2020 Adjusted Games Lost: Part I
Football Outsiders has collected detailed injury information from the NFL's weekly injury reports every year since 2001. And as you might imagine, 2020 was a bit different. The specter of COVID-19 clouded those injury reports and at times—shout out to the Week 12 Broncos!—sabotaged teams' competitive chances. That said, the season progressed more smoothly than many expected. And in fact, the 67 players who opted out of the season in August made more of an impact on adjusted games lost—even with its heavy weighting of starters and rotation players—than the players who missed time due to COVID (or COVID protocols) during the season. Without the opt-outs, teams averaged just 4.8 adjusted games lost because of COVID, and no team reached 20.0. But with them, teams averaged 12.5 adjusted games lost and seven teams reached 20.0. And one team suffered far more than any other.
Cam Newton was the natural player to condemn for the Patriots' first losing season since Bill Belichick's first with the team in 2000, and that became truer the deeper Tom Brady took his new Buccaneers team in the playoffs. But Newton also had some unusual hardships beyond his own COVID bout and a lack of experienced receivers. The Patriots had eight total opt-outs, three more than the second-place Browns. And four of the Pats' opt-outs were presumed starters Marcus Cannon, Matt LaCosse, Dont'a Hightower, and Patrick Chung. The Giants were the only other team with more than one starter to opt out, and that's just because we counted Sam Beal as a half-season presumed "new starter," estimating that a myriad of defensive back injuries would have put Beal in the starting lineup eventually. Meanwhile, the Patriots did not have the depth to cover up their losses, especially at linebacker, where Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts had already departed in free agency. A year after ranking first in defensive DVOA, the Patriots fell to 26th in 2020 and 32nd against the run.
The Patriots may have suffered the worst, but other teams also lost critical players to opt-outs. In addition to Beal, the Giants lost left tackle Nate Solder. Solder had his career-worst season in 2019 with a 4.4% blown block rate according to Sports Info Solutions charting, but even a modest rebound toward his previous career standard would have represented an upgrade over rookie Andrew Thomas and his 4.6% blown block rate. The Broncos, Cardinals, and Chiefs lost linemen as well in Ja'Wuan James, Marcus Gilbert, and Laurence Duvernay-Tardif, respectively. Prior to February, I would have pegged the prior two players as the bigger losses as they precipitated their teams' falls into the bottom 10 in adjusted sack rate. But then the Super Bowl exposed the Chiefs' lack of offensive line depth with Eric Fisher out with a torn Achilles and Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie forced to play through groin and ankle injuries.
Defensively, the Vikings and Jets suffered clear impact opt-out losses in defensive tackle Michael Pierce and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Having already released two-time Pro Bowler Linval Joseph, the Vikings declined to 30th in run defense DVOA and 32nd in adjusted line yards in 2020 without their biggest free-agent addition. The Jets fared much better against the run (eighth in DVOA), but Mosley earned his contract with his three-down skill-set. He allowed just 6.0 yards per target with Baltimore in 2018, the last season when he played more than two games. Without him, the Jets allowed the sixth-highest DVOA to tight ends in 2020. And finally, the Bears can likely attribute some of their regression to 13th in pass defense DVOA to the loss of Eddie Goldman. Goldman isn't a special interior pass-rusher like his teammate Akiem Hicks, but he still contributed solid totals of 13 and 15 hurries in 2018 and 2019.
Las Vegas was the one team to lose more than 16 AGL without an opt-out starter. Las Vegas (18), Baltimore (13), Cleveland (13), Pittsburgh (10), and Denver (9) lost the most AGL from the in-season COVID list. Note that this includes all players on the COVID list, whether they missed games due to illness or just due to close contact.
The COVID focus put the cart a bit before the horse, so I'll step back to explain that adjusted games lost aims to measure the impact of injuries on teams. As you likely intuit, a starting offensive tackle matters more to his team than a special teams player. Adjusted games lost captures that distinction with separate weightings of starters, replacement starters, situational players, and bench players. In addition, the metric adjusts the weightings of active players who appeared on their teams' injury reports prior to playing to account for an anticipated decrease in effectiveness while playing hurt.
