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Injuries (Stand-Alone) Fail To Explain the Chargers’ 2016 Season

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Danny Kelly is a former SB Nation writer for our Seahawks affiliate site Field Gulls and a contributor to Bill Simmons’ Grantland-esque sports and pop culture experiment The Ringer and, generally speaking, is a dude who is very knowledgable about football (this primer on the 4-3 scheme used by the Seahawks back in 2013 should interest Chargers fans who want to get a bit more familiar with new DC Gus Bradley’s schemes) and someone who rarely, if ever, irritates me with his analyses and takes regarding football.

So, why am I telling you this? Well, that’s because he finally managed to get under my skin. (Hard as that may be for those of you familiar with me to believe)

(If you’re impatient, skip to about 0:10 for the start of take)

Now, I’m not at all bothered by Danny’s prediction that the Chargers win the Super Bowl in 2017. There’s actually some history on the side of that prediction, for what it’s worth. For instance, three of the last four Chargers Head Coaches to take the team to the playoffs did so during each coaches’ first year on the job (the only exception being the great Marty Schottenheimer). Perhaps Anthony Lynn’s hire and the intrinsic novelty his coaching staff, combined with a relatively weak AFC, a favorable within-conference schedule (we get to play the Browns again!... Oh %*#$ we play the Browns again...), and some of the attributes Danny mentioned in his prediction (such as hopefully less-interception-happy but still productive quarterback play from Philip Rivers) will spark a successful playoff run.

What I don’t think is going to matter, at least not insofar as how it was (and is) phrased, is the first “aspect” of the prediction that comes out of his mouth:

“I went with the Chargers because if you look at the amount of injuries they had-”

Now, again, to be extremely clear, I don’t have any problem with Danny’s prediction that the Chargers will win the Super Bowl (sure it’d be a little bittersweet, but god $*#&@*$ damnit, I’ve suffered enough torment and stupidity and I deserve to see this oft-maligned, poorly run franchise win a damn Super Bowl trophy) and his prediction is otherwise run-of-the-mill given how the Chargers have been a dark horse Super Bowl candidate for writers over the last couple of years. However, it’s this specific component of his prediction, and the process for which it represents, that drives me mad.

The idea that the team’s simultaneous statistical success (insofar as the defense performed and, depending on your perspective, the offense succeeded in specific ways) in spite of it’s inability to succeed similarly win/loss wise can be chalked up to “well, they suffered a lot of injuries” in order to prognosticate for greater success in the 2017 season is as ill-informed as suggesting Manti Te’o is somehow a better football player because he was elected Team Captain.

There’s two specific reasons why the idea is both ludicrously simple and inadvertently dangerous, and they’ll make up the next two sections of this article:

Cumulative Injuries (as far as we know) Don’t Have a Mathematical Regression (i.e. Hoping for a “healthy season” is meaningless)

To be honest, if there’s any expression I hate when it comes to football fandom, it has to be, “if only we we’re healthy”.

It’s nonsense. When it comes to a sport like football, a fast, violent, physical game, injuries are commonplace. The old saying goes that everyone, every player, is playing hurt and no one is really “healthy”. Also, while plenty of football can be mapped out and elaborated on mathematically, the answer to “what’s the normal amount of injuries a team should suffer in a healthy season?” hasn’t quite been broached (this article from 2010 courtesy of the Falcoholic shares some insight as to what position groups are the most frequently injured, and other data which you could reverse engineer from to come up with an estimate).

Additionally, star-gazing and pondering a “healthy season” is limited in that it solely assesses one’s own team’s players, based on some arbitrary (let’s be honest, 0 injuries) number, without any real depth or information conveyed. It’s the sentiment equivalent of a vague, debatably meaningless counting stat like tackles (Manti Te’o OWNED Counter: 2).

Now while the metric of “a healthy season” or even the question of “how many injuries during an NFL season would be considered normal?” aren’t readily answered, there do exist some ways of assessing a team’s injury-plagued-ness.

Football Outsiders has a metric known as Adjusted Games Lost. It’s their assessment of each team’s injuries, measured and weighted both by what significance the injured player had to the team (i.e. injuries to starters mean more than backups) as well as how long the player was reported to be dealing with the injury and whether or not they landed on IR. I’m not a huge fan of this metric, as it’s kind of wonky and going to be difficult to assess across seasons given the NFL’s new rules on how teams can report injuries (i.e. the terminology was changed/reduced this year) but it’s the only worthwhile metric that even bothers to elaborate on the who, what and when’s of injuries and their impact on NFL teams. Unfortunately, they have yet to release their tables for the 2016 season, though you can find the 2015 tables here. (The Chargers ranked 27th in 2015 and 31st in 2014, meaning they had particularly high AGLs).

