What does probable or questionable mean on the NFL injury report?

Dear Sports Fan,

First time playing fantasy football here. What does it mean when someone is listed as Probable or Questionable? If someone (say Andre Ellington) has a Sunday game and has not been seen in practice till Wednesday, is it a sign they won’t start that week? Also, what kind of injuries are the worst? Ankle?

Best regards,

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Dear Mengster,

It sounds like you’ve really caught the Fantasy Football bug! As I wrote in my recent post about what it means to start or sit a player in fantasy football, predicting which players on your fantasy team are most likely to play well in their real games is a big part of playing fantasy football. A player who is too injured to play is 100% positive to not score any points for your team, so researching and following your players’ injuries is important business. Luckily for us, NFL teams are required to put out injury reports every day which file all of their players as either healthy or under one of the four possible standard injury designations: out, doubtful, questionable, and probable. It’s actually not luck, the NFL requires teams do this because having this information makes gambling on football and fantasy football games possible. Oh, the NFL wouldn’t say that if you asked it[1] but it’s true nonetheless.

NFL injury designations are officially tied to percentages. Out = 0% likely to play. Doubtful = 25% likely to play. Questionable = 50% likely to play. Probably = 75% likely to play. In reality, that’s not actually the case. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few years ago about what the real percentages for these labels were. In it, they discovered that Doubtful players played less than 3% of the time, Questionable was closest to its “proper” percentage, just a little higher than 50% — around 55%. Probably players played more than 90% of the time. Although the article is from 2011 and the stats go back to 2006, I don’t think much has changed. I wrote my own qualitative descriptions of what each designation means in an answer to similar question last year from someone who asked about the injury report:

  • Probable — if a player is probable, he’s almost definitely playing. The team is either following the requirements and reporting that the player did not practice because they are suffering from some minor ailment or the team is trolling the system by obscuring real injuries with fake injuries to avoid giving their opponents the advantage of knowing who is actually hurt. This is a classic move of Bill Bellichick and the New England Patriots who once listed quarterback Tom Brady as probable for a few years despite him not missing a game.
  • Questionable — this designation is the only one that’s legitimate. A player listed as questionable might play or might not.
  • Doubtful — a player who is doubtful for a game is almost definitely not playing, the team just isn’t willing to admit it yet. According to this article about how bookmakers should use injury reports, only 3% of NFL football players listed as doubtful, play.
  • Out — nothing to see here, a player listed as out is definitely not playing in the upcoming game.

When thinking about fantasy football, I generally assume that players listed as “probable” are fine. For players listed as “questionable,” I dig in and do some research about their specific situation. Have they, like you said, been practicing? What kind of injury do they have? Did it knock them out of the last game or were they able to finish? You can generally learn a lot about a “fantasy relevant” player’s injury. For example, in Andre Ellington’s case, I can tell from Rotoworld.com that he “remains on track to play in this week’s game against the 49ers.” So, he’s probably fine for this week. A lot of players, especially running backs (who take the most hits) and veterans will regularly skip a day of practice. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. What you want to watch out for is someone who’s designation gets worse during the week (moves from Probably to Questionable) or someone who wasn’t on the injury at the start of the week but is by the end. Those are both bad signs for their likelihood of playing on Sunday.

In terms of what injuries are the worst, that’s probably worth its own post. I can say from having played fantasy football for years and followed a lot of sports in general, that the injuries which seem to keep players out for the longest are (excluding obvious things like broken bones, torn ligaments, and concussions): high ankle sprains, turf toe, and foot sprains. I know, those things sound less serious than rib or hip injuries, but an athlete lives and dies by his or her ability to plant off one foot and switch directions. You need your ankles, toes, and feet healthy to do that!

Good luck in your fantasy game this weekend,

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. It would probably say, “AHH!! A talking league??!”

What does it mean to start or sit someone in fantasy football?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean to start or sit someone in fantasy football? Fantasy football owners can’t actually control who plays in a real football game, right? So what gives?