All causes included, 2020 saw a record average of 83.2 adjusted game lost per team. But putting COVID aside, teams averaged 70.8 adjusted games lost, the lowest total since 2013, although not dramatically lower than recent seasons which ranged from 71.8 to 82.2. Even that modest decrease is notable since injuries increased sharply and consistently between 2002 (32.6 adjusted games lost) and 2014 (77.8). Some of the 2020 decrease reflects a rule change made for COVID that had a broader impact: for the first and maybe only time, teams could return an unlimited number of their players from injured reserve and could activate them after a decreased minimum of three missed weeks. That said, the recent plateauing of adjusted games lost suggests other culprits for the decrease such as the rule changes for improved player safety.
|2020 AGL Results (with COVID)|
|Team||2020 AGL||Rk||2019 AGL||Rk||Dif||DVOA|
While the Patriots saw their thin roster shrink thinner with absences, the Bucs enjoyed the healthiest season in football with only 30.6 adjusted games lost. Belichick may find that ranking ironic since a fear of injury and decline likely motivated his willingness to let the 43-year-old Brady leave in free agency. However, health may have attracted Brady to the Bucs as much as their talented receivers. Tampa Bay finished third in adjusted games lost in 2019, and the metric correlates from year to year with a strength of about 0.30. Age likely plays a role there, and the Bucs had the fifth-lowest snap-weighted age (25.8) in 2019 and (with the obvious exception of Brady) weren't much older last season.
The Bucs were the healthiest team on offense (12.4 adjusted games lost) and second-healthiest team on defense (18.2), but they still faced adversity in their path to a title. Star defensive tackle Vita Vea missed three months with a broken leg, and the team lost several starters including Alex Cappa, Antonio Brown, and Antoine Winfield for portions of the playoffs (though playoff games are not a part of adjusted games lost). But the Bucs were resilient. The team maintained their No. 1-ranked run defense DVOA without Vea, and, well, you saw their postseason success.
Casual football fans discovered the excellence of the Bucs defense in that recent run to the Super Bowl. Football Outsiders readers likely recognized it in 2019 when the team finished sixth in defensive DVOA despite a Jameis Winston-interceptions-aided bottom-five total of 449 points allowed. But adjusted games lost supports an argument that the team's defensive improvement happened more gradually than either group would attest. Tampa Bay ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA in both 2017 and 2018, but their latter unit suffered from 91.4 adjusted games lost, the highest defensive total since 2001. That nadir spurred the biggest year-to-year health improvement (66.1) for a defense in our database between 2018 and 2019 and helped catapult the Bucs defense to their top-six DVOA finishes the last two seasons.
Teams such as the 49ers, Eagles, and Jets with big adjusted games lost totals in 2020 are likely eager to envision themselves as the next Buccaneers, but I suspect one could draw the wrong lesson from the latter's apparent injury regression. As stated, team adjusted games lost totals do correlate from year to year. In fact, the Bucs failed to crack the top 10 in adjusted games lost every year from 2003 to 2018, and only enjoyed their renaissance after they injected their roster with a bunch of young starters—the team's snap-weighted age improved from 26.3 in 2018 to 25.8 in 2019. That supposition makes me more confident that the 49ers can rebound with their current roster than the Eagles. The former saw their most significant injuries hit players such as Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa, and Solomon Thomas, who are 25 years old or younger. In contrast, the Eagles saw their pass protection devastated by injuries to Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo, and Andre Dillard, the first two of whom are on the wrong side of 30.
That said, adjusted games lost trends do not always paint clear pictures. Yes, the Eagles' flip from top-12 rankings from 2013-to-2017 to bottom-12 rankings in the last three seasons matches a narrative of a team that got old. But the 49ers have finished in the bottom 12 for eight straight seasons—or, twice as long as Kyle Shanahan has been head coach. Perhaps they need a better medical staff? Washington (seven years) is the only other team with a bottom-12 streak longer than the Eagles' current streak of three years.
