Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Jul 30, 2013

The statistically intrepid Phil Steele conducted an interesting study on his blog last week that just so happens to bear special importance as it pertains to Northwestern’s upcoming season. Steele calculated the number of starts lost to injury for every FBS team in 2012, and split his accounting into two categories: offense and defense. You may not have recognized it in the midst of their 10-win season, but the Wildcats were atypically healthy last season. In fact, they were one of the five healthiest teams in the country, and the single healthiest team in the Big Ten, per Steele’s math. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg compiled a handy list of every Big Ten’s team 2012 injury data.

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 3.05.11 PM

Over 13 games, the Wildcats lost just five total starts to injury, two on offense and three on defense. That number amounts to 1.75 percent of total starts, tied for the third lowest percentage in FBS. This development no doubt helped Northwestern on its path to double-digit wins and its first bowl victory in more than six decades, but what does it portend for 2013? You might not like the answer.

Injuries are random and mostly unpredictable occurrences, but according to Steele, there’s a clear correlation between the number of bodies lying on a given team’s training room tables and that team’s fortunes the following season. “My research has shown that teams that benefited from very few injuries, in this case 6 or less, usually have a weaker season the next year,” Steele writes.

Reading Steele’s informative study doesn’t inspire the utmost confidence in Northwestern’s ability to repeat or eclipse last season’s success. Likewise, the Wildcats are not doomed for a massive cliffdive just because a statistical trend indicates they’re more likely to regress than improve in 2013. It’s a bad omen, and a statistically-supported one at that – something to keep in mind as you look ahead to the coming season. I wouldn’t read into it too much: it could just as easily be interpreted as a rousing recommendation for Northwestern’s training staff.

In any case, if Steele’s numbers are to be believed, the Wildcats are bound to suffer more injuries in 2013. That’s, uh, not good.

  • Injury free

    Unless of course northwestern is doing a great job from a strength and conditioning aspect as well as an athletic training aspect as well as practicing smarter to decrease injuries. But what do I know

    • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

      No team, regardless of the training staff, can sustain that low of an injury rate over a number of seasons. It is statistically impossible.

      • Gladeskat

        It’s statistically improbable, like tossing a die and having 6 face upward 5 times in a row, but it’s not impossible.

  • Mark Wheaton

    Glad you read my post on Rivals citing this work!! Always nice to supply you with ideas for columns ;-)

    • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

      We actually didn’t see you posted this. We saw it reading Phil Steele on your own. But if you ever have an idea for a post, shoot us an email and we’ll give you a shoutout. We’ve done that before with some other readers.

  • Chasmo

    Players (and coaches) like to believe that injuries can be prevented by good conditioning and playing smart and it makes sense for them psychologically to believe that.
    But injuries, more often than not, are random occurrences and just a matter of luck. Teams can have good runs of luck and bad runs of luck. Iowa, for example, has had a terrible run of luck at the running back position over the past few years. Using the laws of probability, NU could very well go through a second season in a row with few injuries.
    After all, when flipping a coin, the odds are still 50-50 that is will come up heads even if the last few flips resulted in all tails.

    • Chris Johnson

      Look, I’m not saying Northwestern will or won’t suffer more injuries next season. I’m merely pointing out Northwestern’s super-healthy 2012, and using numbers to give you an idea of how other teams with similar injury-free seasons fared the following year. It’s nothing close to a conclusive indicator of how many injuries Northwestern will suffer this season. History says NU is bound to regress — that’s what I’m trying to convey.

      • Chasmo

        There is nothing wrong with your passing on this information. The problem is with the information itself because there is no evidence in what was posted that a team having had injury-free season will have a poorer season record-wise in the following season.
        Sure Steele says, “My research has shown that teams that benefited from very few injuries, in this case 6 or less, usually have a weaker season the next year.” But did he provide any statistics to back up that claim?

        Injuries are too random to find any significant patterns in their occurrence, it seems to me.
        We’ll find out this season, won’t we, if Steele is correct.

        • Chris Johnson

          Yup, that’s a good point. “my research has shown” isn’t anything close to definitive validation. But yeah, just interesting to consider NU’s lack of injuries last season — and how other B1G teams, like MSU, weren’t quite so “lucky.” (lucky goes in quotes because, like you mentioned, there are a lot of different factors — training staff, practices, etc — that go into injuries besides sheer happenstance.)

    • injury Free

      “Players (and coaches) like to believe that injuries can be prevented by good conditioning and playing smart and it makes sense for them psychologically to believe that.
      But injuries, more often than not, are random occurrences and just a matter of luck.”

      players and coaches might believe that, however the staff that trains them and works with them doesn’t. they know injuries will happen. A mark of a great program from a SC and athletic training side is reducing the extent of the injury from a tear to a sprain, to increase recovery times, etc. I’m sure Nu had injuries they didn’t inform the general public. Guys play hurt.

      Michigan, for example, which has had a couple ACL- season ending injuries, who uses a strength program that does not incorporate basic squatting into their workout regimen, versus Nu who does squats, olympic lifts, etc. and what team has been healthier? that’s right. It matters more than you think

      • http://www.insidenu.com/ Kevin Trahan

        Yes, it matters. But you can’t use last year as evidence that the training staff is amazing and say injuries won’t happen again. The fact is, NU had fewer injuries than normal last year. That helped its record. Odds are, it will have more injuries this year because last year was a statistical oddity. I’m sure NU has a good training staff, but on the flip side of this, you can’t say the staff was bad when Persa got hurt. Injuries happen in football. They didn’t last year, but that was a statistical anomaly. That’s all we’re saying. You’re placing far too much weight on a training staff’s capabilities.

  • TCat67

    All good points, and unlikely we can sustain that level of “healthiness” but it’s as much “who” as “how many” – arguably the ‘Cats would have had 1 (perhaps 2) additional wins if a D-Tackle or Receiver (or both) went down for a “season-ending” injury (add 8-10 starts to the list) than the loss we did have in the secondary, especially against Nebraska. Here’s hoping we get “lucky” – one way or the other.

    Go ‘Cats

  • gocatsgo2003

    I would also be interested in seeing more on his methodology. If it is based simply off of taking the opening day lineup and seeing how many games those guys missed, our number may be altered by elements such as replacing Porcelli with Deiters starting in the third game, Fleming with Carpenter in the second game, etc. It also doesn’t appear that the methodology can account for in-game injuries (such as those to Mark and VanHoose in a number of games).

  • BklynCat

    If injuries are truly random, then past injuries tell us nothing about the rate of future injuries.

  • http://www.LakeThePosts.com/ LTP

    Yeah, but wasn’t it karma payback for the 1.3 year “loss” of a healthy Dan Persa? That, plus the VanHoose injury in the Nebraska game was a root cause of that comeback. Indeed, we avoided the haymaker injuries, but sure had our share of nicks between Venric, Trumpy, VanHoose, etc…

  • Catatonic Joe

    So NU had only 5 injury non-starts last year and that put us in the top 5 teams in the country. Then Steele says, “My research has shown that teams that benefited from very few injuries,
    in this case 6 or less, usually have a weaker season the next year.”

    Well if you are in the top 5 schools in the country in a statistic that is based at least to some extent on random chance, then yeah, it is pretty likely that you won’t be in the top 5 for two years in a row. That is not exactly hard to figure out. My physics professor used to describe that as, “intuitive to the casual observer.”

    • Me

      I’m pretty sure he means that they usually have a weaker season in terms of W-L, not in terms of this list

  • Steve851

    It depends not on numbers but on who you lose

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