by Scott Kacsmar
It was more probable than not that the 2016 NFL season would make us revisit the way we calculate the number of games missed due to injury. The league removed the "probable" designation from Game Status Reports, leaving "questionable," "doubtful," or "out" as the only options to describe each player's likelihood of appearing in that week's game. In past years, "probable" was meant to indicate that a player had roughly a 75 percent chance of playing that week, but actual results leaned more towards 95 percent of those players taking the field. In other words, "probable" became about as boring and predictable as an extra point from the 1-yard line, so something had to be done.
This move was essentially designed to streamline the process and cut down on gamesmanship, but did it just murky the waters of misinformation even more?
A "questionable" designation was intended to be more of a 50-50 proposition, but we have seen teams loosely interpret that rate in the past. Under the new system, "questionable" means that "it is uncertain as to whether the player will play in the game." Doubtful used to mean that there was at least a 75 percent chance that the player would not play, but now means "it is unlikely the player will participate."
Basically, there has been little difference between "doubtful" and "out" in recent years -- a player listed in either category will likely sit out that week. If a player did magically play during one of those weeks, he likely received a low-key Saturday upgrade to questionable (discussed here last year) that does not make its way onto the official injury reports. Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil was the only "doubtful" player to take the field -- not only did he play in a Week 12 game against Cincinnati, he even forced a fumble! -- but that looks more to be a typo on the Ravens' official site that may have been later corrected to "questionable" on NFL.com.
Naturally, with "probable" gone, we expected to see more players listed as "questionable" than ever before in 2016. However, the unexpected twist was having more than 1,500 players listed as injured, but without any type of game status. In past years this never happened -- every player on every game report had been listed with a designation. We started calling these players "The Blanks" since teams just used a "-" in place of any actual designation for their statuses. Even if the player had a real injury and regardless of his practice participation, his status for the weekend was still missing, as you can see here from this example for the Chiefs in Week 4.
Fortunately, our hypothesis that teams were making The Blanks the new "probable" was proven correct. More than 95 percent of The Blanks went on to play that week. The following table looks at a breakdown of the past four years in regards to the Game Status Report and how many of these players played that week. The data is for the regular season only.
|Football Outsiders Injury Database: NFL Game Status Report Summary for 2013-2016|
|* No "Probable" in 2016, but teams still listed players with a blank ("-") on the Game Status Report.|
Again, the numbers for "doubtful" and "out" remained consistent after this year's changes. What we have seen change is an increase of more than 600 more "questionable" players, while the appearance rate for those players increased to 74.2 percent this past season. The NFL is basically getting what it once intended "probable" to be (a 75 percent chance of playing) with the new "questionable" designation.
While roughly 24 percent of the weekly injury reports used to be "questionable" players, that rate was up to 39 percent in 2016. With a higher playing rate for these players, we clearly had to change our calculations for Adjusted Games Lost (AGL). While the rates are virtually the same for the other three designations, we used the 2016 data to develop the 2016 AGL. If we used the old calculation, teams would have had higher AGL totals due to this increase in "questionable" players, even though nearly three-quarters of them ended up playing that week.
For those unfamiliar with AGL, we do not simply add up the number of games missed. We are able to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries based on two principles: (1) Injuries to starters, injury replacements and important situational reserves (No. 3 wide receiver, nickel corner, etc.) matter more than injuries to benchwarmers; and (2) Injured players who do take the field are usually playing with reduced ability, which is why AGL is based not strictly on whether the player was active for the game or not, but instead is based on the player's game status that week (IR/PUP, out, doubtful, questionable, or probable).
Before we get to the 2016 results, we'll look at how specific teams reacted to the changes in the reporting system.
2016's Injury Reporting Tactics
As long as NFL teams are solely responsible for producing weekly injury reports, we cannot say that every single injury has been accounted for. Secrecy is an unavoidable aspect of this part of the game.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll made the news in January when he revealed that star cornerback Richard Sherman played through the second half of the season with a serious MCL injury. Sherman was never listed on the injury report for this injury, which set off an investigation by the NFL. Sherman was given some practices off for "rest," which is not uncommon around the league, especially for veterans. He missed no game time and even played in the Pro Bowl. The league's investigation ended with just a warning for the Seahawks, but it would be naïve to not think this goes on often around the league.
