One of the most cited reasons for our team's on-the-field failures is that the players can't get on the field. It certainly seems like this year has seen more Bears injuries than normal, but what do the numbers say? According to Spotrac, Chicago is tied for first place at something, the prestigious league lead in players on injured reserve with a whopping 23. Other co-leaders in this category are the Chargers, Jets, and Saints, with San Francisco just a single IR'ed player behind. Yes, its a veritable who's who of teams that remind you that your TV remote has a channel changer.
This injury plagued 2016 season leads to the question of whether the Bears have a long-term injury problem, or if this year is just a blip of bad luck. For injury data going a few years back I looked at the Adjusted Games Lost on the Football Outsiders website. AGL takes into account if a starter was injured, and if a player was injured but played, giving a greater idea of total team health. I also compared this against the Approximate Value adjusted age data to see if team age played a roll. AV adjusting means that an old QB or edge rusher will increase a team's age average more than an equally old punter or safety. This is what I found, with the #1 ranked team being the most healthy:
Year: 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008
Rank: unknown 28th 27th 14th 3rd 14th 2nd 14th 7th
Games Missed: unknown 92.8 101.6 62.6 31.3 54.5 12.3 51.1 33.3
Age adj Roster: unknown 27.0 27.8 27.6 28.6 26.9 XXXX XXXX XXXX
Using the Spotrac data mentioned above as a proxy for the 2016 AGL, the Bears have been one of the most injured teams in football from 2014 to present. This suggests that rather than 2016 being an unlucky fluke, there is a long term problem. A problem that spans two coaching regimes and two GMs.
So what is causing the Bears to be injured at such a high rate? Conventional wisdom around the NFL is that older players get injured more frequently, and if you want to get healthier you need to get younger. The Bears have been getting younger just as they've been getting less healthy, so it is unlikely that team age is the problem. What about coaching? How has John Fox done with injuries in previous stops? In his four years in Denver, his team was a top 10 health team two of those years, and only in the bottom half one season. With Carolina, from 2008-2010 Fox presided over one of the 10 healthiest teams in the league. It doesn't look like the current coach is the problem.
So why have the young Bears been injured so frequently with a coach with a decent track record of player health? My guess is that since Lovie and Emory left, the team hasn't been willing to spend on player safety in the form of training, diet, and field conditions. And/or perhaps all the talk of Lovie being a players coach was a coded way of saying that he didn't demand many physical drills in practice because he emphasized player health.
A team's success isn't directly tied to how many players make it through the season with their ACLs intact, but it is no coincidence that 5 of the 6 most healthy teams this year are in the playoff hunt. Meanwhile zero of the 6 most IR'ed teams will see the post-season. If the Bears want to return to January glory they'll need to figure out why more than 40% of their roster is on IR, and make real changes going forward.