But if the weirdly clandestine (again, FO hasn’t ever released their formula for AGL) nature of Football Outsiders’ metric isn’t for you, let the money do the talking. By that, I mean taking a look at SporTrac’s IR counter found here. You can select the year and sort by the sheer quantity of players each team placed on IR by the end of the season, the amount of salary each team’s IR designated players that counted toward that team’s salary cap accounted for and (for whatever reason) the same thing as the total salary but instead of how much it counts toward the cap, how much direct cash they owed their assortment of IR players. For the purpose of trying to find out how more or less “injured” the Chargers are or have been vis a vis other teams, there’s a negligible difference in terms of sorting the results by either of the two latter categories, frankly.

The problem with using SporTrac’s info is simple: While it does give you a basic number of each team’s IR list and you can surmise something from the corresponding salary amount that each team has on the shelf, it essentially treats each player listed as more or less equivalent and doesn’t tell you anything about who is contributing to that salary total in what (significant or insignificant) way.

Furthermore, while both sources permit the exploration of year to year data with regard to injuries, neither alludes to or cops to any trends or explanations for why certain teams are particularly rife with injuries one year but not the next, much less why certain teams are particularly injury free year to year (or the opposite).

Basically, the point I’m making here is that just because the 2016 San Diego Chargers had a laundry list of players on IR doesn’t mean things will be necessarily different for the 2017 Los Angeles Chargers. And frankly, I’d argue that the sheer number of players on IR doesn’t matter, because...

Most Injured/IR-Designated Players Are (and for the 2016 Chargers, WERE) Below Replacement Level

Jeff Cumberland. Matt Daniels. Zamir Carlis. Terrell Chestnut. Tyler Johnstone. Brock Hekking. Chris Watt. Javontee Herndon. Sean Lissemore. Manti Te’o (Manti Te’o OWNED Counter: 3) Donovan Clark. Rasheed Bailey. Shaq Petteway. (Depending on which IR list, and whether it includes injury settlement dudes on it). A real murderer’s row of players on injured reserve, that lot.

Basically, if I wasn’t concerned with Danny Kelly empowering people to parrot the idea that the sheer quantity of Chargers injuries was significant, and the quality of play - specifically in spite of that sheer quantity of injuries - that resulted serve as harbingers of a potential Super Bowl run, there wouldn’t be a problem here.

However, as usual, the problem boils down to misattributing one thing (localized, perhaps individual successful performances on offense, and general group performance on defense) to one not TOTALLY incorrect thing but yeah incorrect thing (# of Chargers injured/on-IR).

That’s because, as I’ve argued on here since the season was effectively over (so like... the end of November), the majority of the Chargers injuries suffered did not affect the team’s ability to win or lose games this season NEARLY as much as folks continue to insinuate to my chagrin. The actual number of injuries that had a significantly negative impact on the team’s ability to perform this season is a LOT smaller than it looks, especially when you begin to contextualize the team’s injuries, particularly with regards to time because...

Some Injuries Occurred When The Season Was Over

Some people like to sneak in Melvin Gordon missing the last three games of the season into the conversation of “WE WERE JUST (dramatic) SO HURT (/dramatic)” but it’s ridiculous given that the team was mathematically eliminated in the wake of that Panthers loss (and Dolphins win). Same goes for Kenneth Farrow (whose injury and addition to season-ending IR in the final week of the season was weirdly used by people to prop up the “our RB corps were severely injured” argument”), Craig Mager and Jerry Attaochu (more on them later).

