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Why the Colts utilize the PUP list and other injury designations for injured players

Explaining why it is in every team’s best interest to utilize the active/PUP designation at the start of training camp for players who are not at 100 percent.

NFL: International Series-Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

After a long period of relative silence in the NFL world, rookies have returned to training camp in Indianapolis. This weekend the veterans will arrive and the full 90-man roster will be assembled together for the first time to begin the most grueling part of the off-season work, which will culminate in the 2017 Indianapolis Colts official roster.

Along with the return of the players is the return of new information. Fans are finally given updates on players recovering from injuries and get to hear from general managers on how they intend to move forward as training camp opens. One part of this step for the Colts was Chris Ballard announcing that Andrew Luck, Kendall Langford, Malik Hooker, and Brian Schwenke are all going to start training camp on the active physically unable to perform list.

What exactly does this mean and why would the Colts choose to go this route?

There are two ways to answer this question. The first is emotional and based upon fear that key players may not recover, increasing the likelihood that the Colts will under-perform once again. In this version of analysis, any player placed on the PUP to start training camp is a bad sign. Why? Because it means the front office or team doctors believe there is a “real chance” a player may not be ready to start the regular season.

This thinking is rooted in confirmation bias. Fans rationally worry that a player is not going to be ready for the regular season; the team has given fans legitimate reasons to not trust the accuracy of their reports about the team’s injuries; therefore, the PUP confirms that a player has much bigger issues than the team has shared and a real and impending threat to the season has been exposed.

It’s entirely fair to think this way. Who could argue with the fact that players who are truly healthy do not need to be placed on these lists?

The other way of thinking about it is both from a strategic and logical perspective that removes doubt from the thinking. Let’s face it, there is no way fans can know for sure whether an important player will ever recover from an injury, let alone specifically when that player will be at 100%. So, if we remove assumptions, what reason would a team have to place players on the PUP list to start training camp?

To understand the answer to that question it is important to understand more generally how injuries are handled in the NFL. The best place to start is understanding the difference between the active/PUP list and the reserve/PUP list.

The active/PUP list is used for players in training camp and prior to the start of the regular season. Placing a player on this list to start training camp will allow that player to be eligible for the reserve/PUP list in the regular season — even if that player is only on the active/PUP list for a day.

Dr. David Chao (credentials) explains this process in the San Diego Tribune.

In order to keep the option for regular season PUP open, a player has to start training camp, even if for a day, on PUP.

Of course, a player not being on PUP means the team has no concern at all regarding the player not being ready. Being on PUP could mean concern or it could mean insurance in case there is a setback.

What makes this valuable strategically for any NFL team is that it allows the team the option, should it be necessary, to provide an important player on the roster up to six weeks of time to continue recovering from an injury — especially if the player might suffer a setback — without placing the player on injured reserve. Once the regular season starts and the reserve/PUP list is in effect, the players on this list do not count against the team’s 53-man roster.

Also from Dr. Chao,

To clarify, there is a big difference between preseason active PUP where one can come off the list at any time but counts towards the 90-man roster and the regular season reserve PUP where one must miss at least six games (and can miss up to 12) but does not count toward the 53-man roster.

Every player undergoes a physical upon arriving at camp, and a player must pass that physical before any conditioning tests or practice begins. If there is a question on an injury or the possibility of a setback, the player will typically be failed and the active PUP designation is used to preserve the right to later enact the reserve PUP status in the regular season.

So, from a logical and strategic perspective, if a player will be unable to compete at 100 percent to start training camp — such as is the case for Luck, Langford, Hooker, and Schwenke — it makes no sense to not place them on PUP. You can’t have players trying to run live reps with teammates at three-quarters speed and expect to gain anything of value from those reps. Even if the team is not worried about the long-term outlook for the player on PUP, failure to utilize this free designation (free insurance) to potentially save the use of an injured reserve spot just to make fans feel better would be an awful decision.

This has become even more valuable, potentially because the NFL instituted the injured reserve with designation to return spot on rosters in 2012. In 2016 the NFL removed the requirement to designate a player as eligible for return when they are placed on IR and in 2017 they modified the original rule to allow each team to bring back two players from IR so long as they have missed 6 weeks of the regular season. These players must miss 8 weeks of the regular season and cannot start practicing with the team until after 6 weeks of time on the injured reserve.

Theoretically, then, a player or two that is considered important to the team’s long-term success for the season or moving forward, could utilize a reserve/PUP spot to start the year (Clayton Geathers) and a teammate could get hurt early in the season and be placed on the injured reserve and numerous players — more than just 2 — could find their way back onto the field healthy and ready to help the team win football games before the end of the year.

If we focus on logic and rationality, it is safe to assume at this point that the Colts front office is not confident that Geathers will be ready to start the regular season. As a result, they can save a roster spot (keep an extra player) when they make their cuts and they do not have to use an injured reserve exception to allow Geathers the chance to return in 2017. That is smart thinking and the best course of action if your intention is to allow the player necessary time to go through a gradual rehabilitation process while not setting your team back by using limited in-season resources or a spot on the active 53-man roster.

Look, there is no guarantee that the reason Chris Ballard placed players on the active/PUP list isn’t based upon his legitimate fear, or the fear of team doctors, that some of these players won’t be ready to start the regular season and that he is simply not openly sharing that fear with the NFL, the fan base, or reporters. I am hear to tell you that there is a guarantee that not placing players on the active/PUP list to start training camp when they are either not going to be able to — or it is feared that they are not going to — participate in team drills and practices at 100 percent to start training camp is a bad administrative decision.

It’s great to get whiff of actual football after such a long period without new information. Unfortunately, some of the actions that Ballard just took tell us a whole lot less about where injured players are in their recovery than we would really like.