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Is This The Worst Year For Quarterback Injuries?

It’s Week 11 of the NFL season, and the most impressive 53-man roster this year may be found not on any sideline, but rather on the injured reserve list. Every season sees some star power lost to injury, but 2017 seems to be on another level, with a significant loss of superior talent.

Picture a defense led by J.J. Watt, Cliff Avril, Dont’a Hightower, Eric Berry and Richard Sherman. Imagine David Johnson and Dalvin Cook running behind an offensive line that includes Joe Thomas and Jason Peters at tackle and Mike Iupati and Marshal Yanda at guard. When this team throws the ball, it has Greg Olsen and Tyler Eifert at tight end and a strong supply of wide receivers, with Odell Beckham Jr., Pierre Garcon, Allen Robinson and Julian Edelman in the slot. “Team IR” would even have a solid kicker in Sebastian Janikowski.

All this team needs is a quarterback, and that’s where 2017 takes its saddest turn, because there is a great selection to choose from.

Andrew Luck, who should be in the prime of his career at age 28, will not play a down for the Colts this season as he tries to recover from shoulder surgery. Aaron Rodgers, who looked to be heating up for another MVP run, may not return to action this season for the Packers after he broke his collarbone in Week 6.

In any given year, the loss of even just two of the game’s top signal callers would have made it a lousy year for quarterback injuries. However, 2017 has claimed even more starters at the game’s most important position:

Things have gotten so bad that even ironman Philip Rivers, quarterback for the Chargers, has been afflicted, reporting concussion symptoms this week that are keeping his status uncertain for Sunday’s game. Rivers has started 194 consecutive games, including the playoffs, which is the fourth-longest streak by a quarterback in NFL history.

But how does this year’s spate of QB ailments compare with recent seasons? We can begin to quantify the damage done by injuries using Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric.1 AGL works by tallying up the number of games that players missed and adjusting for whether the player was a key contributor.2 (So an injury to a backup quarterback, for example, would not factor into AGL unless the starter were also injured.) It also uses each team’s weekly injury report to account for players who take the field, but do so in a limited capacity.

Leaguewide Adjusted Games Lost for quarterbacks, since 2000
YEAR ADJUSTED GAME LOST
1 2008 102.4
2 2005 101.8
3 2013 92.5
4 2016 91.2
5 2010 90.6
6 2007 90.3
7 2011 85.6
8 2017 77.8
9 2014 73.9
10 2015 71.5
11 2004 70.3
12 2000 64.2
13 2006 63.9
14 2003 63.2
15 2009 56.4
16 2002 48.6
17 2001 46.5
18 2012 40.4

Source: Football Outsiders

So far in 2017, we are at 77.8 AGL for quarterbacks3 — basically 2.4 per team. That means this season already ranks as the eighth-highest among seasons since 2000, even though we’re only a little past the halfway point in the NFL schedule. It has already surpassed all of 2014 and 2015 in terms of quarterback injuries, and will be closing in on 2016 any week now.

The 2008 season ranks first by this measure, with 102.4 AGL. That number was headlined by Tom Brady’s torn ACL in Week 1 against Kansas City, but also by injuries like those suffered by the Chiefs, who lost their starting quarterback (Brodie Croyle) and their backup Damon Huard that season. Indeed, by losing Croyle and Huard, the Chiefs racked up 24.0 AGL — 23.4 percent of the league’s total that season.

Of course, neither Croyle nor Huard will be getting measured for their Hall of Fame jackets anytime soon, which is a great illustration of why in addition to measuring the quantity of a quarterback’s playing time missed to injury, we need a way to measure the quality of each injured quarterback. Although every injury matters, it is clearly a bigger deal when a team loses an MVP candidate, compared with a journeyman who is fortunate to still be starting games.

To do this, I first calculated the career passing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average4 for every injured quarterback since 2000 through the season in which the injury occurred. For example, the value assigned to Brady for his 2008 injury is his passing DVOA through 2008, which was 22.2 percent.