(Plus) Some Injuries Occurred When The Season Was (Practically) Over

I’m no stranger to copping to being honest, this one is more subjective than anything (especially given the historical precedence for the Chargers to ignite a winning streak and make the playoffs in spite of overwhelming mathematical odds) but I definitely scoff when folks suggest Brandon Mebane being added to IR after the humiliating home defeat to the Dolphins in week 10 was a - significant - loss for the team. (i.e. on the same level of some of the injuries I’ll get to in a bit)

Admittedly, if the run defense had completely gone to hell, it would be a more compelling argument, but I think understanding that losing someone like Mebane at that point in time (before a bye week, too) should mitigate some of the impact his injury had with regards to explaining how this season turned out. Honestly, given the level of DL play when he went out not tanking, it’s a feather in the DL coach’s cap that his younger replacements were up to the task, more or less. The same could not be said about the DB corps in light of Brandon Flowers’ eventual succumbing to concussion-related injuries in week 12, but uh... He hasn’t exactly been good since getting his big contract.

(Oh and some injuries opened the doors for comparable/better players to finally get a chance)

Obviously, the big, undeniable injury I’m talking about here is the (inevitable, frankly) season-ending injury Manti Te’o suffered against Indianapolis early on in the season. Given his ludicrously blown to over-proportion Team Captain status and the general way in which the team used his likeness to market itself (see also: Jahleel Addae for another example of mediocrity propped up by team brass for reasons), and the team’s tendency to limit snaps of younger, in-coming players in favor of known (yet below-average) quantities (remember Donald Butler?) was forced out of their hand by the Flyin’ Hawaiian’s injury.

And thank god, because could you imagine the narrative of Tom Telesco’s 2016 draft class if it didn’t include Jatavis Brown’s stand out slate of performances? Or the comparable narrative of Telesco’s ability to find “diamonds in the rough” like Korey Toomer, who performed admirably coming over in a short amount of time from the Raiders’ practice squad and playing like he had been a low-key stalwart of the D for years?

Then there are the debatable arguments for players who wound up getting hurt yet either had their production replaced, improved upon, or allowed for some other player’s development.

The most controversial being the argument that Danny Woodhead’s injury forced the Chargers to use Melvin Gordon as though he was actually a three-down, pass catching, pass blocking running back (you know, the kind you ideally use 1st round draft capital on because what’s the point otherwise?). One needn’t bring back up the bizarre deployment of Melvin Gordon under Frank Reich’s presumed command of the offense in 2015, largely because all you need to do is turn back to Week 1 of 2016 to go, “Oh, they never had any intention of playing Melvin Gordon as a three down back and making the offense - slightly - less predictable had Danny Woodhead remained healthy” because they gave DW 50 snaps compared to Gordon’s 23.

I think the idea that Melvin Gordon would have had such a break out season, to the tune of 1,000-yards-in-spirit-but-come-on and 10 touchdowns, if Danny Woodhead had remained healthy is a little misguided. Sure, I suppose you could point to 2013 where a (relatively) healthy Ryan Mathews and DW co-existed to the point where Mathews managed to gain 1k+ yards, but the equity in snap counts that season were never as out-of-balance as that Chiefs game.

To be clear, it’s not that I dislike Danny or think he wouldn’t have contributed in his own particular way, but it’s that there’s an over-reliance on him (or, more bluntly put, a stubborn “either Danny or Melvin is on the field, never both” usage that has some serious drawbacks) that’s in error. In particular, Melvin Gordon’s emergence as a serious pass-catching threat out of the backfield was a crucial development this season that we certainly wouldn’t have seen as much use out of given DW’s role as the OW/receiving option out of the backfield. Would the offensive braintrust behind last season’s offense conjured up some receiving opportunities for MGIII while simultaneously fielding Woodhead? It’s possible but I seriously doubt it.

Plus, it’s important to underscore that last point by saying that Gordon becoming a receiving threat (more so than Travis Benjamin, to say the least) is essential for making the offense less predictable. Between always firing off snaps at the last possible second, predictable audible calls and a lack of creativity with the WR corps, giving the offense something unpredictable/reliable as Gordon catching the ball as a safety valve or on a wheel route is severely underrated.

Then you have Stevie Johnson’s (and to a lesser extent Keenan Allen’s) opening the door for practice squad stand-out Tyrell Williams to move to the fore and show he has the capabilities to be one of the team’s leading receiving options for the rest of Philip Rivers’ career.

Sure, I will admit that Tyrell’s tendency to bounce passes into interceptions is a drawback (not that Stevie’s ever been immune to the same stupid tendency), but for a 2nd year UDFA to go from practice squad cast off to Much Better Version of Malcom Floyd in one year just because he finally got the opportunity is remarkable. He obviously needs to work on the hands and gain better catch strength (hell, I just spent three paragraphs stumping for Melvin Gordon to get a crazy high number of touches and he still has stuff to work on) but the future is much brighter knowing he’s in the team’s plans for the future and not questioning that just because Stevie Johnson happened to be along for the bumpy ride last year.

