“If only our guys had stayed healthy.”
This common lament from NFL fans at the end of a disappointing season reflects the harsh reality that injuries are an unavoidable part of football. I don’t particularly like using injuries as an excuse, but there is no denying that the health (or lack thereof) of certain key players can have a dramatic impact on a team’s fortunes in a season.
With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the four teams in the NFC North to see how they were affected by injuries in 2013. I had some difficulty here in trying to find one perfect metric for looking at injuries, and ended up settling on four different ways. No one of them is perfect , but together they should give you a pretty good idea of how badly teams were impacted by injuries. Before we get to the numbers, let’s take a minute to briefly explain each method.
WARNING: if you don’t care about how I did what I did and just want to see the results, you should save yourself a lot of time and skip to the results section.
The first metric I examined was games missed due to injury. This simply counts any time a player on the roster is ruled inactive for a week due to an injury. This is useful for seeing how much injuries impacted the roster as a whole, but completely ignores the value of a player. A superstar quarterback missing a game means a lot more to the team than a fringe roster player who only plays on special teams, but they both count the same here.
The second metric, therefore, is starts missed. This looks only at games missed due to injury by players expected to be starters with a fully healthy team (so the standard eleven on offense and defense, plus a third wide receiver and cornerback). This helps distinguish in player value a little bit, but still treats all starters equally when in fact that is not close to being accurate.
The third metric looks at starts missed by Pro Bowl performers, that is, players who have made a Pro Bowl since 2012 playing for their current team. The idea here is to look at players who are high-impact starters expected to be the best players on the field. The flaws are that the Pro Bowl voting system is far from perfect, and again, there is still a difference in value between a star quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and a nice fullback like John Kuhn, both of whom qualified as Pro Bowl players here.
Finally, I looked at money lost due to injuries, assuming each players gets 1/16th of his cap for the season. So if a player has a cap hit of $16 million for the year and missed one game due to injury, the team just “lost” $1 million. The general idea is that teams pay their better players more money, but there will always be guys who are overpaid or underpaid, sometimes dramatically (Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers, for example, had the second highest cap hit in the NFC North this year but did not play anywhere close to that level). Players who particularly get overlooked here are young players playing well on relatively small rookie contracts (think of guys like safety Harrison Smith and tight end Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota).
So again, let me emphasize that no one approach is perfect here. Different teams will appear to have larger injury issues than they actually did (or vice-versa) if you look only at one of the four metrics, but looking at all four should generally give us a solid idea of how teams fared relative to each other.
Here are the totals for each team in the NFC North in the four injury areas. For those who are curious, the raw data can be seen here. I had bold and italicized fonts to indicate starters and Pro Bowl players, but it didn’t copy and paste from Excel to Google Docs, and I didn’t care enough to go back and add it in manually. Sorry.
In three of the four areas, the Green Bay Packers comes out as the NFC North team that suffered from injuries the most in 2013. This is probably not very surprising to anybody who followed the division closely this year-their injury woes were well documented-and makes their division title all the more impressive.
What is interesting to me is that, despite having almost twice as many games lost due to injury as any other NFC North team, the Packers were not that far off from some of the others in starts, Pro Bowl Starts, and money lost. This suggests that a good number of their injuries were to backups and special teams players, although they still certainly lost their fair share of top-shelf talent as well.
The Chicago Bears stand out as an interesting case here. They lost the fewest games due to injury of any team in the NFC North, but were well ahead of everybody but Green Bay in money and starts lost. They also suffered more Pro Bowl starts lost than the rest of the NFC North combined. So it would appear the Bears stayed relatively healthy overall but just had some bad luck in terms of the specific players who went down with injuries.
Another thing I find interesting about Chicago is that the overwhelming majority of their injuries were to the defense. Of the 86 games lost to injury, 80 were by the defense, and 61 of the 66 starts lost-including all 28 Pro Bowl starts-came on the defensive side of the ball. Chicago’s offense stayed remarkably healthy this year, while their defense did not.
The Detroit Lions lost significantly more games overall than the Minnesota Vikings did, but the two teams were highly comparable in both starts and money lost due to injury. Minnesota also lost significantly more Pro Bowl starts, although part of that could be due to the fact that Detroit has a shockingly low number of players on their team who have made the Pro Bowl; the only Lions currently on the roster who have played in the Pro Bowl for Detroit are wide receiver Calvin Johnson, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and long snapper Don Muhlbach.
So there you have it. Some specific numbers you can use when you want to argue with somebody about how much more your team was hurt by injuries than their team this year. I just want to stress one more time that no one number here is perfect, as every method has specific flaws and players it will overvalue or undervalue. And ultimately there is no numerical way to fully evaluate the impact of injuries on a team, as there is no way to objectively assign value to every player that misses time due to injury.
In the future, I would love to expand this study to the entire NFL in order to better give context to the NFC North teams, but that seems like too much work to be worth the effort, especially given that it gets harder to do the less well you know the teams, and I know the NFC North teams better than any others in the league. However, if anybody is interested in seeing the entire NFL, I may be willing to reconsider, but they are going to have to help me compile the data.