The streak itself was bad enough, but Shanahan's 49ers suffered a particularly harsh fate with 166.6 adjusted games lost, the highest total in 2020 and second-highest since 2001 behind only the 2016 Bears at 171.6 (note that their total was listed at 155.1 prior to last year's methodology change). Given that adjusted games has a stronger year-over-year correlation with DVOA than it does with itself, Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh may have accomplished more in their 11th place DVOA finish last year than they did in their fifth-place DVOA finish in their Super Bowl season. A healthy quarterback would be a great start—Shanahan is 24-9 with the 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo as his starter.
At least the 49ers can have confidence in the direction of their franchise. Saleh's new team, the Jets, has finished 32nd and 29th in adjusted games lost the last two seasons, and that has made it practically impossible to evaluate quarterback Sam Darnold. In 2019, Darnold overcame half-season absences from offensive linemen Alex Lewis, Brian Winters, and Ryan Kalil and full-season absences from receivers Quincy Enunwa and Chris Herndon to go 7-6 as a starter with a palatable -20.4% passing DVOA. But last season, he fared much worse in both respects (2-10, -32.2%) with top receivers Breshad Perriman, Denzel Mims, and Jamison Crowder all missing time. A poor overall record affords the Jets the ability to reset with a new franchise quarterback from the top of the draft, but recent injury misfortune might entice the team to ride with Darnold for another season.
All that said about the 49ers, Eagles, and Jets, the best bets to follow in the Bucs' footsteps are likely Washington and Miami since they have already embraced a youth movement and in 2020 enjoyed two of the five biggest improvements in their adjusted games lost totals from the previous year. Washington's makeover didn't claw them out of the bottom 12 (although they finished 14th on defense where the bulk of their blue chippers play), but the Dolphins landed at 12th (seventh excluding COVID) after a four-year stay in that bottom third. The Dolphins also bested Washington with a 32nd-to-12th versus 30th-to-16th jump in team DVOA. It just didn't land them in the playoffs with the exceptional Bills in their division.
On the whole, the playoffs were full of healthy teams. Seven of the top 10 teams in adjusted games lost reached the postseason, and only Washington won their division while finishing in the bottom third. That trend should likely inform the Falcons' (48.0 adjusted games lost, third) and Texans' (58.2, seventh) decisions to either try to compete immediately or rebuild. They have little room to improve in the injury department, which means the whole of their gains must come from improved play. In contrast, teams such as the Chargers (109.1, 27th) and Cowboys (118.5, 28th) may already have contenders and just need a bit better luck to realize that potential.
Offense vs. Defense
The Vikings couldn't match the 49ers or Cowboys in overall adjusted games lost increase, but it's interesting to see how concentrated their injuries were in 2020. In 2019, they were the healthiest team in football and top-three on both offense and defense. Last year, they remained in the top five on offense but fell to 30th on defense.
|Offensive and Defensive AGL, 2020 (with COVID)|
|Team||Offensive AGL||Rk||Defensive AGL||Rk||Dif|
The Vikings suffered losses on all three defensive levels. Two-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Danielle Hunter missed the season with a neck injury and left a line already missing the COVID opt-out Pierce in shambles. Linebacker Anthony Barr managed just two games before a torn pectoral muscle landed him on injured reserve. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill played just eight games between them and forced the team to start a pair of rookie cornerbacks in Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. This was head coach Mike Zimmer's first finish outside of the top seven in defensive DVOA in five seasons, and there's little wonder why.
The Browns showed a less extreme disparity than the Vikings, but even theirs sparks optimism for a fan base whose first taste of the postseason in nearly two decades has them hungry for another experience with it. The Browns saw their injuries concentrated in the secondary, with second-round selections from the last two seasons Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams missing the year with Achilles and shoulder injuries and Denzel Ward and Ronnie Harrison missing time as well. It's easy to picture a defensive resurgence in 2021 to match the team's offensive boost from 2020 with better injury luck and with some new additions such as free agent safety John Johnson.