Basically, I’ll take what amounts to a rookie wideout producing to the tune of 1k yards receiving over Stevie Johnson getting about half that amount and throwing a couple of penalty-engendering temper tantrums along the way. Are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? Could Stevie had had a 1k yd season with fewer drops than Tyrell while Tyrell still performed admirably? I could see it, but I sincerely doubt it. I’d rather be glad that neither Stevie nor Travis Benjamin impeded Tyrell Williams’ growth.

And finally, as I mentioned earlier, former premium round draft picks Jerry Attaochu and Craig Mager wound up on IR this year. Their replacements Kyle Emmanuel and Trovon Reed did about a replacement-level job filling in for them, I’d say. Frankly, when it comes to assessing the impact of their injuries on the team’s success, the word of the day for bother Attaochu and Mager isn’t past production, it’s potential. So... yeah. Not great.

That Being Said, Some Injuries - DID - Matter (5 injuries mattered)

Which is at the crux of this article: It’s not to dismiss injuries entirely, but to be informed and actually smart about their impact on the team’s season.

Specifically, there were 5 injuries that had a considerable impact on the team. The first, despite resolving itself fairly late in the season, clearly had a detrimental impact on the team’s pass defense. I’m talking, of course, about Brandon Flowers.

Brandon Flowers

Flowers’ injury, and the impact his perpetually injured status had on the team, isn’t like the other 4 players mentioned in this section. His injury wasn’t so much about losing top-shelf talent that couldn’t be replaced but, more accurately, about the lack of quality depth at his position.

Earlier on I mentioned that after Brandon Mebane exited the season due to injury, the young corps of the DL stepped up and played marginally well in his absence, no? Guys like Damion Square, Tenny Palepoi, Ryan Carrethers, Darius Philon all stepped up in his absence.

Unfortunately, while Casey Heyward miraculously stepped up to fill the CB1 void left by Jason Verrett, Flowers’ void at CB3, much less his theoretical (in light of Verrett’s injury and Heyward being elevated) absence at CB2 couldn’t even come remotely close to being replaced. Despite fielding highly touted former third round pick Craig Mager, Steve Williams, Trovon Reid, Pierre Desir, Trevor Williams and others, the team’s efforts to find a suitable partner outside (much less in the slot) for Heyward largely failed.

The big question for me is, had Flowers remained healthy, would we have seen him excel at a significant degree higher than the cadre of no-name DBs who failed to supplant him? The data we have on Flowers’ performance in 2015 stands in stark, frighteningly bad contrast to his work in his 2014 contract year, and sure, everyone remembers the pick six he had against Tennessee and a pair of run stops, but unlike the other names on this list, there’s serious doubt as to just how much Flowers would have improved upon his replacements.

Branden Oliver

Then you have Branden Oliver. Oliver’s an interesting case because I mainly think he would have been used to give Gordon rest on certain series (i.e. if we’d had possession of the ball for a long stretch of possession and then quickly got the ball back), so to me, it’s all about comparing what Oliver has done for the team in the past against the likes of Kenneth Farrow and uh... The other randos we signed off the street.

I know I previously argued that Danny Woodhead would have taken away from Gordon’s performance, so there might be a tendency to argue that another back like Oliver (who can, when asked, catch passes out of the backfield too) would do similar, but really Oliver and Woodhead aren’t the same kind of player. It’s rare to find a player like Danny Woodhead, who is basically more receiver than running back, and frankly, putting the ball in Woodhead’s hands off draw plays frustrates me far more than asking Oliver and his physicality to do the same.

Though this may be the surprising name on the list of dudes who would up on IR that I believe the team missed, I still stand by it. But does the team win another game or two with Oliver healthy and on the roster this season? I mean, debatably, but the most likely candidate for games where Oliver might have swung the tide are the games after Gordon got hurt and was out for the rest of the season. At that point, once Miami won, the Chargers were eliminated, so maybe not.

Danny Woodhead

On the other hand, try as I might to point out how he makes the offense more predictable while arguably less effective in the run game (“we HAVE to sell Woodhead as a runner so make sure to queue up the INSIDE DELAYED DRAWS!”) and how the snap count division between him and Gordon (due to the coaching staff’s lack of creativity with regards to fielding both players) would have cut into Gordon’s production, it’s hard for me to argue against the notion that Danny Woodhead is a special player who, much like New England’s scrappy pass-catching corps, wins games.

