In the AFC alone in 2006, over 127 starting players missed a combined total of 322 games during the course of the regular season due to either injury or league suspension. That averages to nearly eight starters per AFC team that missed at least one game, and 2.5 starters out on average for every game.
How do teams hit harder by losing starters adjust? Obviously, some do so better than others, depending on their ability as a coaching staff to adjust, their depth, the players in question and their schedule.
It’s also important to note that there’s a difference in losing one player, say, for five games, versus losing five players each for one game. Arguably, it’s easier to adjust to one lost player versus five.
In the AFC, Oakland lost the largest total number of starting player games (SPGs) in 2006 – 35 total. Cincinnati followed at (33), Cleveland (29) and then New England and Indianapolis (each with 27). Pittsburgh was eighth in SPGs lost with 21.
The least SPGs lost were by the Jets (seven), Baltimore (eight) and Buffalo (10).
In terms of actual players injured though, the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England, Cleveland and Houston led the league with 11 starters missing at least one game during the season. Tennessee followed with 10, then Cincinnati with nine.
The least? The Jets, with only three injured starters, followed by Baltimore with only four, Buffalo at five, and Miami and Kansas City tied at six.
So, it’s obvious the correlation between injuries and team success is strong – but is it the final say in whether a team finds success or not? Results from 2006 at least say otherwise.
Two of the four hardest-hit team in terms of starting player games missed were New England and Indianapolis - and not just with marginal players either. New England played without Vince Wilfork for three games, Rodney Harrison for six games and lost two starting offensive linemen for seven games between them. Indianapolis lost Bob Sanders for 12 games, Dallas Clark for four and two of their starting linemen for a total of six games. Not too far behind them was San Diego, by the way, which lost three of its four starting outside linebackers for nine total games and two starting defensive linemen for nine as well.
So, how do we rate teams in terms of their ability to adjust to starter outages, in relation to how other teams have done?
Well, for each team, I created a point system that valued the number of starting player games lost, the number of starters that were injured through the year and the number of wins for that team. A general score was then factored for how teams did, relative to their record and the injuries they suffered.
The average score was 7.03. Six teams scored better than average – meaning their performances despite starter outages suffered were strongest – San Diego was first, at 15.31, with 14 wins, 25 games missed by a starting player and 10 starters missing games at some point in the year. New England was second (12 wins, 27 games missed, 11 players out), Indianapolis third (12, 27, 8), Cincinnati fourth (8, 33, 9) and Pittsburgh fifth (8, 21, 11).
The teams with either the least outages or the poorest response to those they had were:
Oakland at 2.75 – two wins, 35 games missed by nine starters. The Jets at 3.13 (10, 7, 3), Buffalo at 3.28 (7, 10, 5), Miami at 3.38 (6, 12, 6) and Baltimore at 4.88 (13, 8, 4).
Interestingly, three of the most successful teams in the AFC were ones that suffered the most injuries to starters (New England, Indianapolis and San Diego). So, while a rash of injuries to starters certainly adds complications, it does not make a losing season a sure thing. The evidence proves this. It shows that injuries can’t be used as a crutch for a disappointing season – good teams and good coaches find ways to win.
What it does harken back to is the importance of team depth to replace key starters, and to balance, so that when one unit is ravished by injuries, another can carry the load for a while. That was seen in New England, Indianapolis and San Diego – balance allowed one squad to help the other when it struggled due to injuries.
Conversely, teams like Oakland, Cincinnati and Houston all had little team balance – making it impossible for them to overcome injuries.
Ultimately, it’s nothing new to understand that injuries can have severe impacts on football teams. What is interesting though, is that they don’t have to – even in the worst of situations. While it’s been said by some that coaching is only a lesser piece of what makes a team win and that talent really dictates who is best, there might be more to a coach’s ability to create a winner than some appreciate. Especially if coaches can help their teams overcome a litany of injuries to key players, as Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy and Marty Schottenheimer were able to do for theirs.
By Ron Lippock
Posted Jan 20, 2007