Finally, the Cowboys deserve a second mention because their top-five overall total of adjusted games lost was concentrated on offense, and more specifically the quarterback and line that represented the anticipated strength of their team. Dak Prescott was sixth in passing DVOA in 2019 and eighth in 2020 before his ankle injury. Meanwhile, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La'el Collins, Cameron Erving, and Joe Looney all missed time on the offensive line. Smith and Martin have 12 Pro Bowl berths and six first-team All-Pro distinctions between them, and so it was little surprise to see the Cowboys decline from second in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate in 2019 to 12th and 14th in those metrics last year.
Later this week in Part II: a look at AGL by position group.
20 comments, Last at 30 Mar 2021, 12:44pm
#1 by All Is On // Mar 22, 2021 - 1:33pm
The top two offenses in DVOA (GB and KC) were 26th and 24th (respectively) in offensive AGL and both had their patchwork offensive lines ripped to shreds by TB's pass rush in the playoffs. Kinda interesting. The next three offenses by DVOA (TB, TEN, BUF) ranked in the top 10 in offensive AGL.
Your offense can be very injured and still be excellent, as long as you get MVP-caliber QB play.
As an aside: I think it would be interesting and informative to add AGL to the DVOA tables once the season wraps up.
#2 by Pat // Mar 22, 2021 - 2:56pm
Still think Tampa's fairly unique there - it's not just their pass rush, their linebackers are really good as well. Which means techniques for dealing with pass rushes - screens, draws, rushes, etc. just don't do what you need them to. I should go back and see how Tampa's linebackers did vs Green Bay. I mean, just by stats White did pretty damn solidly that game as well, but I don't remember him being flat out crazy like in the Super Bowl.
#8 by bravehoptoad // Mar 23, 2021 - 12:37pm
Not so unique. The team that almost beat KC in the Superbowl last year--the 49ers--were similar in having a dynamite pass rush and great linebackers. Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw were a pretty good unit. The big problem that front had was their health. Alexander and Dee Ford were playing hurt, and practically their entire 2nd-string D-line was out for the Superbowl--Blair, Moore, Street, J. Taylor, all out--and once their first string got tired Mahomes was able to set his feet.
#10 by DisplacedPackerFan // Mar 23, 2021 - 2:03pm
Oh they still played crazy. As I mentioned a few times in threads about the Super Bowl the biggest difference was that GB didn't completely abandon the things that help neutralize pass rush. It wasn't completely effective obviously, but it worked well enough that they still had a chance to win the game. David and White took options away and made great plays all game.
But as I argued in the thread about how well did Mahomes really play, had KC kept doing the things and not reverted to hero ball it's very possible that the game would have looked a lot like the NFCCG. That is a one score game that either team could have won. People get suckered in by the 28-10 score early in the 3rd but that was one really bad GB defensive play and one really good TB defensive play (the forced fumble) otherwise it was likely a 14-10 or even 21 - 10 GB lead. The game was more competitive than people remember, even though TB was clearly the better team, and was better coached.
KC stopped trying to play like KC and just compounded the problems they had and the game got completely away from them. GB played like GB and lost a one score game (1 score regardless of that FG decision at the end) because they were out coached and slightly outplayed. The defense gave them fits, and played a great game, but a few decisions and the timing of a couple of the highest leverage plays in the game made it feel a lot less like what the game was. We saw a great defense making great plays and a great offense managing to counter it just enough. The GB defense stepped up in the 2nd half too, two of those ints they got were because of what the defense did, not because of offensive mistakes.
That was part of what was so great about the Tampa D. They were stopping GB, it wasn't GB stopping itself. Stopping the GB offense was not an easy task, I believe they had the 3rd highest points per drive since 1993 at 3.22, which was as far back as the FO stats went when I checked (Post 18 here https://www.footballoutsiders.com/game-previews/2021/nfc-divisional-round-preview-2021 for more details). This was an offense that intentionally played slow and was rarely stopped by anything but themselves. What TB did was impressive, especially after all the turnovers. But the blowout narrative actually diminishes what they did.
Anyway, I think you'll see that White and David didn't play quite as well in the NFCCG as the SB but they still played amazing. The difference was how the teams responded to how well the TB defense was playing.
