After a bit of a hiatus thanks to preparing for the draft and recapping it, the stat sheet misconceptions return. We’ve taken a look at a number of offensive statistics as well as most of the common defensive ones, now we turn to special teams.
There are two times where fans typically notice kickers. One is at the end of games when their kick can either even the score or win the game. The other is when the kicker misses. These two things don’t occur that often, with a missed field goal happening about once every six quarters of play and a game winning/tying attempt happening even less often than that.
While kickers don’t have much control over the number of field goal attempts they get, what they do have a say in is how often they convert. Most football statistics come about because of interactions between multiple players, so we would like to think a kicker’s statistics would be a bit different. However, even a statistic like field goal percentage has its problems.
Not All Kicks Created Equal
Much like what we saw with completion percentage, not every attempt is equally difficult. While there are a lot more factors going into whether or not a pass is complete, the major thing effecting kickers is distance. In 2010, kickers were perfect on kicks of less than 20 yards, made 95% of kicks between 20 and 30 yards, 88% between 30 and 40 yards, 74% between 40 and 50 yards, and 60% on kicks beyond 50.
If we don’t take this into consideration, the Vikings Ryan Longwell looks like he’s still one of the better kickers in the NFL. His 94% field goal percentage led the league for all kickers with 15 or more tries. When you consider that 16 of his 18 kicks were on attempts of less than 40 yards and none were from beyond 50 yards, it’s a lot easier to see his path to such a high percentage.
On the other hand, someone like Nate Kaeding of the Chargers looks better than his field goal percentage of 82% suggests. On kicks between 40 and 50 yards, he made nine of 10 kicks, which is a step above the seven of 10 an average kicker would be expected to make. He was one of nine kickers who saw half or more of their kicks occur beyond 40 yards.
While the distance is one thing to consider, there are other conditions that play roles: was the game played in a dome? If not, how were the weather conditions and wind speed? Were his snapper and holder on the mark? Was his line effectively preventing threats from getting near?
Sample Size Concern
The other major problem for kickers is that they just don’t get to kick field goals often enough in order to evaluate them the way that we do other players. The most any kicker got to kick in the 2010 regular season was 41 times, and the average for a team is 29 attempts. In order to do a better job of measuring kickers in terms of field goals, we would want to take a look at how well they kicked at different distances. When we do that, the sample gets even smaller.
At that point, having one kick made or missed significantly alters a kicker’s percentage at a particular range. When the reason for the miss could be the weather or a bad snap which is out of the kicker’s control, we could be marking him down for a kick that was more difficult than others.
While we could throw in extra point data, it is expected that a kicker makes those. In 2010, kickers were successful on over 99% of their PAT attempts. Even though the sample size is greater with extra points, the variance is so small that there isn’t anything to learn from except those few kicks that are missed.
Getting a Bigger Picture
Kicking field goals and extra points are only part of a kicker’s job. There is also the kickoff, which is something kickers do much more often. Baring a penalty, all kicks come from the same spot on the field which makes two kickoffs more similar to each other than two field goals. There is no snap and no one trying to block the kick, so these factors that affect field goals are not present. The only thing out of the kicker’s control here is the weather conditions.
In our premium statistics section you can see how often a kicker’s kickoff results in a touchback, the average distance of their kickoffs as well as their maximum hang time on a kick. You can also see where the opposing offense starts their drive on average, as well as what percentage of kickoffs are returned.
Each of those statistics can be used to see how good a kicker is. Looking at this data, we can see that Billy Cundiff isn’t just a good field goal kicker, but he excels at kickoffs as well. His average kickoff distance in 2010 was 72.4 yards, which was 3 yards more than the second best kicker.
Unfortunately a year’s worth of field goal data isn’t enough to run the kind of analysis we would like on kickers and how good they are at getting the ball between the up rights. Just like every statistic that I have looked at, the situation plays a crucial role in if a kick is made or not. The situation in this case can outweigh how good a kicker actually is, and since the sample is so small, it can’t be overcome.
The play where the situation is arguably the least important in football is the kickoff. While the data hasn’t been available until recent years, it is now. Here we can get a more accurate view of how good a kicker is, even though what makes a kicker good at kickoffs isn’t the same as what makes them good at field goals. The kickoff is still a major part of a kicker’s game, and should be considered in the argument to who the best kickers in the league are.