It’s not something that gets a lot of attention in the NFL, but one of the most significant factors in a team’s success each season is how well they’ve managed to avoid injuries. The NFL in many ways is something of a demolition derby, where teams that manage to avoid key injuries to core players, while managing to keep starters as close to 100% as possible over the course of a season, tend to be more successful than those that don’t. We like to think that the most successful teams are driven by top players showing their skills, and certainly that is a significant factor. But in a league where rules strongly favor parity, both with the salary cap and drafting order, how well a team can maintain its health is a key factor in both making the playoffs and making a run.
Injuries are a Highly Correlated Key to Team Success
To prove the correlation between injuries and team success in the NFL, look at the Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) statistic compiled by Football Outsiders. Adjusted games lost doesn’t just add up total injuries. It accounts for both absent players and those playing at less than 100%, and it gives more weight to injuries to expected starters and situational players than to expected back-ups. This allows for a better measurement of the impact of injuries on a team, as injuries to starters are weighed more heavily than those to backup players.
Below are the AGL rankings for the last five seasons, with playoff teams in bold, and the final four teams playing in the conference championships highlighted in blue.
Over the past five seasons, nearly 70% of playoff teams had an AGL ranking in the top half of the league, including 85% of teams that reached the conference championship games. Those percentages underscore the positive correlation between above average team health and team success, and how critical it is for a team to make a deep playoff run. Moreover, teams that ranked in the top 5 in AGLs made the playoffs 64% of the time in that span.
New Regime, New Approach to Player Health and Performance
Undoubtedly the relationship between player health and team performance is not lost upon Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, analytics guy that he is, and Kevin O’Connell, who came from a team with one of the better athletic training departments. If you look again at the AGL chart above, the Rams have ranked no worse than 10th in the league in AGL each season and were top five in four of the last five years. In fact, if you add up all the AGLs for each team over the last five seasons, the Rams have had the fewest in the league. And by a significant margin too- over 10% less than the second-place team. The Rams also had one-third fewer AGLs than the Vikings did over that span.
So, armed with this information, what did Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah do? They poached the Rams’ Director of Sports Science/assistant athletic trainer, Tyler Williams, and made him EVP of Player Health & Performance, while releasing head trainer Eric Sugarman, who was replaced by Uriah Myrie. Williams won the NFC Asst. Trainer of the Year award in 2021 and was part of the Rams staff in 2015 that won the NFL Training Staff of the Year award.
As you may gather from his title, Williams is more than a head trainer, he really leads the sports science department, which is a multi-disciplinary approach to enhancing player performance and preventing injuries. More than just a trainer, sports science involves consideration of stress, fatigue, hydration, nourishment, and even circulation. And the objectives are not just how to recover from injury, but how to prevent injuries. It includes testing and analytics, strength and conditioning, medical science (psychology, physiology, biomechanics), and nutrition. Sports Medicine is a vital undertaking because the department not only aids players in avoiding injury but also is heavily involved in mapping a fully encompassing path that includes diet, exercise, sleep, water intake, and even cross-training to amplify and optimize the performance of each and every player on the team.
Each player has a tailor-made regimen of weight training, cardiovascular, diet, water, rest, sleep, and a host of other data points that are collected and monitored. Strength and conditioning training can then be designed around the player’s particular position, based on what his body needs and is required to do. That could include non-traditional things like improving range of motion, or focusing on drills that help prevent injuries more likely to occur at a given position, etc. And based on the on-going testing, the regimen can be changed to prevent being overworked, or according to changing body needs, or to accommodate a short week of practice, etc., etc. The general idea is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and that by monitoring more metrics and data points, a more complete approach to player performance, injury prevention and recovery can be developed specific to each player and position.
Additional listening: #20 | Sports Science with Los Angeles Ram’s Tyler Williams - YouTube (a bit rambling at times, but informative)
Optimizing player health and performance, including avoiding injuries, is a goal for every NFL team as it relates directly to team success. Not every injury can be avoided, and not every team with low AGLs makes the playoffs or has a deep playoff run. But better player health and greater team success are highly correlated, so it makes sense for the Vikings to employ all the latest sports science to help give them a competitive advantage.
Hiring one of the best sports science guys in the NFL is a step in gaining that competitive advantage, which undoubtedly will include changes in practice schedules and workout routines, more testing, and a host of other things to help players improve their readiness and performance on the field and help prevent some injuries that can be prevented through better testing and practice routines.
The goal of all this won’t necessarily help the Vikings win games, but it should help them to not lose games- by not losing as many players to injury and keeping players on the field closer to 100% every week. They say more successful people avoid bad luck by creating their own luck- doing more to influence factors that may seem out of your control, but in reality you have some ability to influence. The Vikings are taking this approach to player health and preventing injuries, and if the Rams’ track record is any indication, it should help them be more successful in avoiding injuries and making the playoffs.
Update: Vikings announce additions of Uriah Myrie as head athletic trainer and Dan Ridenour as sport science coordinator/assistant strength and conditioning coach.