#12 by DIVISION // Mar 23, 2021 - 6:19pm
I see your thought process behind thinking the SB could/should have been a one-score game, but in reality we can only go by what happened, not by what you think should have happened.
Poor coaching/game-plan by a distracted Andy Reid and absolutely stellar play by the Bucs' defense dominated the game.
Hero-ball would be apropos if Mahomes had actually completed some of those silly fall-a-way sidearm passes. He didn't. They didn't. Tampa day DID.
I called this game at half-time when most of this forum was scared to.
Just imagine how dangerous Aaron Schatz would be if he had faith in his DVOA!
#13 by RobotBoy // Mar 24, 2021 - 6:50am
Mahomes 'silly' sidearm passes still managed to hit his guys in the hands (and the facemask). The wasn't the throws: it was the drops. On very catchable balls. On throws that no other QB in the league can make.
Mahomes' play was the only reason that KC was even mildly competitive in the game (and a couple of drops away from being right in the mix). The takeaway from the game should be that Mahomes is a baaaaaad man. I say this as someone who has a partisan dislike of KC.
#16 by Pat // Mar 24, 2021 - 11:04am
I dunno. David and White just attacked every single short option that Kansas City tried to do. Screens were negative plays all game long, and either Kelce just had a horrible day or the linebackers were throwing him off, and I'm inclined to believe the latter. I mean, sure, the ball got there, but it's not like Kelce was ever really open like he often is. It was uncanny.
Green Bay has much different receivers than Kansas City has - they challenge corners/safeties more than linebackers - MVS, specifically, and he's the one that had the most success in the NFCCG (and obviously could've tied the game for them). Kansas City (like any Reid team) targets linebackers primarily, with the quintessential play being a slant to Hill that he takes to the house.
#7 by Aaron Schatz // Mar 23, 2021 - 10:06am
We don't have the data available publicly, but the order of teams is basically the same, the numbers have just changed slightly for the first couple years when "doubtful" didn't exist anymore (which I believe was 2017-2018).
#4 by Alex@ // Mar 22, 2021 - 6:16pm
the recent plateauing of adjusted games lost suggests other culprits for the decrease such as the rule changes for improved player safety
I wasn't expecting that, after reading this part first
injuries increased sharply and consistently between 2002 (32.6 adjusted games lost) and 2014 (77.8)
Anybody have any references about that increase?
#9 by bravehoptoad // Mar 23, 2021 - 1:06pm
But the 49ers have finished in the bottom 12 for eight straight seasons—or, twice as long as Kyle Shanahan has been head coach. Perhaps they need a better medical staff?
Shanahan & Lynch completely changed the medical staff in 2019.
My theory: what they've shared with the last GM--Trent Baalke--is a confidence in the very powers of medicine itself. They've thought they could hire the best doctors money could buy & the best facilities, then get "bargains" by drafting & signing people with a medical history. They've believed they could take better care of them than anyone else. Baalke was famous for drafting "Team ACL," and the new guys also believe. It's how they ended up with Dee Ford & Kwon Alexander & Jimmy Garoppolo & Richard Sherman & Jason Verrett &c. &c. It makes for a great team when everyone's healthy, but when is everyone healthy?
They might have changed their minds after 2020. They're signing people like Samson Ebukam and Alex Mack, neither of whom are particularly exciting, but both of whom have been healthy. They haven't brought back Richard Sherman or K'Waun Williams, who are amazing players when healthy, but not always healthy. They did resign Tartt, a great SS who's never played a 16-game season in his career, IIRC, but they did so on a one-year cheapo deal.
Well. Fingers crossed they're moving on from the high-upside highly-fragile kind of player they've liked recently.
