Data suggests Bengals could repeat 2021 injury fortune
By Lukas Moore
It’s debate season in the NFL world. With OTA’s complete and rosters seemingly set, there isn’t much news for the Cincinnati Bengals and NFL content machine to devour. Instead, we’ll all be fed a heavy diet of bold predictions. Most of it will be hard to digest, and unlike real food, there’s no Pepto for a bad take.
But there is one argument I can no longer bear to swallow, and have collected the data to combat.
Injury Luck? Not really about Luck
I’m sure any Bengals fan has heard something like this recently.
“(NFL team) suffered significant injuries in (NFL season), that means in (NFL season) they will be healthier and (NFL team) will be significantly better.”
Or, how about this doozy that isn’t based on data.
“(NFL team) was healthy in (NFL season) therefore they will suffer more injuries and (NFL team) will be significantly worse.”
Yes, Bengals fan. I’m talking about the Baltimore Ravens, I know that’s what you were thinking. The Ravens were a feature in Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost analysis. The headline of the article reads “AGL Injury Numbers Point to Ravens Rebound in 2022.”
This claim comes from the idea that injury “luck” is actually luck. The term suggests that injuries are a simple flip of coin proposition. If a team has a historic year of injuries (Ravens had the most AGL in the data’s history), then the pendulum must swing. But even Scott Spratt, who wrote the aforementioned article, stated the following about the amount luck plays in injuries.
"Maybe that’s poor luck, but AGL correlates with itself (0.25 from 2020 to 2021) about as well as it does with DVOA. And signing a player with a checkered injury history such as Jason Verrett without a strong backup plan suggests a cavalier attitude toward injury risk. The Rams have suffered less than half as many AGL as the 49ers in Sean McVay and Shanahan’s tenures (229.1 versus 572.8), and the former situation makes life so much easier for a head coach."
Scott started down an interesting path and I wanted to continue down it. Let’s take a look at teams who suffered the same fate as the 2021 Ravens, finishing last in AGL for Football Outsiders. How did their “luck” change in the following season?
If luck were luck, there should be massive swings in the recent data. But if a team suffers a lot of injuries one year they’re more likely to suffer injuries the next year. The data suggests that good health is more than just good luck.
What if we expand the parameters beyond the MOST injured team? Let’s look at the 10 most-injured, and the 10 healthiest teams of every season since 2016, and how they performed the following year.
If injuries were about luck, these numbers would look different. They’d be random, but instead, there isn’t one year that the 10 most-injured teams are healthier (on average) than the 10 healthiest teams.
To zoom in from a Bengals perspective, take a look at one last chart, the Bengals injury luck leading into this year.
As a Bengals fan, it was easy to say those teams just had bad luck. In reality, the final editions of Marvin’s Bengals were aging. They had cultural issues, which can change players’ behavior toward their bodies and diet. It can also change their willingness to fight through injuries.
Look at the amount of Bengals that gutted through injuries in 2021, from Joe Burrow’s knee (and pinky, and throat, and the knee again), to Logan Wilson’s labrum.
If not luck, then what?
Injury luck and the conversation around it will define the Bengals’ offseason banter. Division rival Baltimore finished last in AGL, and the Bengals finished top 10. It will be the most common argument used around the water cooler (or in Twitter Spaces).
It’s important to remind fans that injuries are not just the universe coalescing against your team. Yes, sometimes your best player snaps his leg in half, and we can count that as bad luck. But most of the time injuries can be correlated to the age and makeup of the roster.
If players were injured once, they’re likely to be injured again. Team culture could also play a role. Are you coming back a week early from a torn labrum? Are you pushing through pain that might keep others out?
Also, practice techniques/culture have dramatically shifted (see McVay/Taylor). Certain teams may be able to manage the health of their players better than others. There are a million explanations that all deserve exploration. However, the data makes it clear that injuries are not random. Although it may feel unfair as it’s happening, there are reasons behind it.
It’s a lot like rain, if you knew nothing about the water cycle and weather patterns – rain would appear completely random. Sports fans are acting like ancient people, “OH YE SPORTS GODS – PLEASE RAIN DOWN GOOD FORTUNE UPON MY TEAM”
Sure, the sports gods need to pitch in to win championships. But injuries are more predictable than we think – and athletes and organizations are more responsible for them than they’re willing to admit.
It’s much easier to pass injuries off as luck rather than process. It helps build hope to tell fans that fortune simply wasn’t on their side. “Well if we were healthy.” A lot of times though, a soft tissue injury can relate back to lack of sleep, a poor diet, or a mismanaged routine.
Why would organizations and players spend millions of dollars on their bodies, if they thought injuries were solely an exercise of luck. How is it that the greatest of all time, the hardest workers, the most accomplished, always seemed to be healthier than some of their peers?
Again, this is football. Anything can happen, and to claim that fortune plays no role in injuries would be foolish. But how did Brett Favre and Tom Brady play so long? Grit and Luck?
Maybe. I’d wager it has much more to do with their process. How they fought through pain during rehab, and how they managed their body during downtime.
Injuries can also be related to how a player plays on the field, Carson Wentz, Ja Morant, and yes sometimes Joe Burrow put too much strain on their body in an effort to make plays.
Carson Wentz does it seemingly for no reason. His time with Indianapolis proved that even with a great line he will consistently put his body in danger for no explanation other than he felt something was there.
Ja Morant must put his body in harm’s way. Flying through the air and spinning off of 7-footers is his game. But he won’t last forever that way.
With the state of the Bengals line in 2021, Burrow had to put himself in harm’s way to succeed. It caused him to dislocate his pinky, sprain his MCL against the Chargers, and then nearly tear his ACL in Super Bowl LVI.
A lot of players don’t sit in the collapsing pocket Burrow saw all year. They bail, they throw it away, they force throws. Burrow decided to take the pain, and it cost his body dearly.
It’s up to the Bengals to reduce the moments where he has to take the pain, but it’s also on Burrow to understand the value of health.
So can the Bengals repeat their injury “luck” in 2022? It’s a lot more up to them than all of us think.