Then I weighted each injured quarterback’s DVOA by how much AGL he had accumulated that season, which essentially gives us the average quality of all the quarterbacks who went down in a given season. The better a quarterback was by DVOA or the more serious his injury was by AGL, the more his injury contributed to the league’s average. Going back to 2000, here are the worst seasons for QB injuries according to this method:

Quality quarterbacks are getting hurt in 2017

Average passing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for injured quarterbacks, weighted by Adjusted Games Lost, 2000-17

YEAR ADJUSTED GAMES LOST AVERAGE DVOA
1 2005 101.8 +4.6%
2 2002 48.6 +4.0%
3 2011 85.6 +3.3%
4 2017 77.8 +3.0%
5 2006 63.9 +1.6%
6 2015 71.5 +1.5%
7 2008 102.4 +0.2%
8 2001 46.5 -0.3%
9 2003 63.2 -1.9%
10 2007 90.3 -1.9%
11 2009 56.4 -2.0%
12 2004 70.3 -3.1%
13 2016 91.2 -5.1%
14 2014 73.9 -6.2%
15 2010 90.6 -7.6%
16 2013 92.5 -10.2%
17 2000 64.2 -11.2%
18 2012 40.4 -15.4%

AGL adjusts traditional games missed because of injury to account for playing time (starters versus backups) and factors in the player’s status on the injury report (questionable players receive partial AGL even if they played that week).

DVOA is weighted by how many of the quarterbacks’ games were lost to injury in a given season.

Source: Football Outsiders

The average DVOA for an injured quarterback in 2017 is 3.0 percent above NFL average, which ranks fourth since 2000. By this metric, the 2005 season was the worst for injuries to quality quarterbacks. Although it only had the second-highest AGL (101.8), it rises to No. 1 in average DVOA (4.6 percent) because of the quality of the QBs hurt. That year, the underrated Chad Pennington missed 13 games for the Jets, while Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb had major injuries after both enjoyed career seasons in 2004. And this doesn’t even include the serious injuries suffered at the end of the 2005 season by Drew Brees (torn labrum in Week 17) and Carson Palmer (torn ACL in AFC wild-card game vs. Pittsburgh), because neither team had another game to play that season.

But what 2017 lacks in its overall average, it might make up for in star power. For instance, even though Watson is only a rookie, his loss already ranks as one of the worst QB injuries in recent history:

If Rodgers does not return this season for Green Bay, his injury will also rank among the most damaging since 2000. And Andrew Luck’s also has to be in the conversation, particularly since his value to the Colts is greater than his stats would suggest.

Making matters even worse, the injured QBs’ teams have done a poor job of cobbling together any kind of backup plan this season.

The Texans went from a scoring juggernaut with Watson to one of the worst offenses in the league. In Watson’s six starts, Houston averaged 34.7 points per game. In Tom Savage’s three starts, he has led the Texans to two offensive touchdowns in 10 quarters of play.

And the Texans aren’t alone in their struggles. Miami’s offense has fallen to 1.35 points per drive (ranked 30th) behind Jay Cutler and Matt Moore this season. Tannehill was never deadly efficient, but you have to think he would have done better in his second season with Adam Gase’s offense than a suddenly unretired Cutler.

Jacoby Brissett has done an admirable job at times in place of Luck in Indianapolis. But the Colts have the fifth-highest rate of three-and-out drives, and Brissett ranks 25th in passing DVOA this season. Sustaining offense and closing out games have been big problems for the Colts. The team has blown four fourth-quarter leads this season — the most in the league. If Luck were behind center, one would think Indianapolis could have five or six wins — instead of the three it has now.

With Rodgers out and Brett Hundley in, the Packers lost a pair of home games by multiple scores (to the Saints and Lions). They’ve only had two losses by multiple scores at home with Rodgers at quarterback since 2010. Hundley had his best game yet on Sunday against the Bears, but the Packers have a very difficult road ahead without arguably the best player in the NFL.

There is one “case” of a backup thriving in place of an injured starter this season. Case Keenum currently ranks second (behind only Brady) in passing DVOA this season, and the Vikings are 5-2 with Keenum as a starter. The Super Bowl will be in Minnesota this season, and the Vikings have a shot to make it with Keenum — or they could go back to Teddy Bridgewater, who hasn’t played since the 2015 playoffs after a major knee injury.

For a season that has featured so many demoralizing injuries, it would be a happy ending to see a replacement like Keenum or a recovered Bridgewater lead Minnesota to its first Super Bowl win. If that sounds too Hollywood to happen, just remember that injuries to Trent Green and Drew Bledsoe paved the way for Kurt Warner (1999 Rams) and Tom Brady (2001 Patriots) to embark on Hall of Fame careers and win a Super Bowl as first-year starters.

Perhaps a reboot is on the way.

Footnotes

  1. The Football Outsiders 2016 summary can be read here.

  2. Using Football Outsiders’ injury database, which goes back to 2000.

  3. This number accounts for the possibility of Aaron Rodgers’s return in the final weeks of the season.

  4. DVOA breaks down every single NFL play and determines its value when compared to a league baseline based on situation (i.e., down and distance, field position, score).

Scott Kacsmar is an assistant editor for Football Outsiders and contributor to ESPN Insider.

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