The Adelaide Crows were generally expected to be a very good side again in 2018. However their run of injuries shows how a good side can be transformed into a middling one.
Adelaide – ‘best’ in 2017, ‘below average’ in 2018
The ‘best’ team of the AFL season does not always win the premiership. In 2017 Richmond was the best team during the finals series, even after accounting for their home ground advantage, and hence they were premiers. However, the team they beat in the Grand Final – the Adelaide Crows – were generally the strongest team overall in 2017, and they were close to the best side in 2016 as well.
For a fair part of 2018 though the Crows have been below average, and are now unlikely to make the finals series. Their average net margin in 2018, adjusted for estimated home ground advantage and opponent strength, is -2 points. However that is held up by a good start to the season (see chart below), including wins against Richmond and Sydney. From Round 6 onwards it is a much worse -14 points, including a thumping loss to Melbourne. The Crows’ ranking points have dropped in seven of the past eight weeks, and they have lost the most ranking points – about four goals worth – of any team in 2018.
Over the past two seasons the Crows had been a powerhouse in both the midfield and the forward line. In 2017 they ranked highly across many of the main measures for which midfielders are the big (but not the only) contributors, particularly disposals and inside 50s (see table below). In addition their forward line was brutally efficient, ranking at or near the top per inside 50 for points, goal assists, and marks inside 50. Adelaide’s performance has fallen across most of those areas in 2018. They are still OK in some of them, but they no longer look like a premiership contender.
For those who follow the AFL injury list a main reason behind the Crows’ decline in performance is not much of a mystery. Many of their top contributors in 2017 have missed games through injury in 2018. Their ‘top’ 13 players in 2017, accounting for field position – excluding Jake Lever, who has left the club – have played only two-thirds of the possible matches in 2018, compared with over 90 per cent in 2017(see table below). Brad Crouch and Brodie Smith have not yet played a game in 2018, vice-captain Rory Sloane has missed nine out of 13 games, captain Taylor Walker has missed five games, and Matt Crouch and Tom Lynch have missed four games each. (Charlie Cameron, a handy forward, also left the club after the 2017 season.)
Further the players affected by injury have generally produced less per game when they have played. This is indicated by the big drops in their average SuperCoach points per game in 2018 compared with 2017. However even some of the 2017 stars who have been mostly available – ruckman Sam Jacobs and forward Eddie Betts (who has also missed matches) – have seen their production drop. This is possibly because they are now relatively old (both are over 30), or because they have been affected by the absences of other star players, or both. (The Crows’ pre-season training camp has been blamed for affecting Betts’ form, but I’ll take Betts’ word that it hasn’t.)
As a result of these injuries Adelaide is missing some of its ‘midfield grunt’ from last year. The Crouch brothers, Sloane, and Smith were among the Crows’ top eight for both disposals and inside 50s in 2017. Some of these losses have been offset through increased production from three other players – Hugh Greenwood, Paul Seedsman, and Cam Ellis-Yolmen – and the addition of Bryce Gibbs. However they are not of the level of the Crows’ midfield stars from 2017.
Meanwhile in attack, Adelaide’s four main forwards – Betts, Walker, Jenkins, and Lynch – combined for 185 goals and 192 marks inside 50 in 2017. This year, halfway through the season, they have combined for only 65 goals and 53 marks inside 50. Not all of this drop in output is due to lack of availability, but again injuries have somewhat forced the load on to less capable replacements.
What does this mean for where Adelaide is at?
The Power Rankings do not adjust for who is available, but only the actual performances that teams serve up. Therefore the rankings have probably been overrating Adelaide for much of this season, at least in terms of their current capabilities.
However if some more stars return then the rankings may start to underrate the Crows. But how good can they be? Brad Crouch is out for the season, and Brodie Smith is out indefinitely. Rory Sloane is apparently a couple of weeks from returning. Possibly the more worrying trend for the Crows is that their stars have often not played at the levels of last year even when they have returned from injury. Possibly even more worrying, from a finals perspective, is that Adelaide play six of the top nine ranked sides in their remaining nine matches. Hence it’s looking likely that the Crows may have to give up the 2018 season as a 'lost year', and hope to return to their former heights next season.