Will The Dallas Cowboys Be A Healthier Team In 2014?

USA TODAY Sports

It feels like the Cowboys injury rate has increased every year for the last few years. Will the Cowboys be a healthier team in 2014, and what would that mean for the 2014 season?

In March this year Stephen Jones conceded that on paper, the 2014 defense doesn't look better than it did a year ago. But Jones added that the 2014 defense will be better than the 2013 version becuse it will be healthier. The problem in 2013, according to Jones, was that Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff were unavailable for most or all of the season with injuries, and that DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher played through injuries. This year, Jones sees a healthier defense.

"When we were sitting here last year we thought we were better because we thought Ware was going to be Ware and Hatch was going to be Hatch and Spence was going to be Spence and Rat was going to be Rat," Jones said, via the Star-Telegram. "And those were pretty damn good football players before the injuries hit. This time last year, we loved our front because I thought everyone was going to be healthy and back and they didn’t."

"If we play better on defense, then we should be a better team," Jones said.

Most Cowboys fans would agree with that statement, but how exactly do you go about not getting injured? Over the last few weeks of OTAs and minicamps, we've gotten a glimpse of some of the things the Cowboys are doing to contain the injury bug.

  • Reports surfaced at the start of OTAs that additional workout equipment, adjustments to stretching routines, and ballet bars were visible at Valley Ranch.
  • During OTAs several veteran players were given some time off to rest their bodies.
  • All linemen had to wear knee braces. Even Rod Marinelli wore knee braces, apparently out of sympathy.
  • Medicine balls made an appearance during minicamp.
  • During offseason workouts, some players were wearing tights to keep their legs warm and in some cases using heat spray on their legs, all in an effort to keep their hamstrings in good shape.
  • For a while now, running backs coach Gary Brown has been coaching DeMarco Murray to be less susceptible to contact at the end of his runs.
  • While it's unclear whether this is standard procedure or a concerted effort to be extra cautious, players with relatively minor injuries like Ben Gardner and Matt Johnson were also kept out of practice to ensure they'd be fully healthy for training camp.
  • The Cowboys have been working with an Australian company called catapult sports, which provide GPS tracking equipment for players during practice that can help teams reduce soft-tissue injuries by helping adjust and monitor individual practice workloads.

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. But at the end of the day, 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 on defense the last two years.

Every year, Football Outsiders publish their statistical study of team health from the previous NFL season, and today 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 2013 season with 67.9 Adjusted Games Lost, only the 16th highest value in the league, and significantly down from the 86.5 in 2012. The following table shows the Cowboys' injury stats over the last seven years compared to the league average.

Adjusted Games Lost to Injury, 2007-2013
Team 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Cowboys 45.8 53.3 22.5 31.8 62.5 86.5 67.9
NFL Average 45.0 52.7 53.9 50.9 60.0 64.5 70.2

One important thing to note is that the AGL average is increasing year after year. Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders speculates that this may have to do with "teams doing a better job of reporting injuries." Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't.

But what's important for Cowboys fans to understand is that only once in the last seven years have the Cowboys had a significantly above average injury rate. Let that sink in for a minute. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Cowboys injury situation, 2012 was the only recent year in which the Cowboys suffered from an unusually high injury rate.

The reason why many fans feel the Cowboys have been hit harder by injuries than the average team is that in contrast to previous years, the last two years have seen a highly asymmetric distribution of injuries for the Cowboys. The image below illustrates that asymmetric distribution in 2012 - notice how injuries cut a broad swath straight down the middle of the defense?

Injured_starters_2012_large

And a similar picture emerged in 2013. The image below shows the projected 2013 starters and their injury history. Notice how the injuries are once again clustered, except this time the injuries were concentrated in the front seven.

Injured_starters_2013_large

The 2013 Cowboys defense had the fourth highest injury rate in the league with 51.4 Adjusted Games Lost. Of that total, 26.0 AGL were on the defensive line alone - and that's not even counting the injuries to Ware and Hatcher that significantly impacted their performance over the latter half of the season.

The 2013 Cowboys offense on the other hand, despite injuries to Brian Waters and Miles Austin, ranked as the sixth-healthiest offense in the league with an AGL of just 16.6.

Statistically speaking, there's reason for optimism and reason for pessimism in these numbers - 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.

Specifically, it's very likely that the Cowboys defense will see a lot less injuries in 2014. This is a good thing. But it doesn't automatically mean that the defense will be better. The New Orleans Saints had the defense with the highest AGL in 2013, and their AGL of 74.4 on defense alone is more than the Cowboys had across their entire team. Yet the Saints finished as the fourth-ranked defense in both points and yards.

Unfortunately, if you were counting on the offense to bail out the defense by maintaining its fifth-ranked scoring pace of 27.5 points per game into the new season, regression to the mean has some less favorable news for you: Given that the Cowboys offense was one of the healthiest units in the league last year, we have to expect that they'll see more injuries in 2014, and that might impact their ability to score. Then again, the Packers had the fourth-worst AGL on offense last year (59.3) and still managed to score 417 points, just 24 points less than the Cowboys.

There were 2,036 players on league rosters at some point in 2013, which means 340 players got added to 53 man rosters after the start of the season, and it's a good bet that most of them got added because another player suffered some kind of injury. A study by SI.com from the first week of December, 2013, showed that there were 269 injured players on NFL reserve lists at that time, compared to the same week in 2012 (264), 2011 (252), 2010 (253) and 2009 (223).

We know that injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. We also know that a good amount of injuries suffered are random: the healthiest team in 2012 (SF: 16.2 AGL) turned out to be the 10th most injured team in 2013 (84.2 AGL); the healthiest team in 2013 (KC: 27.6 AGL) was the 11th most injured team in 2012 (79.2 AGL). These types of swings happen every year, but they are the outliers. Most teams will oscillate to various degrees around the league average, like the Cowboys have done.

The Cowboys probably won't be significantly healthier (or unhealthier) in 2014 than they were in 2013. It can happen, but the odds of that happening are long. But there are three things the Cowboys can look forward to.

1. A better distribution of the injuries across the entire roster will make the impact of those injuries less crippling.

2. The team has gotten younger every year, and that youth will eventually pay off. As players become older, the risk of injury increases exponentially. The injury risk for younger players is much lower, and the performance upside much higher.

3. The Cowboys may not have the depth attributed to some of the more successful teams in the league, but their depth has definitely improved. And better depth will allow you to better compensate for the inevitable injuries.

Will it be enough? I don't know. What I do know is that despite all their injury woes, the Cowboys were one game away from the playoffs in each of the last three years. Maybe the heat spray will prove to be the difference this year, maybe it'll be the additional stretching, maybe it'll be better distribution of injuries, maybe it'll be simple luck. Whatever it'll be, if it means Cowboys football in January 2015, I'll take it.

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