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Dear Sal,

Ha! I can tell from your question that you understand a little more than you’re letting on. No, of course, you’re right that a fantasy football owner can’t control which real players play in real games each weekend. Like many aspects of fantasy football, this is made more complicated by the fact that fantasy vocabulary shares terms with football but they mean slightly different things in different contexts. The choice to start or sit a player on a fantasy football team decides whether or not that player’s real stats will count toward the fantasy team’s score for the weekend. Making these choices is a big part of what makes fantasy football so fascinating and addictively torturous for people who play fantasy football. We already published a comprehensive post on how fantasy football works, so we’ll stick just to your question about starting or sitting a player. Here’s how it works.

Fantasy leagues vary greatly in how they are set up, but a fairly standard fantasy team will consist of 16 players. Of those, each week, only the statistics from nine of them will count towards the fantasy team’s total. The decision of which nine players of the 16 should count each week is the choice you’re asking about. Players that a fantasy owner selects to have their stats count are said to “start” or “be starting.” Players whose statistics an owner chooses not to have count are said to “sit” or “be sitting.” These terms mirror the decisions that real football coaches make about players on their roster for reasons of injury, relative skill, game-plan, or other factors, but they decide different things. In real football, the decision determines who plays in the football game and potentially who keeps their job and who gets fired. In fantasy, the decisions don’t actually affect the players in question, they only affect the fantasy owner and her fortunes that week.

The interesting thing about the start or sit decision in fantasy football is that fantasy owners have to make it before the games start each week. It’s all about prediction. The decision to start one player over another can be a determining factor in a fantasy game. For example, this weekend, I decided to start Jarett Boykin, a wide receiver on the Green Bay Packers, over Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver on the Chicago Bears. Boykin caught one pass for six yards. Marshall? Five catches, 48 yards, and three touchdowns. If I had chosen to start Marshall, and therefore had his stats count towards my totals, I would have won. Instead, I started Boykin and lost. Why did I make this decision? Well, similar to a real coach, I made it based on injury, relative skill, game-plan, and other factors. Marshall had a badly sprained ankle, my twitter feed was telling me he wasn’t likely to even play, and I thought that Green Bay would have an easy time throwing the ball against the Jets and Boykin would benefit from it.

Hindsight is 20/20 but foresight is variable. The more information about football games a fantasy owner has, the more reading and listening and watching and studying they do, and the better they are at compiling the data in their brains and their guts, the better their foresight is going to be. The more work a fantasy owner does, the better his or her start or sit decisions are likely to be and the more likely they are to win. This is the logic that makes start or sit decisions such an integral part of fantasy football and fantasy football such a force in driving interest in the NFL and the sport of football.

Hope this all makes sense,
Ezra Fischer

Why are fantasy football drafts so exciting?

I’m hours away from my most important fantasy football draft of the year. I’m full of anticipatory energy. I’m not alone in this feeling this way about fantasy football drafts. The other day I talked to a self-professed fantasy sports obsessive and he described his experience of draft night as “shaky – nervous and excited.” For people who don’t play fantasy sports, and here’s some common ground that many sports fans and non-sports fans can find with each other, the experience of draft night is a strange one. Let’s see if I can explain it.

For a very, very quick reminder, here’s how fantasy football works and what a draft is. Fantasy football is a game that people play with a small group of people, usually friends or colleagues. Just like most other games, the outcome of fantasy football is based partially on choices made by its players and partially on semi-random events that occur in the game’s universe. In a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, these random events may be generated by rolling dice. In video and computer games, there are semi-random events programmed into the game itself – Sim City might generate a challenging natural disaster, a shooting game may present its player with more or fewer enemies to defeat. In fantasy football, the outside force that modifies how the game goes is the real performance of players within the National Football League (NFL). In fantasy football, each player or owner of a fantasy football team has a selection of real NFL players on their team and depending on how the real players perform in real games, their imaginary team will win or lose.

Draft night is the primary time when fantasy football owners construct their teams.  There are two ways that this happens. The most common is a “snake draft” where teams take turns choosing players. Not unlike a playground game, when all the teams have chosen a player, the order is reversed for choosing the second player, and so the draft goes, snaking back and forth. The other model is an auction where   players go up for auction and every team has a chance to bid on them with a (fake) budget. While there is some wiggle room during the fantasy football season to trade players with other teams or to drop players from your team and pick up players who are not on any team, the draft is the most meaningful tactical moment of the whole game.

