"Football Freakonomics": How Much Do Injuries Hurt?

The following is a cross-post from NFL.com, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

It doesn’t take a genius to argue that injuries can have a massive effect on an NFL team’s fortunes. This season, we may be living through the most heightened example in history of that fact. The Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning sidelined since Week 1 with a neck injury, currently stand winless at 0-12. Over the previous five seasons with Manning in charge, the Colts have gone 61-19 during the regular season.

How can the absence of one player, even a star quarterback, have such an impact? As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders contends in the latest episode of Football Freakonomics: “Not only were they built around him offensively, but the defense was generally built around them getting the lead and then having defensive ends just tee off on the opposing QB while the other team has to pass to try to catch up.”

The Manning-less Colts are losing off the field too – attendance is down, Manning jersey sales are down, and some Colts fans have jumped on the “Suck for Luck” campaign, figuring that if the Colts are going to be bad they might as well be bad enough to snare Andrew Luck with the top pick in the draft.

Schatz makes an empirical argument that you don’t have to lose a Peyton Manning to lose games in the NFL. There is a clear correlation, he argues, between a team’s injured players and its won-loss records. The key metric he uses is called Adjusted Games Lost, and it’s calculated like this:

Adjusted Games Lost =
.05 x Players listed as probable
.38 x Players listed as questionable
.99 x Players listed as out
1.00 x Players on IR or PUP lists

To me, the trickiest part of injuries is their randomness – or, specifically, the question of how random they are. There is a lot we don’t definitively know (yet). How evenly (or unevenly) are injuries distributed among teams? What sort of preventive measures work and which don’t? Do better players tend to get injured less? If so, why? Maybe they’re in better condition or in better position; maybe they’re protected better by teammates and officials?

If I were an NFL owner, GM, or coach, I’d set aside a little pot of money to try to answer some of these questions empirically. There is a lot of advantage to be gained by keeping even a few more players per season off the I.R. – to say nothing of the fact that it’s the right thing to do. NFL medical staffs have become astonishingly sophisticated in recent years but the fact is that the game of football exacts a price on muscle and bone that is constant and huge. The more we can learn about cutting that price, the better off we’ll all be.



"There is a lot of advantage to be gained by keeping even a few more players per season off the I.R. – to say nothing of the fact that it’s the right thing to do. NFL medical staffs have become astonishingly sophisticated in recent years but the fact is that the game of football exacts a price on muscle and bone that is constant and huge."

Not to mention the fact that NFL players live, on average, 20 years less than the typical American male. The price is paid long after the season is over.


Something I've always been interested in is the correlation between on the field performance, and how many different teams a player has played for.

Players like Peyton, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are long term franchise builders, but what about other players who get traded and/or sign with a new team as a free agent. Do they change teams because they are not playing as well, or are they not playing as well because they change teams?


What about a story like the Houston Texans, who have been without their stars Mario Williams, Andre Johnson, and Matt Schaub? At the moment, their rookie 3rd string QB is undefeated (albeit their recent games have all been close). Is that just variance?


the distribution of injuries amongst teams is intriguing, and if significantly skewed may imply a difference in their physical therapy regimens- i don't follow football, but in the NBA the Portland Trailblazers have had consistently high levels of injuries the past 5 years, and i always surmised a deficiency in their PT program


I wonder how much "luck" really plays into injuries? When you consider that Peyton Manning and his brother Eli have two of the longest consecutive game start streaks for NFL Qbs, why is that? It seems statistically improbable to be just luck. Maybe they release a little faster and avoid hits (which the number one streak holder, Favre, was famous for?) Better conditioning? Better at playing through pain? Maybe just that little split second sense of adjusting their bodies to take a hit directly? Maybe it is a category only open to superstars who don't lose their jobs for other reasons?

I'm reminded of Jose Reyes in baseball, who this week the Marlins snagged from the Mets...with the whisper reason being an injury-prone speed player with weak hammies.


There's an interesting tension there for players--do they try to guard themselves a little to avoid injuries, or do they always "go for it" and throw themselves into the fray, consequences be damned? Obviously QBs are a special case (they try to avoid contact far more than other players on the field) but I'm still often amazed at the way receivers, etc., will hurl themselves through the air to make a catch/get through an opening, without any apparent thought as to how hard that landing is going to be. That's gotta be tough to balance, since "going for it" is often what gets you the win, and holding back—while it may keep you uninjured and playing longer—may lose the game.

Mike B

Didn't Nate Silver take a stab at Football Sabermetrics and determine that the most important statistic a player could have is resistance to injury. As someone from Philly I am well aware that certain players (that we tend to draft) always get injured and then half your season goes down the tubes. On the other hand teams like Green Bay seem able to draft players that never get injured.

I think there has to be a combination of factors that can make a player more injury prone. One is clearly constitution and how they handle their bodies. Another would be protection by the defensive line, but I suspect that for non-QB's the first dominates. It's just like in martial arts knowing how to fall, some players can handle themselves so that when colliding with other people they don't come out on the losing end.


I don't know much about football, but is there something in the coaching style that could lead to disparate rates of injuries across teams? It seems like that's the constant that might explain why Green Bay has injury-free players while Philly has the ambulance on speed dial.