When Football Outsiders released their annual look at games lost to injury for 2020, I skimmed it, set it aside for later to write about it, and hadn’t returned to it. A fresh prompt from ESPN’s Mina Kimes earlier this week prompted me to go back to the article, and with where the Falcons are in their offseason cycle, it’s a worthwhile reminder of why Atlanta let most of its free agency class walk and cut a couple of players with pretty large 2020 roles.
Per FO, Atlanta lost the third-fewest games to injury and COVID in 2020 in the site’s adjusted games lost statistic, which attempts to weigh key starters more heavily than reserves and special teamers to come up with an accounting of the impact injuries and non-injury related games lost have for each franchise. That’s a very long-winded way of saying this team had injury luck, but unfortunately basically no other luck at all.
They were middle of the pack (14th) in terms of games lost by players specifically placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and 2nd overall in terms of games lost due to injury with 48. Only the Super Bowl winning Buccaneers were more fortunate there, losing about 30 games to injury. The good news for Atlanta is that Tampa Bay seems due to regress in that arena. The bad news for the Falcons is that the Falcons seem likely to regress there, too, which is one of the reasons Terry Fontenot and company have been so frantically plugging depth with their limited free agent dollars. The fact that they weren’t extremely unfortunate in 2019, too, suggests that perhaps they could run their better luck a little longer, but you can’t count on that.
We already knew 2020 was a miserable year with like maybe a half dozen tangible highlights—Calvin Ridley’s breakout season, the emergence of Younghoe Koo, and that unexpectedly stellar effort against the Chiefs are the ones I can tick off on command—but this somehow makes it a little bit worse than it already was. The Falcons were willing to basically turn over half the roster and replace a lot of players with affordable veterans not just because they didn’t have the cash—and they did not, to be clear—but because 2020 was such a dismal year.
Remember, this was a roster that went 4-12. They were roughly middle of the pack in terms of both scoring offense and defense and the offense wasn’t terrible so much as it was awful in the red zone, but the net was still one of the league’s most dismal teams. They kept games close thanks to an offense just good enough to bang home a couple of touchdowns per game and feed Koo and a defense that did show some legitimate improvement when Raheem Morris took over as the interim head coach, but suggesting that this team was awfully close to winning several more games does not exactly imply they were good. They weren’t. They also can’t expect to get a second straight year where their depth was only lightly exposed by injury, though the unceremonious cut of Takk McKinley, Dante Fowler’s struggles, and COVID-19-related stints did give us a better look at defensive depth. The grim conclusion that was already hard to avoid is that the Falcons backed themselves into an expensive, kinda crummy roster despite their efforts to win now, and that roster being the beneficiary of injury luck makes that worse.
What does this mean for the Falcons in 2021? Nothing we didn’t already know, really. The Falcons made it clear what they thought about this roster by their actions this offseason, removing starters and depth alike from the mix and stocking affordable veterans to go with what could be a nine man draft class. If they were not strapped for cash, chances are the house cleaning would’ve been more extensive, but Atlanta’s well aware that contention in 2021 is going to depend entirely on getting a lot more of those players who remain, banking heavily on stars and better coaching lifting this team out of the doldrums they lived in last year.
Time will tell whether that strategy has even a chance of succeeding this year, or if the Falcons’ recent run of expensive failure dooms them to a longer timeline. If they do contend this coming season, simple regression suggests they’ll need to do so with more injuries.