Beyond simply winning or losing in the imaginary world of fantasy football, draft night is exciting because it establishes which real players you’re going to root for in real football (albeit for your own imaginary team’s purposes) for the next sixteen weeks. Especially for people like me who don’t have a favorite NFL team, my fantasy team’s real players are the ones I end up following and rooting for. This is so widely true that choosing “boring” players has become a good strategy for winning in fantasy football. Because fantasy owners enjoy rooting for the players on their team and they enjoy rooting for volatile, explosive playmakers, there’s a market inefficiency that rewards going against the grain and selecting consistent, not flashy, boring performers.

Players I’ve had on my team for several years are sentimental favorites of mine. In the league I run, we are allowed to keep three players from year to year. I find myself rooting for the players I keep and keeping the players I root for. The best example of this is Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver on the Chicago Bears. Marshall is an outspoken advocate for the normalization of mental disorders, one of which he suffers with himself. Every time he does something for his cause, like wearing lime green cleats (which represent mental illness like pink represents breast cancer,) in a game, I feel proud because he’s on my team. If he weren’t a good player, I wouldn’t keep him on my team, but if he weren’t a good person, I might choose to keep another good player instead. This allegiance can cause problems too, because the truth is that you can’t ever really know someone you don’t know. Take Ray Rice, for example, the star running back suspended for domestic abuse. I can’t remember if I’ve ever had him on my fantasy team but he did play for my alma mater, Rutgers, so I’ve rooted for him for at least a decade in a similar (but probably less intense) way to if he had been on my fantasy team. When your success is tied to a player’s success, the tie you create in your mind with that person is strong. It makes a moral or legal transgression by that player feel more like a betrayal.[1]

One of the good things about fantasy football is that it’s a long period of enjoyment for (usually) not that much or no money. The draft is a big piece of how much I am going to enjoy or be tormented by the it over the next four months.

Fantasy football may be a simulated experience but the excitement is real.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Did we collectively react to Tiger Woods’ moral transgressions more strongly because of the best selling video game, Tiger Woods’ golf that gave the player the chance to play as Tiger Woods? I bet we did.

How to Enjoy a Fantasy Football Draft

This post is about fantasy football. If you don’t play fantasy football or don’t understand it, read this post on how fantasy football works.

If you’re new to fantasy football, you may feel unprepared during your fantasy football draft. The people you’re drafting with and against probably seem like they know a lot more than you do. They are familiar with the players names and nick-names; their reputations and their past performances. There’s likely to be some good-natured trash-talking while the draft is going on. People may disparage a choice you or someone else makes or show congratulatory agreement for what they perceive as a good pick. Towards the end of the draft, some people may start congratulating themselves on how great of a team they’ve put together. Put together, this exhibition of knowledge may be intimidating and could even spoil some of the enjoyment of choosing your own fantasy football team. I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t. There are lots of easy ways to make sure you enjoy a fantasy football draft.

The first thing to remember about fantasy sports is that they work as a form of enjoyment only because people cannot predict the future. No one actually knows which football players are going to produce the best stats this year. Lots of people think they know but they’re really only gambling on which players seem the most likely to produce the best stats. You can feel completely confident in your choices, knowing that they can only be proven to be wrong in hind-sight and by the time that hind is in sight, every other fantasy owner in your league will have at least one decision they are kicking themselves for having made. You won’t be alone. Football, of all the sports, is the least predictable and the most subject to chance. With only 16 games in a season, the margin between a great player and a good player can easily come down to luck.

I think fantasy drafts should be collegial and relaxed. I don’t really think that psyching another owner out, even if you could do it, is worth the effort. Not everyone feels the same way though. Every time someone groans or nods knowingly after a pick, think to yourself — this person may be faking this emotion for their own purposes. If they can make you second guess yourself by making fun of your pick in the fourth round, they might be able to get you to pick badly in the seventh round and because of that get to draft their favorite player who you otherwise might have taken. This type of psychological warfare is silly but it happens all the time. My recommendation is to ignore it but if you want to take part in it, steal a page from my childhood chess-teacher: bring a delicious looking sandwich and break it out half-way through the draft. Don’t share it but make sure everyone knows just how delicious and satisfying it is. A hungry mind is a distracted mind.