#11 by DisplacedPackerFan // Mar 23, 2021 - 3:14pm
I'm looking for a McCarthy effect on injuries. We don't have enough data (we really don't this is all mostly meant to be tongue in cheek), but we should see GB get better and 2019, and 2020 and Dallas get worse in 2020 if there is an effect. I went back to 2008 (because that was what I could find with a search) and grabbed the AGL numbers and league rankings real quick for GB and DAL. McCarthy was HC in GB from 2006 - Game 13 of 2018 so giving him the full 2018 season seems fair. Not that I'm looking at the DAL coaches but it was Phillips in 08,09 and part of 10 and Garrett for part of 10 through 19. So relatively consistent even if I just care about pre/post McCarthy, but if there was a Phillips or Garrett effect we'd want to know.
In non McCarthy years Dallas ranked:
18, 30, 7, 18, 28, 17, 19, 5, 16, 5, 17, 4
Then with McCarthy they ranked 30th without COVID (28th with but the coaching effect shouldn't apply to that).
In the McCarthy years Green Bay ranked:
17, 25, 30, 16, 32, 30, 3, 9, 15, 21, 21
Without him they were 14 and 10 without COVID (15th with but the coaching effect shouldn't apply to that).
So we see the trend.
In the 12 years prior to McCarthy Dallas was rarely in the bottom 25% of the league, and in the top of the league 25% of the time. They did spend most of their time in the 3rd quartile though, 41.6%. There may indeed be a Phillips effect similar to the McCarthy effect as his two full years were 18 and 30 and Garrett only had 2 years worse than 18. He was at 19 in 2014, and 28 in 2012.
In the 11 years with McCarthy Green Bay was almost never (2014 and that crazy 3 being the exception) at the top of the league and more often than not were in the bottom quarter. They hit last in 2012, and 30th in 2010 and 2013. The 2 LeFluer years be the 3rd and 4th best years of the 11 we have for McCarthy. Not as clear an indication as Dallas tieing their worst year since 2008 by adding McCarthy, but still evidence.
So we'll see what 2021 adds to that. I'm guessing Dallas is likely to be 21 - 30 range and Green Bay in the 9 - 18 range. I think the McCarthy effect is real and that you don't want it on your team if you like your health.
#19 by dank067 // Mar 27, 2021 - 10:57am
For whatever it's worth, McCarthy made significant changes to the practice schedule and training regimen in Green Bay in 2014 and it looks to me like it might have helped. They had definitely been plagued by injuries in the first half of his tenure, but jumped up to #3 that year and never dipped too far below average afterwards. (I would bet the 2017 and 2018 rankings are somewhat inflated by guys sitting out down the stretch - those weren't injury-riddled teams, although Rodgers' injuries were obviously major factors those seasons.)
I do like LaFleur's approach (which I think he got from McVay) of giving veteran players plenty of rest. It does seem like it's paid off on the field, as the Packers have been pretty healthy the last two seasons. I specifically remember that their 2019 ranking is heavily inflated by counting Lane Taylor and Equimaneous St. Brown as starters - in reality they were probably one of the healthiest teams in the league in '19.
Of course, this new approach didn't stop Bakhtiari from tearing his ACL in practice... ugh.
#17 by MJK // Mar 25, 2021 - 2:10pm
Agreed. If the Pats had snuck into the playoffs with that roster, Belichick should have been considered for coach of the year.
(And in keeping with the idea of "game of inches", they weren't that far... If Cam get's one more yard on the last play of the SEA game, if Brian Hoyer isn't Brian Hoyer against KC, and if Cam doesn't fumble at the 11 yard line vs BUF, 10-6 with wins over SEA, BUF, and KC probably gets them in).
#18 by AFCNFCBowl // Mar 26, 2021 - 12:52pm
If Zane Gonzalez doesn't miss a field goal, the Jets do anything in the 4th quarter on Monday Night and the Ravens center is able to handle the snap, the Pats would have gone 4-12.
Playing this "what if" game assumes a team wins all its close games. The Pats were a 7-9 team that played like one last year.
#20 by MJK // Mar 30, 2021 - 12:44pm
Yes, that was exactly my point. A team's record depends so much on a few small events. Change a few events either way and the team goes from 4-12 to a 10-6 possible playoff team. So judging a team by its record is challenging.
Talent-wise, this was probably closer to a 4-12 team. Coaching and luck got them to 7-9 and could have gotten them further.