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Washington’s injury numbers were miserable again in 2021

Can things get better?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last year, I undertook a six year look back at Washington’s “games lost to injury,” under the hope/assumption that the arrival of new trainer Ryan Vermillion might portend a sea change in the team’s injury fortunes. Well, midway through the 2021 season, Vermillion’s training facilities were raided by federal DEA officials, he was put on indefinite leave, and the team crumbled under the weight of its own, collective injuries - and COVID diagnoses - by the end of the season.

Tracking Injuries

The “gold standard” in determining the extent to which NFL teams have been hobbled by injury is Football Outsiders’ “adjusted games lost (AGL)” statistic.

Adjusted Games Lost is a great metric that helps to ascertain the real impact of injuries on a team. In short, it gives teams credit not only for the actual games missed by starters, but for the consequences of injuries in terms of lost practice time and diminished performance.

Anytime a starter is ruled out, a team gets credit for one game lost. The team gets partial credit for games in which a starter is ruled probable, questionable or doubtful based on averages for how often these players actually play.

The result is a list that corresponds very well with winning. Eight of the top 10 teams and 12 of the top 15 in AGL finished with at least a .500 record.

Washington’s Adjusted Games Lost and relative ranks (which are explained in much greater detail in the prior article) since 2015 are laid out below:

2015: 119.1 (31st)

2016: 101.5 (28th)

2017: 121 (32nd)

2018: 99.3 (24th)

2019: 131 (31st)

2020: 97 (24th)

2021: 107.4 (26th)

To say that Washington’s injury rates have been atrocious for the past seven years really doesn’t capture the consistency or the depth of how bad they’ve actually been. Only twice during that timeframe have they been out of the bottom quarter of the league in terms of games lost, and in both those years they only escaped the lowest quartile by the thinnest margin possible. Collectively, since 2014, they’ve been the most injured team in the league.

In 2021, even with the new training staff, the numbers worsened significantly and the team’s ranking slipped again.

One interesting fact is that, in 2021, Washington’s injuries disproportionately hampered its defense, who lost 72.1 games to injury (and ranked 29th), compared to the offense, who lost 35.4 games to injury (and ranked 15th). Key injuries on defense included Jon Bostic (13 games), Darrick Forrest (6 games), Torry McTyer (13 games), and Chase Young (8 games), while offensive injuries including those to Ryan Fitzpatrick (16 games), Chase Roullier (9 games), and Logan Thomas (11 games) hobbled scoring production.

As the figure below shows, those 2021 injuries were also to some of the most impactful players on the team, putting Washington in the same category as the Saints, Browns, and Ravens, who all lost their starting QBs for extended periods.

Finding a Replacement

With Vermillion on leave, Washington brought in a committee of professionals to temporarily act in his place, including Mark McCracken, their Assistant Athletic Trainer, the Capitals’ Trainer, Greg Smith, and former Redskins’ trainer, Bubba Tyer.

Though, ideally, the team would have had its new training staff in place in time for the Combine, so that it could vet potential draftees, it instead relied on a group of local doctors to do so. The expectation is that the team will announce its new trainer imminently.

All four candidates have prior NFL experience, Rivera said. Two of them are currently in the college ranks.

“The other four guys are young guys that are very accomplished, come very highly recommended,” Rivera said. “I’m telling you. This has been a very difficult process just because of the fact that all four were good interviews. … We want to make sure we get the right decision.”

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Training Camp John McCoy-USA TODAY Sports

Evolving Science

In looking around the league at teams that do injury minimization well - like the Los Angeles Rams, who performed best in the 7-year period shown above - it turns out that they are mirroring the practices of another professional sports’ league:

The Rams Sports Medicine adopted a style used by soccer teams in the Premier League, that seems to be excellent. It is tracking data that provides a different perspective on monitoring a players’ daily lifestyle, training, and performance. According to the results, the trainers and coaches will increase or decrease their workload.

This approach lightens a player’s drills and workouts when the biometric data shows that they are otherwise being overworked, allowing the player to recover and avoid strain injuries.

This heavily data-driven approach is being guided by the Rams’ head physician, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who has used players’ steps throughout the day as a proxy for workout intensity, and has taken measures in the training process to cut out unnecessary exertion:

“All this stuff needs to be anticipated, considered, and planned ahead of time.” He mentions that the remarkable success of this technology allows the trainers to be more productive with players. For example, they can incorporate rest and recovery at specific needed moments and extend the training time, so it is not counterproductive. To do this, he said you need to know and understand what the players are doing throughout their day, track it, and decrease what is unnecessary, creating excessiveness.“

Is this novel training regime the source of the Rams’ persistent good health? It’s difficult to say for sure, but it does seem to lend some credence to the notion that trainers/physicians who are cued into the habits of players are better able to serve them, and that those teams who can successfully mine the wealth of data now available to them are better positioned to succeed than those with archaic approaches to player health.

Conclusion

With the new trainer signing on the horizon, and Washington’s roster continuing to get younger - last year it was the 13th oldest in the league - through the loss of players like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Scherff, the expectation is that they should be able to crawl out from the league cellar injury-wise, but only time will tell if they can finally shake the ignominious distinction of “most injured team in the NFL.”

Poll

How high a priority is it for you for Washington to get a competent new trainer in place?

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  • 92%
    A top priority.
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  • 5%
    A mid-range priority.
    (32 votes)
  • 2%
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