The other thing you can do to avoid feeling like you’re drafting from a position of weakness is to have a plan. This was one of my key suggestions in a post last year on tips for your first fantasy draft. I even suggested a few simple plans to follow. This year I came across another very simple way to create a plan. The Fantasy Fix offers this three-part flow chart (say that ten times fast) that you can follow. It tells you which position to take in each round given what you choose to do in the first round. For example, if you start out by taking a running back in the first round, you should then take two wide receivers and then either another wide receiver followed by three running backs, a quarterback, and a tight end, or two running backs, a wide receiver, another running back, and then a quarterback and a tight end. I think these are quite reasonable paths to follow and narrowing your choices by position in each round formulaically will lend you a ton of confidence in your choices.

Hope you enjoy your fantasy drafts. Shoot me an email at dearsportsfan@gmail.com to tell me how they go, what they feel like, and what questions you have.

Ezra Fischer

Fantasy Football and Sports Reporters' Objectivity

As I’ve been immersed in the football and fantasy football season for the past weeks, a thought has been sneaking up on me bit by bit. If financial reporters are not allowed to purchase stocks and political reporters are not allowed to make contributions to candidates or even make their own political views public… why are we okay with sports reporters participating so passionately in fantasy football leagues?

And participate, they do: At the 13 minute mark of the 10-10-13 edition of ESPN’s fantasy football podcast (yes, I listen to it) fantasy sports pundit Matthew Berry mentioned that sports reporter Ed Werder tweeted:

To his credit, Berry told the audience that this was not official reporting from Werder but instead was conjecture. Berry built off of this with his own conjecture that perhaps Werder has some inside information on the situation based on his long history covering the team and the fact that Werder had picked up Terrance Williams to be on his fantasy team in a league with Matthew Berry. Berry often refers to a sixteen team league he plays in with other ESPN employees called the War Room. This league (if this isn’t a clever hoax) can actually be viewed here and its membership includes reporters and analysts like Adam Schefter, Michael Smith, Trent Dilfer, Mark Schlereth, Ed Werder, Chris Mortensen, and Stephania Bell. Is there money riding on the outcome of this league? Although that is common in most fantasy leagues, it’s hard for me to imagine ESPN would allow their employees to gamble on sports in this way. Then again, ESPN has moved off it’s traditional ignore-that-gambling-exists stance and now has a gambling blog and allows its top personality, Bill Simmons, to openly talk and write about gambling. Regardless of the money, given how often and publicly the War Room league is talked about, it seems to be fiercely competitive.

Berry’s  investigative reporting into reporters’ fantasy actions seems to be becoming a habit. On the same day he tweeted about a fantasy trade made by ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen and former NFL player, now ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer:

What can we make of this? Berry’s job is helping readers and listeners get an edge in their own fantasy leagues. He is suggesting that we use the information that reporter Ed Werder thinks it’s possible that Dallas receiver Terrance Williams supplants Miles Austin in the starting lineup or that Chris Mortensen thinks a lot of tight end Ed Dickson or not very much of running back Rashard Mendenhall to help our fantasy teams. I am open to that use of this information (Terrance Williams is now on my fantasy team) but I am suspicious of it at the same time.

My suspicion is multi-faceted:

