week except one, late in the 2005 season, when he was listed as questionable. Under NFL guidelines, that means having a better than 50% chance of playing. Players listed as "questionable" are 50-50, "doubtful" means a 75% chance of not playing and "out" means just that.
That's the idea, anyway.
Teams can be fined for providing false information on their injury report, but such fines are rare. During the past 10 years, the NFL has fined 13 teams for such violations. The most recent fine was last year, says league spokesman Greg Aiello, who declined to identify the team, its actions or the amount it was fined.
Aiello does say that fines for injury reporting violations have ranged from $5,000 to $25,000. He says the last team to be fined $25,000 was the Denver Broncos, who were penalized in 1999 for failing to make a "timely and full disclosure" of a hip injury that quarterback Bubby Brister suffered in practice two days before a game.
Besides Brady's injury-list streak, USA TODAY's analysis of nearly 9,400 entries to the NFL's injury list since the start of the 2005 season through the 11th week of this season reveals that:
•Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who has started a league-record 248 consecutive games (dating from Sept. 27, 1992), has appeared on the injury report just seven times during the 2½-year span.
•Only 10 times since the start of the 2005 season has a team reported no injuries heading into a game — three times in 2005, six times in 2006 and once in 2007. Former Cowboys coach Parcells, who retired after last season, listed no injuries in Weeks 12, 13, 14 and 15 of last season.
Overall, the Cowboys, by far, had the lowest number of total injury listings during the period analyzed: 103. The second-lowest total belonged to the Buffalo Bills: 190. The Cowboys averaged 2.2 injury listings per week in 2005 and 1.2 in 2006. This season, their first with Wade Phillips as head coach, the Cowboys appear to have been more revealing about injuries, averaging 4.9 listings per week.
MOST USE OF INJURY REPORT: Team-by-team analysis
•In contrast to the Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts, who had the greatest number of total injury listings during the period studied (527), averaged 12.4 injury listings per week in 2005 and 16.9 in 2006 — or nearly one-third of the team's 53-man roster of active players. The Colts were averaging 5.9 listings per week this season.
•The Tennessee Titans never listed a player as doubtful in 2006 or in 2005, but nearly 90% of the players they put on the injury list during that span were designated as questionable. That suggests the Titans did not want their opponents to think that various players' injuries were particularly serious, even if they might have been.
No other team had fewer than four players listed as doubtful over those two years, and half the teams had at least 15. When the Titans listed players as questionable during those two years, they wound up playing in the next game 69%% of the time.
'There should be disclosure'
The NFL injury report dates from 1947, when it was mandated by then-commissioner Bert Bell because of an incident the previous season.
It "had to do with a player who was injured and (unexpectedly) didn't play in the game," Aiello says. "There were questions about that, and (Bell) realized that wasn't good for the integrity of the league, so there should be disclosure about the condition of players."
These days, billions of dollars are wagered on NFL games by 40 million people each week, says USA TODAY oddsmaker Danny Sheridan. While acknowledging that opaquely, the league says the injury report also aims to provide transparency to the public about players' health status for games.
In recent years the injury list has gained a new generation of followers: those in fantasy football leagues that award points based on real NFL players' statistics. Fantasy team owners check the injury list each week while deciding which players to use on their squads.
In general, the injury list is supposed to "eliminate so-called 'inside information' that could be improperly exploited," Aiello says, and "to serve public interest and (provide the) status of players for upcoming games, players who have an injury of some type that may not be available."
In 2004, the NFL's competition committee began requiring teams to file reports on their practice sessions. Teams are required to list who did not participate, fully participate or had limited participation in practice.
Teams playing Sunday games must submit practice reports every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The injury list must be submitted Friday and updated as needed Saturday. USA TODAY based its analysis on the Friday report.
Although teams and sports bookmakers more or less roll their eyes about injury reports, some coaches remain cagey about them.
The NFL is investigating a recent situation regarding the Houston Texans and how they listed running back Ahman Green, Aiello says. During the week before their Oct. 28 game against the San Diego Chargers, Green — who had aggravated a knee injury the previous game — was listed as a limited participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, a full participant Friday and then listed as "probable" for the game. Green wound up not playing. The discrepancy theoretically could have given the Texans an advantage over the Chargers, who, based on the injury reports, had to prepare for the game as if Green would play.
The NFL is examining the details of Green's week of practice and Texans coach Gary Kubiak's role in determining Green's status on the injury report. "We are reviewing the practice tapes and medical reports," Aiello says.
Whether or how teams decide to list players is mostly up to the teams. That's one reason you won't find Favre on the Packers' practice reports.
"With Brett, typically we err on the side of caution," Packers spokesman Jeff Blumb says. "If there's something, we'll list it, but we know and most of the country knows he's going to play, so we don't see any benefit from trying to play games."
Colts general manager Bill Polian, a member of the league's competition committee, says his team lists more players than others because "we err on the side of full disclosure. It's really that simple."
Or is it?
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who along with Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay is co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, notes that different coaches and general managers with the same teams sometimes have differing philosophies about whom to put on the injury list.
Fisher adds he doesn't get involved with compiling the Titans' reports and so he's unable to speak about why Tennessee had no players listed as "doubtful" the past two seasons. That has not been the case this season, the first under new GM Mike Reinfeldt, who took over for Floyd Reese.
Reese says that "in my mind, it just made more sense to list a guy as 50-50. It just seemed more realistic. I know what the language is, 50 this or 25 that, but what if you're 35%? I do think now, though, the ability to practice and how that's listed is much more valuable."
"I think the injury report is as healthy as it's ever been, especially with the listing of practice participation," says Fisher, speaking as co-chairman of the committee. "The league monitors it closely and we all have a responsibility to be truthful, but I don't think it's ever going to be an absolute perfect system."
Other than the relatively nominal fine, which can be assessed only after the fact, there is little deterrent to teams who decide to make an injury report that suits their interest, rather than, as the NFL's Aiello puts it, the "public interest." Take, for example, Parcells' sparse injury lists. Parcells did not respond to attempts to contact him, but Cowboys spokesman Rich Dalrymple says: "Bill just always had a philosophy that (the injury report) was more of a message to his own team — that he wanted them to be tough and didn't want a lot of players in the training room." But "if a player was hurt, he acknowledged that."
An 'iffy' impact on planning
Former Cowboys coach Johnson says scanning injury reports "rarely had an effect on our preparation, unless it's a key player like a quarterback, and even then, it's iffy."
In Las Vegas, bookmakers look at the injury list as a sketch of information. "We do pay attention to it, but even with coaches playing their little games, it's still pretty straightforward," says Kenny White, the chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "The rule of thumb is, if a guy's listed as questionable, he plays 90% of the time."
Yet the injury list's imprecise distinctions leave fertile ground for skullduggery in a league in which cheating has been a hot topic since September, when the Patriots were caught violating NFL rules by taping opponents' defensive signals during games. Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team was penalized $250,000 and possibly a first-round draft choice next year.
Brady, when discussing the Patriots' injury reports, says Belichick doesn't "give away a lot of information and talk about injuries and everything that everyone probably wants to know, but … that's for the players. He protects us because he wants us to have the best advantage every single week."
Patriots spokesman Stacey James says the team does not know how or when Brady's injury occurred, only that the shoulder is "sore."
Cowher's take on Brady's condition? He chuckles.
"Well, yeah, I mean, come on," he says. Belichick is "never going to be very revealing, so as (an opposing) coach, you know that. I just hope Tom gets better soon."
Contributing: Jarrett Bell and Tom Pedulla