Kickers are…Actually…Good…but Expendable?
Ah, the good ol’ kickers. It makes sense if you think about it. Teams fight tooth and nail for sixty minutes, all for the game to rest in the hands of what could be said to be the most unathletic player on the team. Most likely, these situations result in fans yelling things along the line of, our kicker sucks, we need a new one. Or perhaps, seriously, how can you miss that. More often than not, it probably even contains an expletive or two. The rationality for this is simple; there really isn’t anyone else to blame besides the kicker when he misses. Sure, you might be able to blame the snap, or perhaps the laces were out (cough cough Blair Walsh), but even that, it only happens once on a great occasion. As compared to when a QB throws an interception, excuses can be made left and right. It was the receiver’s fault. He didn’t run the correct route. The offensive coordinator called a lousy play, etc. But with the kicker, the same can’t be said.
While the field goal was first introduced to the game in 1883, it was until 1909 when the field goal was changed to three points (originally worth 5), and in 1933 the goalposts were moved to the back of the endzone, as we are familiar with today. At the early onset of the field goal, the idea itself was simply an afterthought. Maybe a QB tried here and there, or perhaps a soccer player would give it a try. In fact, in 1950, kickers converted on a whopping 44.2% of their field goal attempts. Since then that number has been steadily climbing, reaching 63.6% in 1980 then 79.7% in 2000. At this pace, one might think that by today the kickers have the craft mastered. Well, as we have all experienced, kickers certainly do not have it perfected.
Before continuing, it is important to note one key thing: after the 2014 season, the NFL elected to move the extra point distance back to the 15-yard line. Prior to 2015, the extra point success rate has held steady in the 99-99.6% range, but since the change, the highest we have seen was in 2018 when kickers connected on 94.3% of their extra-point attempts.
Since 2001 it is safe to say the field goal percentages have steadily increased with a few outliers here and there. However, since 2009 there have been steady gains and even consistency in the 84% range. In 2019, it went south. Through the midway point in the season, kickers were hitting 79.7% of their attempts, which would have been the first time the average had fallen below 80% since the year Peyton Manning and Steve McNair tied for MVP (2003). Thankfully, kickers kicked it up a notch in the second half and finished with an 81.6% success rate. But still, nearly three total percentage points less than the norm. But if history suggests otherwise, every year there has been a regression, we have seen at least four straight years of improvement since 2001.
Kickers are Actually Good
With that, we arrive to 2020. Despite the expletives and complaining about kickers, the evidence points to their success in 2020. Overall, kickers attempted a total of 968 field goals this year, connecting on 824 of them. This 85.1% results in an increase of four percentage points compared to 20`19 and would continue the upward trend since 2014 if you exclude 2019 (an outlier).
In terms of extra points, kickers attempted an astonishing 1377 attempts on 93.2%. This value would place them right around the average since the rule change. So really, there still isn’t much improvement in this area. It will certainly be worth monitoring to see if kickers, in general, can raise that standard. After all, in 2020, on all field goals between 30-39 yards, they converted on 93.8% of attempts. Considering the extra point is from 33 yards, kickers regress when the kick is coined as an extra point.
It is worth noting that kickers were perfect from inside 20 yards and hit a .96 average from 20-29 yards. Moving on to the long balls is where we really start to see that number take a dive. From 40-49 yards, they connected on 81.6% of their total attempts (305). And if it was 50 yards plus, they only had a 65.6% chance of hitting the field goal. It certainly makes one wonder why coaches continue to elect for a fifty-yard field goal given their relatively low percentage. Perhaps, they are better off going for it on fourth down, especially if it’s a fourth and short situation. Quite frankly, the reliance on kickers from long range is one of the primary causes for the decrease in their percentages. From 2010 to 2018, about 45% of all kicks were from 40 yards or longer. In 2019 that number rose to 47.4%, and in 2020 it rose again by 1.4%. With today’s game revolving around analytics, it is certainly interesting to see more teams opt for the 40+ yarder instead of attempting a fourth-down conversion.
Are they Expendable?
Despite the consistency in extra points, 93% is undoubtedly a number that can be improved. Due to its relatively low value, it is surprising to not see teams attempt a two-point conversion more frequently. After all, on average, in 2020, you are expected to gain .932 points when electing for an extra point conversion.
In 2020, teams opted for a two-point conversion 136 times. Or a tenth of the times an extra point was chosen. Of those 136 attempts, teams were successful on 47.1% of those tries (64 times). Based on this percentage, a team can expect to receive .942 points per attempt. On average, an NFL team scored 2.84 touchdowns per game or 2.84 decisions on extra-point attempts per game. Say the team opts for an extra point each time; they could expect to come away with 2.65 points on average. Now say they opt for the two-point attempt each time; they could potentially come away with 2.68 points on average.
While it is on a .03 point differential, it is certainly significant. Of course, that is on average. Chances are teams that are scoring more touchdowns per game probably have a more successful two-point conversion rate, i.e., having a better OC, QB, scheme, etc. In that case, the differential would be substantial and would at least warrant consideration for more two-point attempts. Perhaps a shift is coming. Gone are the days of kickers, and in are the days of creative two-point plays, hopefully like the one below.