November 17, 2006
'NFL Kickers Are Judged on the Wrong Criteria'
Above, the headline of the most interesting sports story I've read so far this month.
Aaron Schatz, in the "Keeping Score" feature in last Sunday's (November 12, 2006) New York Times Sports section, took what — at least to me — was an novel perspective to examine the performance of the league's elite and not-so-great placekickers over the past six seasons.
Long story short: You're much better off using kickers' average kickoff distance than their field goal percentage when you assess them.
If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe the graphic (top) which accompanied the article, which follows.
- N.F.L. Kickers Are Judged on the Wrong Criteria
When the Dallas Cowboys signed Mike Vanderjagt to a three-year, $5.4 million contract, it was supposed to solve the field-goal problems that had plagued them in 2005.
Last season, Dallas used three place-kickers. In three games they eventually lost, the Cowboys had a missed field-goal attempt that would have given them the margin of victory. Who better to solidify the position than Vanderjagt, who came into this season with the highest career field-goal percentage in the N.F.L.?
But Vanderjagt has not solidified the position. Last Sunday, he had a 35-yard field-goal attempt blocked in the final seconds, costing the Cowboys a win over one of their National Football Conference East rivals, the Washington Redskins. It was the third attempt Vanderjagt missed this season.
Game-winning field goals are what make kickers famous, but from season to season it is impossible to tell which kickers will be the most trustworthy in the closing seconds. Instead of wasting money on high-priced field-goal kickers, teams would be better off signing kickers who can be counted on to help their teams consistently by affecting field position with long kickoffs.
A quick look at Vanderjagt’s career should have let the Cowboys know that consistency on field-goal attempts was the last thing to expect from him. He is well known for converting 37 of 37 field-goal attempts in 2003. But the season before, Vanderjagt missed one out of every four kicks. In fact, Vanderjagt’s field-goal percentages since 2002 have been 74 percent, 100, 80, 92 and 77 this season.
There is one area in which Vanderjagt has been remarkably consistent: no kicker in recent years has been worse at kicking off. Vanderjagt averaged 61.7 yards per kickoff in 2001 and followed that with averages of 59 (2002), 60.2 (2003) and 58.1 (2004). The Indianapolis Colts finally replaced him with a succession of kickoff specialists, but he is back to kicking off with the Cowboys and is averaging 57.3 yards a kickoff. Every other full-time kicker in the league averages over 60 yards.
This combination of consistency on kickoffs and inconsistency on field goals is not unique to Vanderjagt. Contrary to conventional wisdom, every kicker in the league follows this pattern.
There is effectively no correlation between a kicker’s field-goal percentage one season and his field-goal percentage the next. But average kickoff distance shows more consistency from season to season than almost any other individual statistic in the N.F.L.
The inconsistency of field-goal kickers is apparent when looking at this season’s leaders in field-goal percentage. Chicago’s Robbie Gould, who is a perfect 22 of 22, hit a below-average 78 percent of his field goals last season. Only three kickers in the current top 10 for field-goal percentage were also in the top 10 at this point last season: Phil Dawson of Cleveland, Rian Lindell of Buffalo and Nate Kaeding of San Diego.
On the other hand, the current top 10 for average kickoff distance includes five players who were in the top 10 halfway through 2005. There would be more, but the two kickers who lead the league in kickoff average this year at 69 yards are a rookie, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, and a player who spent most of last season on a practice squad, Denver’s Paul Ernster.
No kicker reflects the difference between field goals and kickoffs better than Neil Rackers of the Arizona Cardinals. Last season, Rackers set an N.F.L. record with 40 field goals, and led the league by converting 95 percent of his attempts. But in 2004, he connected on 76 percent of his attempts. This year, Rackers is even worse, making just 67 percent of his tries. His high-profile misses include a 40-yard attempt that probably would have completed an upset and handed the Chicago Bears their first loss of the season.
Nonetheless, while his field-goal percentages have swung up and down over the past three seasons, Rackers has consistently ranked as one of the league’s premier kickoff men. He led the N.F.L. in average kickoff distance in 2004 and 2005, and is fifth in the league this year.
This disparity in consistency between field goals and kickoffs means that N.F.L. teams are generally signing and drafting kickers based on the wrong skills.
The Colts signed Adam Vinatieri to a five-year, $12 million contract based on his history of hitting clutch field goals for the rival New England Patriots. But Vinatieri, like Vanderjagt, has had his field-goal accuracy bounce up and down. From 2001 to 2005, Vinatieri had a field-goal percentage of 80 percent or lower in three seasons and a field-goal percentage of 90 percent or greater in the other two.
The Patriots replaced Vinatieri with Gostkowski, and New England fans are not happy, especially since Gostkowski had missed 4 of his first 12 attempts. But Gostkowski is averaging 69 yards a kickoff, 1.4 yards more than any kicker in the league except for the altitude-aided Ernster. Gostkowski’s poor record on field goals is likely to change, and his excellent record on kickoffs is not.
November 17, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink
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Very interesting points. The Vanderjadt kickoff delima was apparant during training camp and the early part of the season. I for one believe that kick off coverage is more important than kick off distance, unless your kicking it through the endzone, the coverage team plays a bigger role.
Field Goal kickers are hot and cold, just like shooting basketball, somedays you can't miss and somedays you can't help but miss. The Vanderjadt signing has been somewhat disappointing but not due to his kick off distance. The misses have been magnified simply because of what happened last season but don't blame Vanderjadt for the blocked field goal in Washington. That one was solely on the line blocking. I suspect that in the end, Vanderjadt will miss fewer kicks than the three kickers missed last season but I am not sure it will be enough to justify the salary... fingers crossed.
Dallas Cowboy football cards
Posted by: martyogelvie | Nov 17, 2006 10:48:04 AM
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