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Buffalo Bills benefited from outstanding player health in 2019

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No team had fewer players on IR than the Bills.

The 2019 Buffalo Bills were remarkably healthy. That’s a simple fact, one that we can understand both in the context of the team’s recent history and against the league as a whole. It does raise a question, though: was Buffalo’s injury “luck” the product of new training facilities and a well-run training and sports medicine program, or an unsustainable fluke set to regress in the next year?

Let’s start by outlining just how successfully the Bills avoided injuries this year. It’s truly outstanding. The Bills led the league with the fewest players on injured reserve (6), were the only team to have zero starters land on injured reserve, and only saw 120 “player games” missed due to injury—the second-best mark in the league. The only other team in the same ballpark as Buffalo was the Minnesota Vikings, with nine players on injured reserve, one starter (special teams leader Ben Gedeon), and only 100 “player games” lost.

Player injury data for 2019 regular season (source: Pro Football Reference Injury Reports)

Buffalo’s short injury list was rare in the NFL this year, but it was also especially fortunate compared to the franchise’s recent history. While the 2018 Bills only had eight players land on injured reserve, they still saw starters like Josh Allen, Matt Milano, Trent Murphy, and Russell Bodine miss three or more weeks. And go back only as far as 2016, and the Bills placed a whopping 20 players on the season-ending reserve list.

So, the natural follow-up question is: will the Bills be as healthy next year?

The reflex here is to bet against it. After all, it’s really difficult to repeat a season with so few injuries, just as it’s equally difficult to repeat a season with an overwhelming list of injuries. The tendency in life is to see “regression to the mean,” so we’d expect Buffalo to suffer through more injuries in 2020.

That being said, one of the best predictors of future injury is a history of previous injuries. By managing player ailments throughout the year, Buffalo may have helped prevent a future flare-up or two. This is also where the new training facilities could come into play. With the program only in place for one season, it’s too soon for us to understand how deeply it impacts Buffalo’s injury situation.

The last question on the injury front: If Buffalo is more banged-up next year, does that affect their playoff chances?

It would, to an extent. Looking at the table above, we can see that some of the league’s healthiest teams (Buffalo, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee) were in the playoffs, and a few others (Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers) just missed the cut. On the flip side, heavily-injured teams like the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington were all never in contention for an opening. So in a general sense—the healthier the Bills, the better their chances to reach the postseason.

But it’s not an exact science. The San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, and Philadelphia Eagles all advanced despite a multitude of ailments, because they had great coaching and roster depth.

In conclusion, if someone remarks that the 2019 Bills were unnaturally healthy, they aren’t wrong. Buffalo really did have a great year of managing player health. Given such an outstanding year, it would not be out of the question to expect the team to regress in 2020, but potential factors (the updated training facilities) may help mitigate that. If the Bills do suffer more injuries next year, it could hurt their playoff chances—but a stronger roster and good coaching might overcome that anyway.