Over the years we have discovered a few trends from certain teams when it comes to their injury reports, and their reactions to the league's changes were interesting. There definitely was some correlation (minus-0.59) between how many Blanks and "questionable" players each team had as they wrestled with transparency and honesty. The following table looks at the 2016 data for The Blanks and "questionable" players.
|2016 Injury Reports: The Blanks (New Probable) and Questionable Players|
For the fourth year in a row, the Texans led all teams with the most minor injuries reported. That includes three years (2013-15) of leading the league in "probable" designations, including one year under Gary Kubiak before Bill O'Brien took over. Kubiak's Broncos finished a close third in 2016 with 102 Blanks. Meanwhile, Baltimore, New England, and Tampa Bay all ranked in the bottom five for "probable" players in both 2014 and 2015. All three are again in the bottom five for The Blanks, using it 14 times between the three teams combined. Teams averaged 47.7 Blanks in 2016. The Dallas Cowboys were the only team to not bother with The Blanks. Seven other teams played every single one of their Blanks every week.
In 2015, John Fox (Bears) and Dan Quinn (Falcons) took head coaching jobs in the NFC. Those teams could not be any more different in their use of the "questionable" designation. The Falcons used it a league-low five times in 2015 and barely doubled that to a league-low 11 times in 2016. Meanwhile, the Bears were way ahead of the pack in 2015 with a league-high 97 "questionable" listings, and are again on top with 111 uses in 2016. However, as you will see below, it was an injury-plagued season for Chicago. Also, the Bears (74.8 percent) were the closest team in the league to playing their "questionable" players at the league average rate of 74.2 percent.
We have also noticed that the Titans have taken a liking to sitting "questionable" players under Mike Mularkey, who became the interim coach in 2015 before taking over full time this past season. The Titans played their "questionable" players 41.7 percent of the time in 2015, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. This year the Titans played just 36.8 percent of "questionable" players, the lowest rate.
Washington head coach Jay Gruden does not list his quarterback as "probable" with a shoulder injury every week, because he technically can no longer do so. Bill Belichick might still be doing that with Tom Brady if he could, but Gruden really is in Belichick's league when it comes to injury report shenanigans. In 2016, Gruden played 89.4 percent of his "questionable" players, the second-highest rate in the league. He had the highest rate in his 2014 rookie season, but was middle of the pack in 2015.
Then there is the case of Dirk Koetter, who took over for Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay this past season. The Buccaneers only made use of six Blanks, but also played 43-of-47 "questionable" players for a league-high 91.5 percent rate. They probably should have used more Blanks instead of implying a more serious degree of injury with their "questionable" usage. We'll see if this high rate repeats itself next year, There are also five new rookie head coaches who we will start to learn about.
2016 AGL Results
The results are in, and you really didn't expect the New York Giants to be the league's most injured team for the fourth year in a row, did you? The AGL dynasty is over. New York finally had a healthy year, thanks in part to several new roster additions that also helped the team to its first playoff appearance since winning Super Bowl XLVI. However, there was another flagship NFC franchise that set a new benchmark for AGL, and we had the displeasure to watch that painful season unfold with four prime-time games through Halloween alone.
|Team||2016 AGL||Rk||2015 AGL||Rk|
|Team||2016 AGL||Rk||2015 AGL||Rk|
Note: these numbers are subject to change between now and the release of Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.
Chicago's 155.1 AGL is the highest in our database since 2000, eclipsing the 141.3 AGL for the 2013 Giants. Chicago had 12 players incur at least 6.0 AGL. The next closest teams were Buffalo and San Diego with eight such players each. The Bears suffered at various positions, starting with center Hroniss Grasu, who tore his ACL in August. Wide receiver Kevin White has only managed to play four games in his first two seasons after Chicago selected him seventh overall in 2015. No one expected the offense to be led in rushing by rookie Jordan Howard and in receiving by Cameron Meredith, but injuries helped cause that. Quarterback was also a big problem with Jay Cutler missing 11 games and Brian Hoyer lost for the season before November, prompting Matt Barkley to start the final six games. Barkley was actually the team's fourth choice at the position, as third-string quarterback Connor Shaw broke his leg in the preseason. The defense also suffered with significant time missed by Kyle Fuller, Lamarr Houston, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, and Pernell McPhee.
