Two main reasons the Cowboys should be a healthier team in 2021
Football is a game of attrition, and every team has to deal with injuries over the course of a season. But you need a little extra mojo to get hit like the Cowboys were injured last year.
Every year, Football Outsiders publishes its statistical study of the team’s health from the previous NFL season. For 2020, FO has determined that the Cowboys are one of the teams hardest hit by the injury virus, at least according to their metric called Adjusted games lost (AGL). In their own words:
… adjusted for lost matches aims to measure the impact of injuries on teams. As you can probably guess, a starting offensive tackle means more to his team than a special teams player. Adjusted lost matches capture this distinction with separate weights of starters, replacement starters, situational players, and bench players. Additionally, the metric adjusts the weighting of active players who were on their teams’ injury reports prior to playing to account for an anticipated decrease in effectiveness when playing injured.
By FO’s definition, the Cowboys finished the 2020 season with 118.5 adjusted games lost. Ranking the teams from the healthiest (# 1 Tampa Bay with 30.6 AGL) to the most injured (# 32 San Francisco, 166.6 AGL), the Cowboys ranked 28th last year. A year earlier, the Cowboys had been a health role model, placing fourth overall in AGL terms. The following table shows where the Cowboys have ranked over the years in terms of AGL.
|Dallas Cowboys Adjusted Game Ranking Lost To Injury, 2008-2020|
Overall, the Cowboys have enjoyed positive injury luck over the past 12 years: in five of the past 12 seasons (marked in green) they were among the least injured teams in the league, five years (colorless) saw them with an average league AGL, and two seasons (red) saw them bottom of the league in terms of AGL.
But 2020 turned out to be a double whammy for the Cowboys. Not only did they have a high GLA level, but these GLA were found to be very concentrated.
Their [bottom-five] the overall adjusted lost game tally was focused on offense, and more specifically on the quarterback and line which represented their team’s anticipated strength.
Dak Prescott finished sixth 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 out on the offensive line. Smith and Martin have 12 Pro Bowl bunks and six first-team All-Pro accolades between them, so it wasn’t surprising to see the Cowboys drop from second place in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. in 2019 at 12th and 14th in these bars last year.
The image below highlights the very skewed distribution of attacking injuries in 2020:
The 2020 Cowboys offense was ranked 29th in the league with 75.6 adjusted games lost. The defense on the other hand, despite injuries to linebacker (Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee) and cornerback (Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Trevon Diggs) placed in the middle of 18th place in the league with 42 , 8 adjusted matches lost.
Statistically speaking, there are two main reasons for optimism in the numbers presented above, the “regression to the mean” and the “normal distribution”.
Regression to the mean
This statistical phenomenon describes the fact that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to approach the average on a second measurement. In our case today, this means that teams with a very high injury rate one year tend to have a better injury situation the following year, while teams with an extremely low injury rate tend to have more injuries the following year.
Specifically, it’s very likely that the Cowboys offense will see far fewer injuries in 2021. That’s a good thing, and even Football Outsiders have understood this fact.
Overall, the playoffs were filled with healthy teams. Seven of the top 10 teams in lost adjusted matches made it to the playoffs, and only Washington won their division while finishing in the final third.
This trend should likely inform the Falcons (48.0 adjusted games lost, third) and Texans‘(58.2, seventh) decisions to try to compete immediately or to rebuild. They have little room to improve when it comes to injury, which means all of their winnings have to come from improved play.
On the other hand, teams such as the Chargers (109.1, 27th) and Cowboys (118.5, 28th) may already have suitors and just need a little more luck to realize that potential.
We know injuries are a reality in the NFL. We also know that a good portion of the injuries sustained are random: the healthiest team in 2019 (MIN: 25.6 AGL) came back to the middle of the standings and placed 16th last year (83, 5 AGL); the Cowboys placed 4th in 2019 and fell to 28th in 2020. These types of swings happen every year, but these are the outliers. Most teams will hover to varying degrees around the league average, and that’s a reasonable expectation for the Cowboys in 2021. And that little extra health may be all the team needs to take on the NFC. East.
Without getting into the discussions of bell curves and standard deviations, a normal distribution in statistics considers that the most common values are close to the mean and the less common values gradually move away from it.
In the simplest possible terms for the Cowboys: The Cowboys should expect a better distribution of injuries across the roster, which in turn should make the impact of those injuries less crippling.
You saw in the starting offensive lineup image above that the O-line starters missed 39 games combined. Add injuries to some of the saves and you have an AGL total of 46.4, which ranks the Cowboys 31st in the league. Expect this value to decrease as injuries are distributed more evenly across the entire roster.
Unfortunately, while this normal distribution should be good news for positions like QB, TE and OL who were particularly hard hit by injury last year, it’s bad news for Hall WR and RB: the Cowboys had the league’s lowest AGL offshore. receiver and the third lowest AGL at RB. Don’t expect a repeat of this this year.
Overall, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the Cowboys to have a higher chance of getting injured this year. Will it be enough to make the playoffs?
I don’t know, but I think it will.
And our old friend Rabblerousr agrees: