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MIDWEEK REPORT

NFL insists they tell us where it hurts

When 4 p.m. arrives today, the Patriots will do what teams have been doing for almost 60 years -- submit an injury report to NFL headquarters, and in turn, disseminate that information to the public.

The process garnered some extra attention last week when the Patriots and Colts ended up with a combined 39 players on their injury reports, meaning that 36 percent of the players potentially involved in the game were injured.

Of those 39 players, 36 were listed as having a 50-50 chance of playing.

Ridiculous?

Perhaps, but by the letter of the law, both teams simply were following NFL guidelines.

"The principal purpose of the injury report is to ensure there are no hidden injuries, or clubs hiding that players might not be available, and then that player ends up not being able to play and nobody knew about it," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president of public relations.

Injury reports date back to the 1940s when NFL commissioner Bert Bell was dealing with the aftermath of the 1946 championship game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. As chronicled in Michael MacCambridge's book "America's Game," there were concerns at the time that two New York players, Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock, had been approached by gamblers and that the game could be part of a fix. Bell ended up suspending both players and reached the conclusion that pro football couldn't survive if it weren't based on absolute honesty. Starting in the 1947 season, Bell required all teams to publish a list of all injured players, saying such open information was crucial.

Aiello said the injury reports have been tweaked over time, but their main objective has been to serve the public interest and eliminate inside information that could be exploited, such as a player being paid for information regarding an injury to a teammate.

"The principal purpose of it is very important and is the premise on which Bert Bell first instituted them -- protecting the integrity of our league," Aiello said.

Whether the current system is successful in that regard is debatable, as teams often report injuries but aren't forthcoming on the severity of them because they might be protecting a competitive advantage.

Teams define players as either out, doubtful, questionable, or probable. Doubtful means there is at least a 75 percent chance that the player won't play, while questionable is 50-50, and probable is a virtual certainty that the player will be available for normal duty.

How have the Patriots' injury reports matched up with these numbers?

To this point in the season, the team has yet to designate a player as doubtful on its Friday injury reports. A total of 56 players have been listed as questionable, with 29 of them appearing in that week's game -- or 51.7 percent. Meanwhile, a total of 25 players have been listed as probable, and 21 of them (84 percent) have suited up. The numbers are within league guidelines.

But the numbers don't necessarily account for some unique dynamics within the injury-reporting process. Consider the recent cases of Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.

Hobbs underwent wrist surgery Sept. 27 and was listed as questionable (50-50) on that day to play in the team's next game, Oct. 1. While some might ask how a player undergoing surgery still could be questionable, the NFL had no problems with the Patriots' injury-reporting procedure that week because the injury was disclosed, it was reported that Hobbs missed portions of practice, and there was still a possibility he could play. Hobbs didn't play that week, but returned the following week.

Last year's situation with Vick hit another gray area. The elusive quarterback was listed as probable throughout the week leading up to the Falcons' game against the Patriots, and was also reported to have missed portions of team drills. Vick was downgraded to questionable less than 24 hours before kickoff, and then declared out on the day of the game. Falcons coach Jim Mora explained that he was trying to preserve a competitive advantage for his club, with the assumption that he knew Vick wasn't going to play from the outset.

The Falcons were not fined. Aiello acknowledged it's a challenge to discipline clubs on what are often subjective judgments. At the same time, he assures that the league keeps a close eye on such situations.

"We monitor it and look into any questions that are raised about it," he said. "Teams serve as watchdogs and the media serves as watchdogs. We look at it ourselves and make inquiries, also looking at practice tape to determine if there is a violation."

Over the last 10 years, Aiello said there have been 12 times in which teams have been fined for violating the injury reporting guidelines, with the penalties ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.

For example, in 1999 the Broncos were fined $25,000 for not reporting a hip injury to their starting quarterback, Bubby Brister. The injury occurred in a Friday practice, after the Broncos had submitted their injury reports for the week, and the league ruled that the team failed to make a timely and full disclosure because it didn't notify Denver media, the Associated Press, or CBS on Friday or Saturday. The Broncos had left messages at the league office and with their opponent, the Raiders, that Saturday.

The Patriots were reportedly fined in 2003 when Richard Seymour wasn't downgraded from probable to out after not making a road trip.

Aiello said no clubs have been fined for violating the injury report this year, "but there have been a few inquiries."

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