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Cowboys @ Redskins: The Contrasting Injury Interpretation Bowl

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When the Cowboys and Redskins face off on Monday night, we'll see two teams with very different 2015 injury histories: one with a few key players missing games and another that ranks among the league leaders in players on IR and games missed by starters. Which history is the more impactful?

The 2015 season, in a nutshell
The 2015 season, in a nutshell
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

One of the narratives that has governed the 2015 season is that the Cowboys could have won the division had it not been for all those pesky injuries. Early in the season, the injury bug took up residence at Valley Ranch and proved to be as difficult pest to dispatch; in the first four games, Dez Bryant, Randy Gregory, Ronald Leary, James Hanna, Terrell McClain, Brice Butler, Ryan Russell and, of course, Tony Romo all missed games due to injury. In addition, draft picks Mark Nzeocha and Chaz Green both sat on the PUP list, due to prior dings.

After the bye, however, this narrative thankfully failed to continue. Since the off week, only Sean Lee (one game), Joseph Randle (one game, then released) and Mo Claiborne (three games) have sustained new injuries (and the big one to Tony Romo who will start his second run of "games missed" tonight). Several of the above-mentioned players in the first paragraph continue to sit on the injury rolls, but Gregory, Leary and Hanna are all well, and Nzeocha and Green have come off PUP and currently sit on the active roster. In total, Dallas has missed 86 games due to injury on the year, which translated to just under eight per contest.

At first glance that seems like a lot. But, according to mangameslost.com, which tracks games lost in all four major American sports, that number places the Cowboys 19th overall. A glass-half-full view, in other words, says that Dallas has been the NFL's 14th most healthy team in 2015 - just good enough to place them in the top half of the league.

Monday's opponent, the Redskins, have not been so lucky. At the twelve game mark, they have 11 players on IR, including TEs Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen, OC Kory Lichtensteiger, and pass rushers Junior Gallette and Jackson Jeffcoat. In total, Washington has lost a total of 126 games to injuries; through week 12, that's the NFL's fourth highest total (to put that in perspective, the Giants led the league with 136), and far higher than all other playoff contenders save for New England.

Each week, the fine folks over at mangameslost (MGL) provide a handy graphic that allows us to visualize the relative league-wide injury totals. Here's what the chart looked like after last weekend's action:

week 12 injuries

As you can see, they provide two axes, one that tracks what we have just been discussing - the number of team games lost due to injury (note how most of the division leaders are clustered on the graph's left side, the area reserved for the less injured squads) - and another that tracks the quality of those injuries. This is the interesting axis; as O.C.C. and other stats-inflected analysts around these parts have done for years, the MGL folks use Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value ratings to quantify each player's relative value. Obviously, an injury to Tony Romo (who had a 2014 AV of 15) is more impactful than one to Terrell McClain (2014 AV of one).

With this in mind, the MGL folk offer a variety of categories to track the relative value of injuries. IIT-avpasser, for example, shows the injury impact to a team by AV rating for all players with one or more passes on the year. Similarly, IIT-avrushrec and IIT-avdefense do the same with runners and receivers and defensive layers, respectively. Together, these combine to form IIT-avtotal, the number that we see on the graph's vertical axis.

By this standard, the MGL analysts argue, the Steelers can make a strong case that they have been the team most impacted by injuries. While Pittsburgh sits at ninth in games lost to injury with 114, they are tops in the league in IIT-avtotal with 1.563, since the players that have been injured, particularly in the Passer and Defense categories, have greater Approximate Value ratings. And sure, enough, a quick glance at the graph shows that the red circle with "PIT" in it to be an outlier.

If we look at the weighted categories, the Redskins injuries are seen in a new light. While fourth overall in games lost to injury, Washington is much lower in the value markers, finishing 28th in the passer category, 30th in the rusher/ receiver category, and 18th in the defense category. Overall, the Redskins are 27th in IIT-avtotal, which suggests that they have had a lot of injuries to lesser contributors. And sure enough, our graph shows that Washington, like Pittsburgh, is a bit of an outlier; while they are on the left fringe in terms of total games lost, only a handful of teams register lower in terms of the injury value.

Similarly, it's in these weighted categories that the real impact of the Cowboys injuries is revealed. Although they are 19th overall in total games lost, Dallas sits seventh in IIT-avtotal. This is in some part due to injuries to Bryant and Dunbar, which are sufficient to place the Cowboys 14th overall in IIT-avrushrec. On the other hand, by AV value lost, they have had the league's healthiest defense. The deciding factor, in a development that will surprise absolutely nobody, is that Dallas tops the league (and will certainly finish in that position) in IIT-avpasser. In fact, 71% of the Cowboys IIT-avtotal comes from games missed by Number Nine. In addition to team ratings, MGL compiles individual games lost and value rankings. The player at the top of the league-wide value list? Tony Romo.

A while back, I wrote a post arguing that the Cowboys' injuries in 2015 are different from those that hit the team in 2012 and '13 in terms of value - specifically by looking at the most valuable positions: QB, WR, LT, DE, CB. In 2012-13, Dallas suffered injuries to position groups (defensive line) or particular areas (interior defense). Yet they still had their elite players at the most important positions. In 2015, by contrast, they have had blue-chip stars at four of the five positions miss games due to injury (Romo, Bryant, Orlando Scandrick) or suspension (Greg Hardy).

The moral of the story posed by MGL's data is that not all injuries are created equal. On Monday night, as a much-injured team with its best players intact faces off against a relatively healthy team missing 2015's most important injured player, we will see these contrasting injury interpretations put to the test. It should be...er, fun?