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.