  1. Fantasy owners get attached to the players on their teams. As I mentioned in a post on the arrest of Aaron Hernandez for murder, I found it harder to believe that he was capable of that crime because he had been on my fantasy team for years. Fantasy owners become fond of their players and are often prone to overvaluing them when engaging in trade negotiations with another fantasy team. Is it possible that a sports reporter would write favorably about a player because of the unconscious instinct to overvalue the players on one’s own fantasy team?
  2. Fantasy owners promote their players in an effort to convince other people to trade for them. The honorable art of trading in fantasy is finding a team whose strengths match your weaknesses and vice versa so that a trade can work out to benefit both teams. The disreputable art of trading in fantasy is convincing someone that a player who you think is not that good is going to be REALLY REALLY GOOD. I’ve certainly embellished my belief about a player’s prospects to a friend I was trying to trade him to. Is it possible that a reporter might use his or her twitter account to drive up the value of a player they are trying to trade? What about filing an article for the same purpose?
  3. Finally, (and here’s where it gets really crazy,) whether as part of an intentional act of fantasy negotiation or through unconscious bias generated by owning a player, isn’t it likely that something a member of the media says or writes about a player will eventually affect how a real football game is played? A negative article can motivate a player to vengeful greatness or shake a player’s confidence and cause his play to suffer. A carefully placed rumor could cause a divide between teammates or modify how a coach thinks about a player.

It is possible that I’m on to something incredibly profound or that it’s 11:11 pm on a Friday, it’s been a long week, and I’ve watched the Matrix too much. Either way, I not sure I’ll ever be able to listen to an “NFL rumor” again without thinking “I wonder whose team that player is on in the reporter’s fantasy league…


What are Some Tips for Your First Fantasy Football Draft?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m going to be taking part in my first fantasy football draft ever in a few weeks. Do you have any tips?


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Dear Sonja,

First off, welcome to the fantasy football club! As of 2010 there were over 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada who play fantasy sports. That fact comes from a Forbes magazine article which sited a study by the FSTA or Fantasy Sports Trade Association. You know, because there’s one of those. Which is all to say that you are in good company and you won’t be the only person new to fantasy football this year. Here are some tips on how to enjoy your first draft and maybe they will help you win as well.[1]

Tips for Your First Fantasy Football Draft

Have a Strategy

Whether you are a die-hard football fan or new to the sport, whether you are Nate-Silveresque in your statistical predictive abilities or flunked out of high-school algebra, you can come up with a strategy for your fantasy football draft. Having a strategy is key to enjoying draft day. Without a strategy, drafting is likely to feel like arbitrarily selecting items off a menu in another language. It doesn’t have to be a good strategy, a friend of mine once decided that he thought players who played in cold-weather would be better than players who played in the heat. Another of my friends has tried for years to get all of the Johnsons who play in the NFL on his team. It doesn’t have to be a good strategy as long as it’s not self-destructive. Here are some simple strategies you can use:

  • Use rankings from some other website than the one you are drafting on. Almost every league will draft using the web interface from ESPN, Yahoo!, CBS, or NFL.com. During the draft, you will be selecting players from an ranked list ordered by “fantasy experts” at that site. Lots of the owners in your league will be more or less making their choices based on these rankings but you don’t have to! Get a ranked list from one of the other sites listed above or from one of the many independent fantasy football websites out there like Fantasy Football NerdFantasy Pros, Fantasy Football Toolbox and use their rankings instead. There’s no knowing whose list is more accurate but using one list while the majority of your league uses the same one as each other gives you an inherent advantage.
  • Figure out players that are going to be more than normally unpopular in your league and take them. This means doing a little research about the people you’re going to be playing with. Are most of them Giants fans? If so, they’re likely to over-value the Giants players and be reluctant to pick players from the Giants’ natural enemies: the Redskins, Cowboys, and Eagles.
  • Take the boring players. People who play fantasy sports like to feel like if they win, they did it because they knew something that no one else did. They like to “discover” players who are about to experience the best year of their careers. So they tend to over-value rookies and players who have just moved teams or gotten new coaches. What they don’t like doing is drafting someone who has played well but not spectacularly for years and is likely to do basically the same thing this year that they did last year. This is where you sneak in and take the boring, reliable performers.

Enjoy Yourself

Fantasy football should be fun! It’s a hobby, after all. To the newbie though it might seem a little strange. Here are a few things that won’t help you win your league but might help you enjoy the experience.

