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.
As we look back at the last season, the list of players who missed games due to injury, or were playing hurt, reads like a veritable who-is-who of the Dallas Cowboys offense: Marion Barber (quad, thumb), Felix Jones (knee), Marc Columbo (fractured fibula), Martellus Bennett (concussion), Roy Williams (ribs), Tony Romo (played with sore back), Leonard Davis (played with fractured thumb) … and those are just the players I remember off the top of my head.
Hearing complaints about the injury situation of any given team is an almost daily occurrence in the life of the average NFL fan, but how often have you heard a team’s health being credited as the reason for the success of a team?
This may have gone quietly unnoticed, but on defense, the Cowboys front seven and starting cornerbacks didn't miss a single start. Safeties Gerald Sensabaugh (thumb) and Ken Hamlin (high ankle sparin) were the only starters to miss games, missing five games combined.
Both Rick Gosselin from the Dallas Morning News and FootballOutsiders.com have recently published their annual injury rankings for 2009, and despite all the injuries listed above on offense, both rankings show that the Cowboys actually finished the season as one of the healthiest teams in the NFL.
How do they define healthy?
Rick Gosselin lists the number of games lost by starters due to injury. FootballOutsiders (FO) use a stat called Adjusted Games Lost, which shows the impact of injuries, both in terms of missed games and games where players were not able to play to their full potential because they were playing hurt, the status and relevance of a player to his team, and other data to produce a measure of how dramatically a team is affected by injury.
We could discuss the merits and demerits of both approaches until we’re blue in the face, but to accurately quantify the impact of injuries is probably next to impossible. For now, they’re all we have, and at least they apply their approach consistently across all 32 NFL teams. So with the data we have, here are some observations on health/injuries in the NFL:
The Cowboys are healthier than most. Over five years of data available from Rick Gosselin, the Cowboys rank as the second healthiest team in the NFL behind only the Jets. Based on the three years of data available to me from FO, their ranking shows the Cowboys as the ninth healthiest team. Based on their own data (that may go as far back as 1996) they offer the following observation:
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.
Remarkably, Rick Gosselin also has those three teams (TEN, KC, DAL) ranked as numbers two through four behind only the Jets as the most healthy teams over the last five years.
Injuries: Tough luck or a systemic problem? Both rankings agree on who the least healthy teams have been for the last few years. The Rams, Colts, Bills and Lions have shown a remarkable consistency in remaining at the bottom of both 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.
FO has this to say about the Colts for example:
Speaking of the Colts, it's pretty clear that the Polian Era consistently results in injury rates higher than the league average, likely owing to the team's strategy of fielding an undersized, quicker defense
Do only healthy teams make the playoffs? While it certainly helps to be healthy, it does not appear to be a prerequisite. Take this year's Super Bowl teams. Both rankings show that the Saints and Colts were among the seven teams hit hardest by injuries in 2009, which goes to show that injuries do not necessarily prevent a deep playoff run (as long as the injury is not to your franchise quarterback?).
Rick Gosselin shows that of the last eleven Super Bowl winners, almost half have won the Super Bowl despite significant injury woes:
Rick Gosselin's Injury Rankings, Super Bowl winners since 1998
|Games lost to injury||14||11||21||26||17||87||55||16||49||22||53||67|
Out of these five teams, only the Ravens made the playoffs in 2008. In 2009, all teams except the Broncos made the playoffs. Surprisingly though, only the Bengals and Cowboys recorded an increase in wins versus the previous season, the Broncos stayed unchanged, the Patriots dropped one and the Ravens dropped two.
Opportunity in injuries. Sometimes, injuries to starters can be an opportunity for a second string player to grab his chance and run with it.
Miles Austin likely would not have started in the Kansas City game if not for an injury to Roy Williams. It is highly unlikely that both Crayton and Williams were better than Austin that first month and - Bazinga! - all of a sudden Austin just became a top 5 WR in one day. Austin was simply stuck on the depth chart. Once the opportunity presented itself, he seized his chance and quite literally ran with it.
Kevin Kolb significantly increased his value when he started in place of the injured Donovan McNabb for the Eagles, and recorded two successive 300+ passing games, further fanning the flames of the ever burning quarterback controversy in Philadelphia.
Below is the publicly available data from both sources. Both tables can be sorted by clicking on the respective columns.
Rick Gosselin's Injury Chart: Games lost by starter due to injury
Football Outsiders, Adjusted Games Lost