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: