CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 1: Indianapolis Colts injured quarterback Peyton Manning looks on from the sideline during the first half of an NFL preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 1, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Stop me if you've heard this statement before: The Colts had to battle through all sorts of injuries last year.
I've heard it so much, for so long, that I swear it's now a song lyric that Jim Irsay has tweeted out.
Since 2006, the Colts have been a brittle, injury prone football team. Yes, I know injuries are part of the game (thanks for reminding me for the 15th billionth time), but there's injuries and then there's the sort of freakish cascade of season-crushing alignments that plague the Colts every season.
Tracking injuries, and their impact on football teams, is best managed by the always excellent Football Outsiders. Without their detailed Advanced Stats system, we'd still be in the dark ages when it comes to analyzing how injuries can affect teams at critical times at vital positions.
The Adjusted Games Lost stat metric FO tracks is one we have long written about here at Stampede Blue. For those not quite familiar with that it is all about:
To refresh memories, the key ideas underlying AGL are that all players don't affect winning and losing equally, and missing a game isn't the only way a player injury affects winning and losing. Injuries to starters, important situational reserves (e.g., nickel cornerbacks), and injury replacements (i.e., new permanent starters) count towards AGL, whereas injuries to benchwarmers don't. Similarly, injuries that land a player on injured reserve affect AGL more than injuries that force a player to be listed as "questionable," which in turn affect AGL more than injuries that lead to a "probable" game status
Just like last year, and the year before that, and the year before, and so on, the Colts ranked near the bottom in AGL. It was more than just the now-infamous degenerating cervical disc for Peyton Manning that doomed the '11 Colts. It was something more.
The Colts AGL rating in 2011 was 84.7, putting them at 28th in the league. In 2011, they were 90.5, 31st in the league. Now, the simpletons that love to pontificate that it was Peyton Manning's injury that doomed the Colts (and, consequently, Bill Polian, Chris Polian, and Jim Caldwell) will point out that the Colts were worse in AGL in 2010, but won 10 games. The big difference between that year and last year being one Mr. Manning, who started all 17 games (including playoffs) in 2010, and not a one in 2011. They'll also point to the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants and the team they vanquished in that game, the New England Patriots. The Giants had an AGL ranking of 26th, while the Pats were 30th.
However, I kindly ask you to look deeper.
Teams like San Francisco, Baltimore, and New Orleans (pre-bounty scandal) all had great seasons, and all had their roster steered clear of the training room. Even a team like Houston, who lost their starting QB, their back-up QB, and their best pass rusher (Mario Williams), still managed to rank 11th in AGL. They also won a playoff game... with a rookie QB at the helm.
For an example of a team similar to Indy in 2011 in terms of lacking talent while also getting slammed with injuries, look no further than the Rams:
With their 110.0 AGL, the 2011 St. Louis Rams became the second-most injured team since 2002. Only the 2009 Buffalo Bills had it worse off. And like those Bills, the main contribution to the 2011 Rams AGL came from their defensive backfield, where their top three cornerbacks -- four if you count early-camp casualty Jerome Murphy -- were already out for the year by Week 10.
Also not helping matters were another year of carnage at wide receiver (29.0 AGL after 26.4 in 2010) and 5.7 AGL for Sam Bradford. With injuries affecting the (offensive and defensive) passing game this much, it's no wonder St. Louis went from the cusp of the playoffs to winning only two games.
My point here is that teams that contend are able to stay consistently healthy, and that health isn't done by resting starters in the weeks prior to the playoffs. It's done by having quality roster depth, a strong medical staff, good conditioning coaches, and a scouting department that steers clear of guys with an injury history in the draft.
Injured players are useless players. I stress this often because it is the reality of this business.
One of the knocks I heard consistently around the league over the last few years was often directed at the Polian regime's medical and conditioning staff. How could these people have jobs when, year in and out, the Colts continue to battle crippling injuries? Bill Polian responded by doing what you would expect from a paranoid nutcase who hates people pointing out obvious flaws in his managerial style: He conducted an internal study into the Colts injury history, and that study concluded that all the ailments were simply "fate."
I almost wish I was making that up, but I'm not.
After a 2-14 season which featured more injuries, more inept coaching, and more Polian drafted players stinking up the gridiron, Jim Irsay parted always with Bill and Chris. Bill is now an analyst for ESPN while Chris has landed a job with the Falcons doing something that he hardly ever did with the Colts: Scout. That's right. Chris now has a job back down at the lowest level, a level he never had to work at before his daddy gave him the Colts G.M. job. I wish him well. Should he one day rise back up to the level of G.M., hopefully this humbling experience will push him to treat people who work for him like actual human beings.
With the hiring of head coach Chuck Pagano, one of the more interesting and less-talked-about changes at the Colts training facility is that the staff have built a new weight room and a new training regiment. Pagano (who talks about the new weight room in this video, via Colts.com) came to Indy from Baltimore, the team with an AGL rating of 1 in 2011 and 15 in 2010.
If Pagano's team stays healthy, that will be yet another knock on the training staff that used to work in Indianapolis during the Polian years. However, that sort of thing doesn't concern me. I just want to watch a healthy team. Injuries happen, yes. Ranking at the bottom of AGL (year, after year, after year) shouldn't.