  • Serious doesn’t mean not fun. You’ll probably be surprised at how seriously people take this hobby. Even some of the vocabulary around fantasy football shows this. People who play fantasy football are called “owners.” The guy or gal who runs the league is a “commissioner.” Everyone is seriously trying to win. None of this screams fun but it can be in the same way that a water gun fight or a game of tag is more fun if you suspend disbelief and buy into the idea that you really don’t want to be it or get hit by a tiny stream of water.
  • Go in person. Most leagues get together to do their drafts. Now that it’s so easy to run the process online it’s easy for people to draft from their homes but it’s not nearly as much fun as sitting together in a room with snacks and beer. If your friends and you can’t get together, do a conference call or a google hangout or some other technological solution that allows for banter. If you are in a room with beer and snacks, don’t get too drunk and end up with a team full of players with awesome sounding names who all suck at football.
  • Draft one player from a local team. Even if it is a mid-level tight end, the back-up running back, or a second or third wide receiver, having a player from the local team on your fantasy team will provide you a full fall’s worth of compelling entertainment because it gives you something to root for every Sunday.

At it’s worst, fantasy football can seem like a strange form of voluntary self-flagellation (how could I have thought that Alex Smith would have had a better game than Aaron Rodgers…if only that second tier running back hadn’t fumbled in the fourth quarter of a blowout victory…etc.) but at its best it forms close, consistent communities that continue for years.

Good luck!
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. For full disclosure, I am dating this particular fantasy football newbie. So while I want her to enjoy her first fantasy football experience, I might not actually want her to win the league. A close second is about as high as I can, in good faith, wish for Sonja.

Why Are People Obsessing About Fantasy Football Now?

Dear Sports Fan,

We’re more than a month away from the start of the NFL season, so why are the fans in my life obsessively reading about fantasy football now?



Dear Yolanda,

You’re absolutely right! While the first pre-season football game is tomorrow, the regular season does not start until after Labor day weekend. You’re also right that we fantasy football “owners” are starting to get into full-on research mode. There’s a few reasons for that, but first a quick refresher course on fantasy football.

Fantasy football is a game where real people bet real money on fake teams. These fake teams successes and failures are based on how the real people on their fake teams do in their real life jobs playing (real) football. Fantasy largely works as a compelling game because of its tie to the NFL which is itself extremely popular but also because it is a closed system where, although there is a large amount of luck involved, the time, work, and decisions that you put into it can have a real effect on how well something that you (and you alone) are responsible for does. It’s as close to owning a small business as many of us get.

Sometime before the NFL regular season begins, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in rooms with their laptops for their fantasy drafts. At the draft, people take turns either selecting or bidding on players for their teams. Once the season begins, owners can trade players with other owners, and not infrequently there are real players who were not initially selected in the fantasy draft that become useful to fantasy teams during the year. For the most part though, the players you get in the draft will make the difference between a successful year and an unsuccessful one. As an owner, you also have to live with these guys… for 16 weeks, you’re going to be more interested in watching them play than other players. You’re going to stress about their injuries. You will be covetous of their playing time. You will celebrate their touchdowns and bemoan their fumbles.

You can probably tell how important it is to get the right guys on your team but you might still be wondering what we could possibly be doing now… research! That’s right — the meat-head football fans are spending hours nose deep in books (well, websites mostly) reading about coaching changes, player movement, and other news about NFL teams. We’re reading thousands of words of opinion written by “fantasy football experts” who try to predict and project how players will do this year. We’re synthesizing all these projections into our own. We’ve got players divided up into tiers by position. We’re totally insane! To give you a glimpse of the far reaches of fantasy football minutia, I dare you to check out this forum conversation about how an obscure ruling on the way team statisticians assign and count tackles could effect the point production of real linebackers on your fake football team. For those too scared to click on the link, here is a direct quote from johnnyboy8102:

I have been watching the play by play in real time since 2001 and I have seen certain stadiums do the solo/assist method and others do the Assist/Assist method.

I can tell within the 1st few plays of a game which way the stat crew is going to go. The heavy assist teams (Washington and New England in particular) have been doing the assist/assist method. It is deciphered by a comma or a semicolon between the tackling players names. A comma gives a solo to the 1st player and an assist to the 2nd. While the semicolon gives assists to both players.

Not all of us quite approach the level of madness/expertise of johnnyboy8102 and his compatriots… but we may be closer than you would think…

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer