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Icing the Kickers

Kickers are 33-for-33 on field goals this postseason, but don’t be fooled. That perfection to date is deceptive — and bound to be short-lived.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A decade after The New York Times warned that kickers were becoming “too good,” players at the position enjoyed a new round of plaudits after their feats last Sunday. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby and Dallas’s Dan Bailey struck first with a frenetic finish, trading 50-plus-yarders in the final two minutes of Green Bay’s divisional-round win, while Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell enjoyed a more leisurely nightcap, setting the NFL record for postseason field goals in a game and scoring all of the Steelers’ points in an 18–16 triumph.

Boswell’s six-field-goal outing isn’t the only mark threatening the record books, though. He also holds the league record for most career playoff makes without a miss (14), while Crosby holds the top mark for consecutive playoff makes (23). More broadly, NFL kickers are a perfect 33-for-33 on field goals in this postseason. No previous year had seen kickers miss fewer than three collective three-point tries.

Based on the pedigree of the remaining kickers, it seems unlikely that a reversal in field goal fortune is coming. Crosby, Boswell, New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, and Atlanta’s Matt Bryant have made a combined 58 playoff field goals since the last miss from the group (Crosby in a divisional-round game in January 2011).

Even in a postseason of kicker kings, though, there is scant evidence that 2016’s field goal mavens have been infused with some sort of mythical clutch gene. We know that icing kickers doesn’t actually work, but let’s try anyway by pouring some cold water on the theory.

First, across the history of the NFL, kickers have not performed any better in the playoffs than they have in the regular season. Since the 1970 merger and prior to this year, kickers made 74.6 percent of their regular-season field goal attempts … and 74.6 percent of their postseason field goal attempts.

For almost that entire period of time, there is no overarching trend in the data, no easily identifiable pattern to distinguish playoff performance. In those 46 seasons, kickers had a better field goal percentage in the postseason 24 times and a better regular-season rate 22 times.

The ongoing accuracy uptick in the playoffs began at the start of the decade, after a disastrous 2009 in which kickers made a collective 63 percent of their field goals — their worst playoff rate in more than two decades, and their worst rate ever relative to same-year regular-season performance. Since 2010, though, while a regular-season field goal holds an 84 percent success rate, a playoff kick has centered the uprights a robust 90 percent of the time. That’s the largest and longest extended disparity in league history.

Put in terms of actual kicks rather than percentages, NFL teams have attempted 264 playoff field goals since 2010. If kickers had performed at their baseline regular-season rates, they would have made 222, but in reality, 237 tries succeeded. That’s an extra 15 made kicks — but that total doesn’t necessarily mean that kickers are actually kicking better in the playoffs, just that some combination of factors has led to 15 extra makes over a seven-season span. Let’s go hunting for those reasons.

First, blocked kicks, which are not usually the victimized kicker’s fault, yet count against his stats nonetheless. In the 2010 to 2016 stretch under discussion, teams have blocked between 2 and 3 percent of field goals in the regular season, almost regardless of the distance (the rate is lower for very short field goals). And in post-merger NFL history before this current stretch, that rate was similar: Between 2 and 3 percent of field goals were blocked, in both the regular season and the postseason.

Yet since 2010, only two out of 264 tries in the playoffs have been blocked. Normally, defenses block about one in 40 kicks, but in recent postseasons, they’ve interfered with only about one in 140. Had they stuck to the 1-in-40 pattern, they would’ve blocked an extra four kicks in that span — so out of the 15 “extra” makes, we can think of four of them as coming from an unexpected paucity of blocks.

The next factor is distance. Data supports the common wisdom that coaches become more cautious about attempting long-range field goals in the playoffs. For instance, since 2010, when facing a fourth down between the opponents’ 33- and 43-yard lines (essentially, the 50- to 60-yard placekicking range), teams have been twice as likely to try a field goal in the regular season.

Along those lines, 50-plus-yard attempts have declined in the playoffs as compared to the regular season, while the percentage of shorter kicks has increased. The short vs. long ratio had been nearly the same between the regular season and the postseason from 1970 to 2009, but for whatever reason, the distance breakdown has shifted shorter in the playoffs recently.

This change has aided overall kicker accuracy in the postseason. On attempts of fewer than 30 yards in the 2010 to 2016 playoffs, kickers are 69 of 70 (with Blair Walsh against Seattle as the lone exception), and on kicks from 30–39 yards out, they’ve hit 91 of 96 tries (with Billy Cundiff’s shank against the Patriots as the most notable miss). Extend the range past 50 yards, though, and — Mason Crosby’s recent exploits aside — accuracy drops.

If the playoff distance distribution looked the same as the regular season’s, it would stand to reason that overall playoff accuracy would decrease accordingly. Applying the conversion rates from each distance grouping to the “expected” column from the above table, we can calculate that postseason kickers have added five makes to their ledger since 2010 just by virtue of taking shorter-on-average kicks than they do before January. Combine those five with the four from the blocks calculation, and we’re up to nine out of 15 “extra” makes coming from factors outside the kicker’s control.

Other factors behind the recent trend aren’t so easy to identify. Good kickers are probably more likely to reach and advance in the playoffs than bad kickers, but there’s no reason such a distinction would prove true only since 2010 and not in the previous decades, and there was no playoff accuracy boost then. Kicker selection bias cannot be the answer. Relatively more playoff attempts occur indoors, but the accuracy boost translates across temperatures and kicking environments, so location isn’t the solution either. Even the disproportionate number of postseason games that have occurred in the thin air in Denver since 2010 isn’t responsible for much in the way of additional makes.

The recently altered extra-point rules — with the line of scrimmage retreating to the 15-yard line from inside the 3 — could hint at an additional answer. The data is still rough because the new rules have been around for only two seasons, but in comparing the early part of the decade to those two most recent years, kickers haven’t performed differently on kicks of fewer than 30 yards, of 40–49 yards, or of 50-plus yards in length. In the 30- to 39-yard bucket, though, they have been significantly more accurate in the past two seasons, suggesting that the increased attempts in this middle range might be training kickers to be better from this distance.

And when they do (occasionally) miss from that range, some off-target kicks just aren’t counting in the field goal category. In the past two seasons, four different players have missed a playoff point-after attempt; that’s more than have missed a playoff field goal in the same span. And the relationship between the two is random — two of those extra-point misses came from Gostkowski and Boswell, who have otherwise been perfect in their postseason kicks for years. In the latter’s case, in a wild-card win against Miami this season, he doinked a 33-yard extra point off the upright, then made a 34-yard field goal going the same direction a quarter later.

Maybe kickers are more clutch in the playoffs. Or maybe it’s all random. Once we fold in the effects of blocked kicks and distance distribution, we have just six more makes than we’d expect since 2010, or less than one per season. That’s well within the range of luck. If Mason Crosby’s final kick doesn’t knuckle through the uprights against Dallas, for instance, or if Boswell exchanges his miss on a point-after for a miss on a nearly identical field goal attempt, the disparity grows even narrower to the point of inconsequentiality.

These assorted contextual factors dampen some of the excitement around the records falling with seemingly every squared-up whack of a ball with a cleat. But they still don’t account for the entirety of the recent playoff accuracy boost — nobody can reach a perfect 100 percent of what they set out to accomplish. As even this year’s thus-far-perfect field goal kickers are bound to discover.