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2008 Season Retrospective: Did injuries "Neg Out" the Jaguars?

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What explains the late season meltdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars?

With training camp so close you can almost smell the sweat on the blocking sleds, It's time for a (hopefully) final look back at the 2008 season, and what it means for the 2009 team.  Two articles popped on my radar recently, each offering a "scientific" examination of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but with differing conclusions.  K.C. Joyner, writing for the New York Times, looks at the injuries to the Jaguars offensive line and how it offers little excuse for the late season meltdown that sent the team on a rocketship toward rebuilding.  On the other side, Football Outsiders, the statistics guru's of the NFL, determined that no team missed more time for injuries than the Jaguars, and that they should be ripe for a comeback in 2009.

Going back to Joyner's article, he uses a system that tracks how many time an offensive lineman was the key player in a run play, and the success rate of said lineman to come up with a percentage. 

LT - Khalif Barnes - 88 POA runs, 66 POA wins, 75.0% POA win rate

LG - Uche Nwaneri - 134 POA runs, 111 POA wins, 82.8% POA win rate

C - Brad Meester - 72 POA runs, 62 POA wins, 86.1% POA win rate

RG - Dennis Norman - 147 POA runs, 125 POA wins, 85.0% POA win rate

RT - Tony Pashos - 143 POA runs, 123 POA wins, 86.0% POA win rate

Per his metrics, having three blockers with a POA win rate of over 85% is good, especially considering the injuries on the line.  He correctly calls out Barnes as the "weakest link", though he distinguishes that his performance was not injury related.  I would argue that having the players on the inside replaced would probably have a detrimental effect on his numbers, but that's for another post.

What I find problematic about these numbers is that they simply do not match the product that we saw on the field.  Sure, these measurements show that the Jaguars offensive line was effective, but when statistics are vastly different than the "gut impression", it draws into question the very validity of the numbers.  Statistics driven analysis is fantastic and something that the NFL has lacked, but there are some elements that require some work.  One is in tracking the offensive line.  Without game film like the coaches see, it's very difficult to follow the offensive line play.  The camera follows the ball and the quarterback, and often hides the nuances of offensive line play.  The end zone camera position gives us the best view of holes and cut back lanes, but the general broadcast camera position is horrible at showing who did what in a particular play.  Until the NFL decides that fans and the media can have regular access to the end zone camera, it's going to be hard to create an accurate measurement.

But I'm seriously digressing from my point.  David Garrard went from one of the least sacked and least mistake prone quarterbacks in 2007, to one of the most sacked in 2008.  The Jaguars running game went from being an iconic factor in games to an afterthought, as David was forced into 3rd and long over and over and over again.  We watched the games, we saw the line play, we saw the holes close, we saw Fred and Jones-Drew struggle, and yet we are supposed to believe that the statistics say that the offensive line was good, and that the Jaguars had a case of the funk and fell off the grid?

That's exactly what Joyner argues:

A. Management and/or the coaches were feeding this line of thinking to the announcers to take the heat off a team that had badly underachieved, and
B. This mind-set eventually made its way through to the team itself

Thought A came to mind because Jack Del Rio strikes me as a media-savvy coach who is good at helping to steer story lines in a direction of his choosing. The sense my scouting eye got is that the announcers bought into the injury story, but, unfortunately for Del Rio, so did his players. They kept hearing the press say that their injuries were the reason for the downfall and they might have ended up believing it. Deep down, I think the team knew that injuries weren’t killing the offense, but when the players heard the excuse being used elsewhere, they were free to jump on that bandwagon.

What he argues, in my opinion, is absurd.  If, and that's a strong word, but if it's true that the team attempted to score a PR "win" by blaming the season on the injuries and that Del Rio let that mindset change the team from a "next man up" to a "quit and lay down", than Del Rio should have joined James Harris and left the team.  But I don't buy it.  Did the Jaguars have a boat-load of problems in the locker room?  Absolutely.  Was it because the team bought into it's own negitive hype? I just don't think so. 

Statistics, as we know, can tell the same story with different conclusions:  Take Football Outsiders, for example:

Jacksonville had a 1.9% DVOA, and their expected win total was 8.9 -- shocking, perhaps, but a function of their underlying performance. A 1.9% DVOA is pretty good: 26 other teams since 1994 (the earliest year we've calculated DVOA for) have had a DVOA between 1% and 3%. Of those 26 teams, exactly one won as few as five games: The 2003 Jaguars, who promptly won nine games the next season. The average team in that range won 8.5 games.

Furthermore, the Jaguars had a lot of injuries last year. By our injury metric, Adjusted Games Lost (which takes into account historical injury rates for a given role/position on the injury report and the player's role as a starter or reserve on the team), the Jaguars were the tenth-most injured team in the league last year. Injuries tend to regress to league average, which is another positive indicator for the Jaguars; a team's AGL has a .26 correlation with the change in wins in subsequent seasons.

 

So, which is it?  Injuries or being psyched out? 

I'd like to see what ya'll think of this.  Why do you think the Jaguars fell apart last season?