In April this year, Dallas Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones observed that if the team can stay healthy, it can show "significant improvements" on last year's 8-8 record.
"I’ve said from the beginning, the best way we can improve upon our football team from last year is keep guys healthy. That had to be one of our toughest years in terms of the number of injuries, especially to really good football players. If we can really do a better job there then I like our chances of making some significant improvements on 8-8."
Most Cowboys fans would agree with that statement, but how exactly do you go about not getting injured? Injuries are part of the game in the NFL. Every team is affected by injuries at some point in the season, but you need some extra bad mojo to get hit the way the Cowboys got hit last season.
Every year, Football Outsiders publish their statistical study of team health from the previous 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 2012 season with 86.5 Adjusted Games Lost, the fifth highest AGL value in the league, and also the highest value the Cowboys have had in the last six years. The following graph illustrates the Cowboys' injury stats and includes the most injured team over the last six years (Colts) and the healthiest team (49ers) for reference.
If you're the Cowboys, you've got to be worried about how the injuries have started to pile up over the last four years. In the same Interview in April, Jones said it looks like all the players who ended the season on IR are recovering according to plan, and the Cowboys have some ideas about how to avoid a repeat of last season's injury woes:
"They’re all making big progress," Stephen Jones said. "I think they’re all going to be ready here to really start getting involved in our offseason program. There’s no concern whatsoever that all these guys won’t be ready to go for training camp. We’re very optimistic about that. We’ve got our eyes on not only getting them healthy, but keeping them healthy. We’ve got some good ideas on that."
At the time, I wondered what those "good ideas" would entail. I'm not a trainer, nor am I particularly versed in strength & conditioning, so short of not playing any games I quickly ran out of ideas on how to get the team healthier. But over the past few weeks, we've gotten glimpses of what the Cowboys are trying to do to contain the injury bug.
- Matt Johnson has adjusted his weight-room routine and has cut back on the amount of weight he was squatting, effectively lifting smarter rather than heavier.
- During OTAs several veteran players, including Miles Austin, Will Allen, Jason Hatcher, and Jay Ratliff were given some time off to rest their bodies.
- The Cowboys were extra cautious with Austin in the offseason workouts, getting him off the field every now and then to keep him from overworking his hamstrings.
- New running backs coach Gary Brown is coaching DeMarco Murray to be less susceptible to contact at the end of his runs.
- Drafting healthy: The Cowboys' top six draft picks missed zero games in 2012 and only two in 2011 (1 x Frederick, 1x Wilcox).
- While it's unclear whether this is standard procedure or a concerted effort to be extra cautious, many players with relatively minor injuries were also kept out of practice to ensure they'd be fully healthy for training camp.
The bullet points above are just a collection of anecdotal evidence showing different aspects of what the Cowboys are doing to keep the team healthy. There's bound to be a lot more going on behind the scenes that we're not privy to.
The question is, will it be enough to turn around the disastrous trend of the last four years?
Statistically speaking, there's reason for optimism - and it's called "Regression to the mean." This statistical phenomenon describes the fact that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on a second measurement. In our case today, it means that teams with a very high injury rate tend to have a better injury situation in the following year, while teams with an extremely low injury rate tend to have more injuries the following year.
And a look at the AGL numbers of the last six years bears that out. Between 2007 and 2011, 16 teams had AGL values of more than 80. 14 of those 16 teams saw their AGL decline the following season, from an average of 95 to 65, a drop of 30 games. A similar regression by the Cowboys would put them at 56.5 AGL in 2013, just two AGLs above the league average in 2012.
Back to Stephen Jones: do you think the Cowboys can "do a better job" with injuries this year, and if so, will that lead to "some significant improvements on 8-8?"