Even at the offense’s nadir (the Frank Reich “orchestrated” era), Danny Woodhead is a crazy offensive mismatch and headache for opposing defenses. Add to that Philip Rivers’ weird over-reliance on familiar targets, and while you’re likely taking away some of Dontrelle Inman, Hunter Henry and Tyrell Williams’ production to boot, Danny Woodhead’s propensity for success in the red zone likely swings a game (if not more) in the Chargers’ favor last year. We’re talking about a dependable 1k yd from scrimmage, 7+ TD player (when he can manage to stay healthy, of course).

Jason Verrett

As much as I ponder whether Casey Heyward is pushed to have such an unforeseen breakout season without Jason Verrett’s injury motivating him to step up, there’s no question that Jason Verrett is as good, if not a better cover corner than Heyward. Sure, it’s debatable whether Verrett would be as ballhawking a corner Heyward is (his highest single-season INT total is 3, after all) and maybe Verrett looses his cool much like in the early part of that 2015 season (particularly the Bengals game where he got taken to lunch by AJ Green).

However, unlike Brandon Flowers, there’s no multiple game stretch of Verrett’s Chargers career to suggest he might have floundered for an entire season. Add to that, Verrett completely locking down TY Hilton on a partially torn ACL and I mean, I don’t think I really need to say anything here.

The last thing I’ll say about Verrett is that it’s a little harder with him to speculate how many “games lost” went with him after he went on IR. Verrett’s impact on the game is largely due to limiting targets to opposing teams’ #1 WRs. However, given how most teams now run 3-5 legit passing options deep, and the degree to which Verrett positively impacts games becomes slightly more debatable. The unfortunate comparisons to Bob Sanders persist, possibly.

Keenan Allen

And then we come to the guy where it’s clear the 2016 Chargers - definitely - win at least one more game had he remained healthy. Of course, I’m talking about week 1 against the Chiefs.

Seriously, as horrible as the Chargers’ historical mojo has been, the way Keenan Allen roasted the Chiefs’s secondary for that first half? Highly unlikely that game turns out to be such a horrible dumpster fire. Kansas City had no answer for Allen, and his ACL tear spiritually echoed throughout the season.

I mean, seriously, it’s like a slogan:

The 2016 San Diego Chargers: Like Watching Keenan Allen’s 1st Half Against the Chiefs (and then his ACL tear) For Sixteen Straight Weeks

Woof.

Anyway, while I have my reservations about crowning Keenan Allen a top 10 WR in the league (he’s more like a 1A guy than a top flight WR1, but that’s neither here nor there), it’s apparent that his loss radically changed the offense. Sure, the team managed to slot Tyrell Williams into a number of his short-to-intermediate routes, but that zone is where Keenan Allen makes his money and it wasn’t possible to get close to the same amount of usage.

Subsequently, the offense’s (over) reliance on chucking the ball deep, in response to failing to exploit that 5-7 yard range, had a drastic impact on the offense’s ability to succeed. You could even tell coming out of the locker room at half time from the Chiefs game, that first offensive drive, the team looked absolutely lost!

Keenan Allen is definitely the injury that hurt the Chargers team the worst and, frankly, if you come at me with, “if only Keenan Allen wasn’t hurt” in terms of lamenting last year or calling your shot about this year’s team, I’d likely nod in agreement. The dude’s pretty great at what he does and without him, the offense loses an entire dimension for what it can do.

TL;DR

The total number of injured Chargers (which was high) doesn’t really explain how the 2016 season turned out.

Instead of saying, “the Chargers are SO injured, if only they could be healthy!” or “if the Chargers could be healthy, they’d win a Super Bowl!”, be smart and clear about it.

Like this,

“If Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett could stay healthy, the Chargers will win a Super Bowl!”

...Also don’t count on the Chargers miraculously becoming “healthy”, it’s not a thing that happens just because you wish it could happen.

(Oh, and for the “Joey Bosa was hurt/missed 4 games! #AllInjuriesMatter” folks, y’all know I come down on the “that was the fault of the front office for not getting him into training camp sooner” side of the issue).

Until next time, when I decide to rant about something else!