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How NFL Bettors Conquer “Questionable”

In the world of NFL injuries, “doubtful” is simple to understand. But when betting on games, here’s what you need to know about “questionable” status.

It’s NFL Sunday. We are watching the afternoon slate. Scott Hanson is swiveling back and forth between games with a whiplash-inducing velocity, providing the viewers with wall-too-wall stimulation when every last team hits the red zone. The universe is in balance.

Some of us might even have some beers and genuinely enjoy our Sunday NFL slate. Elsewhere, sports bettors are less watching the games than sweating their wagers one play at a time. But plenty of other football betting enthusiasts aren’t just watching; they’re taking notes. Important notes — about games that may not even be happening this week.

Notes about injuries, to be precise. 

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The grind of preparing for the upcoming week starts during the Sunday slate. Every time a player goes down, it’s worth a note. As I’ve always said, many roads lead to Rome, and every NFL bettor has a different approach as to how he’s handicapping. But one of the critical aspects of strategically approaching NFL matchups is figuring out who’s going to play and/or start for both sides. Injuries – especially to key players – play a significant role.

After all, the status of superstars has a major impact on a game’s spread and total.

As a bettor, you have to figure out who’s going to play the next Sunday as soon as possible. And if that’s not feasible, you need a blueprint for mitigating the risk at all costs.

The Need to Shape Your Numbers Early

Sometimes, we won’t know whether a particular player will suit until Friday practices are over and final injury reports arrive. Sometimes it even takes until 90 minutes before game time when players are subject to game-time decisions. But we need to cover some ground early in the week already. Why? Because we usually don’t want to wait until Sunday to place our bets.

Remember, the markets tend to be less efficient leading up to the weekend; that’s when we can frequently find the best numbers to bet into. We might want to bet as early as Tuesday, or on Thursday and Friday when we have more clarity about injuries to “questionable” stars like Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Some bettors use quantitative, player-based models. As an input for the model, they have to feed it with updated depth charts or expected starters on both sides of the ball. Depending on the structure of the model, it might then simulate a particular matchup and come up with median expectations for the spread and the total.

It is essential to know whether the Rams are actually rolling out, say, Jalen Ramsey in a critical divisional matchup against the Cardinals opposed to a backup cornerback hovering around replacement level; this would significantly impact the number. Even if you don’t use a quantitative model and adjust your numbers based on subjective knowledge, If you want to bet earlier in the weak, you’ll need to come up with an informed hypothesis about who’s going to play.

Making Sense of NFL Injury Designations

There’s a word that every bettor, fantasy player, or just casual NFL fan knows related to injury reports: “questionable.” A few years ago, there was also the term “probable” in addition to “questionable” and “doubtful.” Probable almost always means that a player will actually suit up — more than 90% of the time, as data would suggest — but has been phased out of official use by the NFL.

The “questionable” tag, meanwhile, is assigned to players where the team is supposedly not sure whether they will play. It tends to be considered as 50/50. Doubtful means that a player has less than a 50% likelihood to play.

(And then there’s “out,” which means exactly what you think it means.)

The NFL’s official description of its three injury status designations

After Friday practices, every player on the injury report not already declared “out” or “doubtful” will get the questionable tag. But that leaves bettors and fantasy players in a lot of fog. The questionable tag has become, for the most part, completely useless.

It’s irrelevant because the probability range of a player suiting up after getting tagged as questionable could technically be considered somewhere between 25 to 100% depending on how a team chooses to operate. In effect, the questionable tag means nothing nowadays.

At the very least, it doesn’t provide any valuable information.

Put Your Trust in the Experts

So, how do we navigate the questionability of questionable on the NFL betting markets?

Starting on Sunday before the upcoming week, bettors need to gain as much information as possible to come up with an educated guess about whether a player will play or not. There are a few key factors that go into the estimate:

  • What’s the injury and its severity?
  • What do experts and doctors think of the damage?
  • What are beat reporters telling us?
  • Experience of injuries from the past
  • The players’ practice participation during the week

There are always some injuries where you just don’t know until Friday or even Sunday. But in those cases, the questionable tag isn’t helpful either. But many injuries provide some excellent information about the availability of a player.

For example, when a cornerback leaves a game with a hamstring injury and gets ruled out of the rest of the contest, the chances are slim that he’ll be able to play seven days later. Depending on the severity of the hamstring pull, he might get a limited practice on Friday and receive the questionable tag — but the standard procedure is that he will not play.

When it comes to injuries like mild MCL sprains, it’s possible that players return as early as the upcoming week but we have to monitor practice reports. When a player is getting at least some limited practices in, it’s likely that he will play. However, he will get the tag “questionable.”

But as we know, not all questionable cases are created equal. It just means that, unlike “out” and “doubtful,” we need to read between the lines and find additional data points to work with.