Not surprisingly, the Bears finished 3-13 and had a disappointing season. However, the team was still 25th in DVOA instead of dead last, and played pretty competitively down the stretch despite Barkley playing in a rag-tag offense. The correlation between 2016 AGL and 2016 team DVOA was -0.31, which is essentially the average of what we have observed over the years.
The average AGL increased to an all-time high 76.1, but there was this expected increase in "questionable" entries to deal with this season. The averages have been close in recent years, peaking at 74.3 in 2014 and dropping to 68.7 in 2015. The correlation for AGL between 2015 and 2016 was 0.25, or a little lower than the average since 2009 (0.31).
If we draw our attention towards the healthiest teams of 2016, we find that the Bengals pulled off a feat previously only accomplished by the 2007-08 Titans: finishing in the top three in AGL a year after finishing first. Of course, an injury to Andy Dalton late in 2015 stood out in that season, much like a broken leg for Marcus Mariota in Week 16 put a damper on the Titans' otherwise healthy 2016 campaign. Both Super Bowl teams, Atlanta (sixth) and New England (eighth), had healthy years, even though Atlanta's top cornerback Desmond Trufant and New England stud tight end Rob Gronkowski each missed a significant amount of time. Seattle was really the team to have a "2015 Cincinnati" type of year. Fifth in AGL, another playoff season, but there were times where Russell Wilson was clearly not 100 percent, and we have the postseason reporting about Richard Sherman's MCL. Add in two big losses late in the season with Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett, and we watched the Seahawks unable to outscore offensively dominant teams such as the Packers and Falcons.
None of the four teams with the lowest AGL made the playoffs in 2016, including a Los Angeles team that finally fired Jeff Fisher. The only real significant injury for the Rams was defensive end Robert Quinn, the No. 2 star on the defense behind Aaron Donald. Quinn also missed half of 2015 as well. The Rams had 13 players start at least 14 games, but still had problems with bad coaching and a shortage of good players. Sure, it's nice that Tavon Austin started 15 games, but it's generally not a good thing when he's the target of a pass from Case Keenum or Jared Goff. The Rams will almost undoubtedly suffer more injuries in 2017, but if new coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can get the most out of these high draft picks, then the team should rise above its usual 7-9 bullsh*t.
By the way, Fisher did not make the playoffs or finish better than 8-8 in any of his last seven seasons. In five of those seasons, he had a top-10 team in AGL, including four top-six finishes. His teams were healthy, but still not able to win.
Meanwhile, Mike McCoy is out in San Diego after four seasons in which his teams ranked 28th, 31st, 26th, and 31st in AGL. There were definitely some strategic flaws in McCoy's tenure, but no one can say the football gods ever gave him the gift of good health. In 2016, McCoy's defense suffered 35.1 AGL from the losses of Jason Verrett (ACL), Brandon Flowers (concussion), and Manti Te'o (Achilles) alone. We'll get to this in the unit splits later this week, but San Diego also lost an unfathomable 45.0 AGL from three skill players: Keenan Allen (ACL), Stevie Johnson (meniscus), and Danny Woodhead (ACL). Factor in the six blown fourth-quarter leads, and if the Chargers can stay healthy in Los Angeles this year, then the team could return to contention in the AFC West.
Buffalo ranked 25th in AGL in both of Rex Ryan's seasons on the job. In the near future we should probably compile a look at AGL broken down by head coach just to see who has benefitted from healthier teams, and who has had some bad luck in that department. It certainly doesn't help to lose key players, such as Buffalo getting so little from its top two draft picks (defenders Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland), and top wideout Sammy Watkins only playing in eight games.
Chip Kelly took his "sports science" from Philadelphia to San Francisco, but the Eagles still finished in the top six in AGL for the fourth consecutive year. The 49ers (24th) finished in the bottom 10 for the fourth year in a row. Kelly became the team's second one-and-done coach in a row after a 2-14 season, only able to sweep those healthy but aimless Rams.
Later this week we will look at the AGL breakdown by unit.