Ask a Detroit Lions fan what went wrong in 2018, and you’re likely to get a ton of answers. Some will say Matthew Stafford’s poor play cost them a chance at the postseason. Others will say the team simply didn’t buy into the culture quickly enough. Some believe Matt Patricia isn’t cut out for a head coaching job.
One excuse that fans always like to use is the injury argument. If injuries are to blame, that simply means the team was unlucky, and, therefore, they’re due for a huge rebound season.
Looking on the surface, the argument certainly could be made that injuries significantly hurt the team in 2018. T.J. Lang’s absence was certainly felt for the last portion of the season. Losing two of their biggest offensive weapons in Kerryon Johnson and Marvin Jones Jr. were big factors in why the offense was decimated by the season’s end, especially after the trade of Golden Tate. And with Ezekiel Ansah out for most of the season, it’s not surprising Detroit’s pass rush was non-existent for much of the year.
However, when compared with the rest of the league, the Lions’ injury situation really wasn’t all that bad. Every year, Football Outsiders creates a stat called Adjusted Games Lost, which they define as follows:
Measurement of the cost of injuries, both in terms of missed games and games where players were not able to play to their full potential. Estimates a number of games based on whether players are listed as Probable, Questionable, Doubtful, or Out. Introduced in Pro Football Prospectus 2008 essay, “The Injury Effect.”
According to Adjusted Games Lost, the Lions were the 15th-healthiest team in 2018, losing just 76.8 games by starters last season. It should come as no surprise that Detroit was hit a little heavier on the offensive side of the ball (Johnson, Lang, Jones, etc.), losing 41.8 games as compared to 35.0 on defense.
Football Outsiders also provides information on how each team used their injury designations in their weekly reports. Interestingly, the Lions had the fifth-most players listed as “Questionable” in 2018 (64).
There appears to be some slight strategy at play here, however. The New England Patriots ranked first in questionable designations with 85. This isn’t just a case of being hit with injuries more than the average team. The Patriots have ranked in the top five of “questionable” designations for each of the past three seasons, yet they’ve never finished in the top 10 of Adjusted Games Lost.
That’s because, at least with the Lions in 2018, the questionable designation doesn’t actually mean questionable anymore. Theoretically, “questionable” is supposed to mean a 50 percent chance of playing. However, according to Football Outsiders, 75 percent of Lions players listed as questionable in 2018 ended up playing—the seventh-highest percentage in the entire league (New England was at 69.4 percent, 14th). So the Lions (and Patriots) are using the questionable designation to keep teams guessing about their injured players.
While the Lions certainly weren’t helped by injuries in 2018, their situation was not all that dissimilar from any other team’s injury situation. Detroit will simply need to improve their depth to accommodate an average amount of injuries in 2019, and some would argue they already have.