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Cowboys 2013 Injuries: The Impact Of Playing Hurt

Dallas lost some key players to injury last year, several before the season even started. As it turns out, many other important members of the team were playing hurt for much of the season as well.

A phantom, and the healthiest rushman the Cowboys had last year.
A phantom, and the healthiest rushman the Cowboys had last year.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In my recent post on the impact injuries had on the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, I began to wonder if keeping more players healthy was the most important thing the team could do to win more games this year. The Adjusted Games Lost metric Football Outsiders uses showed that statistics sometimes validate common sense. It was clear that the part of the Cowboys that was most affected by injuries was the defensive line. However, there are some things the Cowboys dealt with that FO does not account for. I asked Scott Kacsmer of Football Outsiders for a little clarification on how they came up with their numbers, and he sent me this (along with his gracious permission to quote it).

For preseason injuries, we try to factor in how much of a role that player would have had if healthy, which is of course not an easy thing to do when there are open competitions and depth charts are not set in stone at the time these summer injuries happen.

For the Cowboys, we deemed Ratliff to be a key reserve, but once he left for Chicago, he leaves Dallas' injury list since he was no longer with the team. So he only appears for Weeks 1-6.

Matt Johnson was put in a "Never Played" list, which does not factor into AGL. Most players on that list have never played in a game as most are late draft picks or undrafted free agents or guys who spend some time on the practice squad. Johnson has yet to play a real game in two years after multiple injuries. Bass & Crawford were considered reserves (not starters or key subs).

Working off a summer depth chart, I had the Cowboys' starting DL as Spencer, Ratliff, Hatcher and Ware. The relationship with Ratliff seemed to deteriorate this offseason, which is probably why he wasn't listed as a starter.

It seems that the assumptions that FO has to make to get to their figures can lead to a different picture, particularly when the team has plans for players that are derailed in training camp by the injury bug. (Oh, and nice understatement on "seemed to deteriorate" in describing the relationship between team management and Jay Ratliff.)

I felt I needed to take a closer look at the injury patterns for Dallas, and got an assist. Rabblerousr clued me in to a quick way to look at the raw data FO used for their AGL. Pro Football Reference generates a chart that shows the status of every player that winds up on the weekly injury report for the entire regular season. This relates directly to FO's system, since they attempt to weigh how much impact different levels of reported injury have on teams. When I looked at the chart for Dallas, I quickly realized that the Cowboys not only lost a lot of players on the defensive line to injury, the ones that were playing were nursing injuries for most of the season, and those limited their ability to play. Most of us realized this to at least some extent, but a little deeper look into the data makes it much more clear. And it points out that, once again, the Dallas D bore the brunt of issues in 2013, and the problems affected more than just the line.

But the line was the biggest problem for Dallas. This was not only because of the number of injures involved, but because of the importance of the pass rush from the linemen in the Kiffen/Marinelli scheme.

Before I start breaking down the numbers for the Cowboys, a brief review of what the different terms on the weekly injury report mean:

Probable: the player has a 75% chance of playing
Questionable: the player has a 50% chance of playing
Doubtful: the player has a 25% chance of playing
Out: the player is out
Physically Unable to Perform: the player is on the physically unable to perform list
Injured Reserve: the player is on the injured reserve list

Note that outside of IR and PUP, all the other designations are determined by the team itself on a week to week basis. It makes it a bit difficult to compare teams, because not all franchises report things the same. For instance, some teams will overstate injuries, while others will do the opposite. It is all part of the disinformation warfare that goes on in the NFL.

It is also worth noting that the way teams treat injuries can be a little flexible depending on the situation. An obvious situation would be after the team has either clinched a playoff spot or been eliminated. In either of those situations, the coaching staff is more likely to keep someone on the bench and save them for later, whereas a team still in the thick of the playoff hunt might put someone they would rather protect out there to maximize the chances of winning.

This is another reason that the AGL numbers FO comes up with are not exactly scientific, just a guide to trying to sort out things. And why getting to the basic data sometimes can give a clearer picture.

Looking at that data for the Cowboys, by the time the team had sorted things out and sent the wounded off to IR, the starting defensive line last season was DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Nick Hayden, and George Selvie. With 64 games total to account for, they were on the injury report a total of 35 games. Most were "questionable" or more severe. That's more than half the potential starts being played by someone who is hurt enough that the team feels it needs to put them on the injury report.

Not all injuries are created equal, but there has to be some effect on the level of play, and it was clear that Ware, certainly, was not able to play with his accustomed power and speed for much of the season. So not only did the team lose two starters in Ratliff and Spencer, plus two key backups on the D line, they also had the two remaining starters play hurt in most games. Just to do a quick summary, here are the number of games each of the four starting rushmen were on the injury report. (Total Missed means all games the player sat out, even though they were listed in some as Questionable or Doubtful - the other columns will add to 16, but this one duplicates some of the other categories.)

Player Healthy Probable Questionable Doubtful Total Missed
DeMarcus Ware 5 3 6 2 3
Jason Hatcher 5 5 6 - 1
Nick Hayden 12 2 2 - -
George Selvie 7 4 5 - -

Hayden was at least healthy for most of the games he was in - the only one of the linemen you can truly say that about. And he was far and away the least effective one of the four, so that is a mixed blessing at best.

And the list goes on. Here are the numbers on four other key defensive players.

Player Healthy Probable Questionable Doubtful Out I.R. Total Missed
Sean Lee 10 1 2 1 2 - 5
Morris Claiborne 2 5 7 - 2 - 6
Justin Durant 7 1 4 - 2 2 6
DeVonte Holloman 7 2 6 - 1 - 7

The numbers just keep adding up on the defense. The starting Mike, the starting Sam, the top backup linebacker, and a starting corner. And, as things will, these kept piling up. The later in the season, the more of the players listed in the two charts were all hurt at once. And the more were unable to take the field. Whether it was sitting on the bench, or just being able to give 50% or 75% of your normal effort, it all added up to hurt the defense.

No matter how you look at it, and no matter what the different statistical manipulations came up with, this has to have hurt the Cowboys defense. Other teams may have had similar numbers hurt, but once again, I think very few took such a concentrated shot to the real heart of the defense,

The offense simply was much, much healthier, outside the loss of Brian Waters. DeMarco Murray missed some games, but had his best year as a rusher. Miles Austin (almost expected) and Lance Dunbar were the other two players to see really significant missed time and limited ability, and only Dunbar with his four weeks on IR to finish the season had worse numbers than Claiborne or Ware.

There are going to be several different names on the defense this year, but all the changes in the world will not help unless Dallas finds a way to keep more players healthy. The staff has said that improved health is a priority this season. It better be. The more I look at the injuries from last year, the more I think keeping the team healthy is the most important step to take in trying to get back into the playoffs.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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