What if ... DeMarco Murray had remained healthy?
It's no secret that the Cowboys were hit by injuries at some key spots last year. The most publicized injuries were probably Tony Romo's injuries, a cracked rib coupled with a punctured lung as well as a severely bruised hand. Surprisingly though, Romo didn't miss any starts because of those injuries.
Others did. Eight Cowboys ended up on injured reserve at various points in the season: Mat McBriar (left foot), Montrae Holland (torn bicep), Barry Church (shoulder), DeMarco Murray (fractured right ankle), Phillip Tanner (hamstring), David Buehler (right groin), Bill Nagy (broken ankle), Raymond Radway (fractured tibia, fibula).
Others again missed game time, but weren't put on IR. Miles Austin missed six games with two separate hamstring injuries, Felix Jones missed four games, Tony Fiammetta missed six games with different ailments and Jay Ratliff saw limited snaps with a cracked rib. But as a unit, no other unit was hit as hard as the Cowboys cornerbacks.
The combination of Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick played together in only seven games last season: For a two-game stretch in weeks seven and eight and then again from week 13 onwards, when both Jenkins and Newman were noticeably banged up. No wonder the corners received a lot of the blame for the 2011 defense - they simply weren't healthy.
Like every year, Football Outsiders yesterday published their statistical study of team health from the 2011 NFL season, and we'll take a look at where the Cowboys rank on their list.
First, a little background on FO's Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) stat. In their own words:
... the key ideas underlying AGL are that all players don't affect winning and losing equally, and missing a game isn't the only way a player injury affects winning and losing. Injuries to starters, important situational reserves (e.g., nickel cornerbacks), and injury replacements (i.e., new permanent starters) count towards AGL, whereas injuries to benchwarmers don't. Similarly, injuries that land a player on injured reserve affect AGL more than injuries that force a player to be listed as "questionable," which in turn affect AGL more than injuries that lead to a "probable" game status.
By FO's definition, the Cowboys finished the season with 62.5 Adjusted Games Lost. By itself, that is not particularly remarkable, as it ranks the Cowboys right in the middle of the league in terms of health, with the 15th highest AGL value.
What does stand out is that the 62.5 AGL are the highest value the Cowboys have had in the last five years. The Cowboys have traditionally been one of the healthier teams in the league, as FO themselves explained two years ago:
Among the six healthiest teams were organizations that have made a habit of showing up at the [top] of these lists: Tennessee, Kansas City, and Dallas, whose injury history we detailed in Pro Football Prospectus 2008 and Football Outsiders Almanac 2009.
While we've established that injury totals for a team tend to regress to the mean, it's becoming apparent that those organizations might be quantifiably better at keeping their players healthy than the average team.
Well, looks like last year, the Cowboys did indeed regress to the mean.
Football is a tough game to play. In the NFL, injuries are a big part of the game and they can be the deciding factor in games, week in and week out. FO note that the league-wide AGL have reached a nine-year high and speculate that the lockout could be one key reason for that. Miles Austin caused quite a ruckus a while back when he remarked that his lockout workouts were different (and by implication, less effective) than the normal offseason workout under team supervision, and that would underline FO's point.
However, health by itself does not help you win games. FO point out that the Eagles had one of the lowest AGL values last year and still finished a decidedly un-dream-team-like 8-8, while two teams that ended up playing in the Super Bowl both ranked pretty high on the AGL list.
Having said that, it's better to be healthy. And while statisticians are going to frown on what I'm about to write, I'll write it anyway: From 2007 to 2010, 38 teams finished the season with an AGL value above 60. 27 of those teams, or 71%, had a lower AGL in the following season. Here's hoping the Cowboys experience similarly favorable odds in 2012.
For your reference, here is a five-year overview of AGL by team.
Adjusted Games Lost, 2007-2011 (click the column header to sort)
|Team||2007||2008||2009||2010 ||2011 ||07-11 average
Despite the relatively high AGL value in 2011, the Cowboys' five-year average is still the seventh-best in the league. Obviously a lot of injuries are random occurrences, but the fact that the same teams remain relatively healthy year-in and year-out suggest that there may be more to these numbers than simple randomness.
Similarly, some teams display a remarkable consistency in remaining at the bottom of the injury rankings. If I were the GM of these teams, now would be a good time to sit up and think long and hard about whether this is just coincidence (which it could well be) or whether there are parts of the football operation that are influencing my injury rate systemically.
But what do I know.