A lot has been made about the Packers misfortune when it comes to injuries; injuries was the major hurdle that the Packers overcame to get to the playoffs and ultimately win the Super Bowl in 2010 and injuries again were the major obstacle in 2013 with Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga all missing significant time due to their respective injuries.
I have always argued that the nature of injuries is in large part random; football is a vicious sport and there are so many different ways to get injured that are largely out of the control of the player, the coaching staff or the front office. Not many would argue that the tackle that Nick Collins ended his career was unusual nor was the hit that Jermichael Finley took against Cleveland anything out of the norm. Rodgers breaking his clavicle and Matthews breaking his thumb all occurred on mundane plays that both players have been involved in countless times before in their careers.
In 2013 alone, I would argue that the only two injuries likely could have been avoided were Brandon Merriweather spearing Eddie Lacy and maybe Randall Cobb breaking his leg against Baltimore (but in the defense of Matt Elam, going low is now encouraged to defenders with so many fines being levied to helmet to helmet contact).
However, it’s pretty undeniable that the Packers as a franchise have either had consistent terrible luck or something else is at play. The Packers have had one of the worst strings of injuries over the last 4 years and it’s 99.9% significant compared to the rest of the league. Fingers have been pointed at pretty much every remote possibility; plenty have blamed Ted Thompson and the front office for drafting players who are injury prone (i.e. Justin Harrell), some have blamed the coaching staff for not teaching proper form while others have blamed the strength and conditioning coaches (there was some ridiculous rumor that floated around that the 49ers had a secret stretching routine that made them impervious to injuries; keep in mind free agency does happen and more importantly players stretch out on the field for everyone to see).
Some have even blamed the players themselves; with every player being a top tier physical specimen these days, some have argued that players are too tightly wound up and too muscled for their own good. My personal opinion is that the Packers abnormally high injury rate is more to do with a very conservative medical staff that would rather keep a player out a game longer than throw him in a game early than actually having an actual higher injury rate than the league average.
Football Outsiders recently released their Adjusted Games Loss (AGL) metric that tries to quantify the amount of injuries a team sustains over a season. Naturally, more important players are weighted more than less important players; losing a starter will net a higher AGL than a 3rd string backup. Furthermore, players who are listed on the injury report but do end up playing also contribute to the AGL under the assumption that even if the player makes it onto the field it will be at a reduced capacity. Interestingly, 7 out of the 10 most injured teams made it into the playoffs while only 3 of the least injured teams did the same.
My initial presumption would have been that AGL and wins would be very strongly negatively correlated; the more injured the team, the more “new” pieces have to be fit in which may not work exactly like the original and the more the team must deviate from what they do best (for instance trying to fill Aaron Rodgers shoes with Matt Flynn lead to a significant change in offensive philosophy). To test this, I used Football Outsiders AGL data from the last 4 years and correlated it with the number of games a team won.
In actuality, there is no correlation between the number of wins and the number of injuries over the last 4 years with the coefficient of correlation (r squared) being .04451. To put this in perspective a r squared value of 1 means complete correlation while a score of 0 means there is no correlation. Plenty of teams have had incredibly healthy seasons and failed miserably while other like the Packers have been hammered with injury after injury while still managing to field a competitive team. I should mention that there is a slight negative relationship between AGL and wins, hence why the best fit line has a negative slope but the variation among teams and injuries is so wide that it ends up being not correlated. Nevertheless, the equation for AGL and wins is AGL=-1.625*wins+77.73. Essentially, this means that the Packers who had an AGL of about 100 in the last 4 years outside of 2011 (58.7) could have expected to win maybe 1 more game if they had a more average AGL.
There are a couple of possible explanations for why injuries don’t really effect wins. The first might be that the “replacement parts” for successful teams are better fits than less successful teams. One of the Packers mantras over the last couple years has been “next man up” and some of the replacements have had stunning results. Jarrett Boykin, David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay played significant time and were significant factors in the Packers 2013 season. This ties in back to draft since it allows Ted Thompson to pick the best players that fit his model as opposed to free agents who often became successful under a different system and thus may not be able to replicate the success that got them the big contract to start out with.
Another possibility is that the nature of the injury report causes discrepancies in the metric. The Packers are famous for their conservatism when it comes to pulling players for injuries while the Patriots are famous for basically blowing off the injury report with instances of players being on the injury report the entire season but playing every game. From the Packers’ perspective, they may feel like they can still win the majority of football games even without their star players and hence are protecting their investment by holding them out. Arguably Aaron Rodgers is the red herring exception to that rule, but quarterbacks operate under their own set of realties which everyone is well aware of.
Perhaps the most compelling argument is that in actuality injuries happen to every franchise and its the teams that adapt the best who keep winning games. Injuries have been going up steadily over the 4 years and some of that probably comes from the NFL’s new vigilance on concussions but a lot of it has to do with the game getting faster and the players getting stronger. Nevertheless, teams on average experience and injury rate of 63 AGL, which is a lot of time players aren’t playing at their full capacity. Obviously well run franchises (like the ones who often make the playoffs) have contingency plans in place and a stable organizational structure that allows players to get the treatment and rehabilitation they need to get back on the field while less organized teams falter in having a plan B, possibly by sending out players back on to the field too quickly or trying to hide the injury because they have no choice.
In conclusion, can Packers fans really blame injuries for why the Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have a 2nd Super Bowl ring? Probably not, keep in mind the Packers have reached the playoffs every time in the last 4 years while fielding one of the most beat up units in the entire NFL. I’ve always argued that fans in general have tunnel vision when it comes to injuries, while the vast majority of fans know that the Packers were a very injured team last year, do they know how injured the Kansas City Chiefs or the Indianapolis Colts were in 2013? Does the effect of Aaron Rodgers breaking his clavicle compare to Reggie Wayne tearing his ACL?
As a Packers fan I can say I don’t know much or care much about the Chiefs or the Colts and while I knew about Wayne’s injury due to playing fantasy football, it’s not like I felt much when hearing the news. Compare that to the mass panic and outrage when Aaron Rodgers or Randall Cobb were injured. I think the most important thing to remember is that injuries affect every team, some greater than others, but it’s those that can rise above their injuries that keep their chances for a Super Bowl alive.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.