A Paean to Shaun Suisham, Place Kicker, Part 1

Photo credit KDKA

This article turned into rather a mashup because I set out to not only  celebrate Shaun Suisham the kicker but Shaun Suisham the man. In the end I decided to divide it up, and today’s article will give a bit of background and some stats.

Although the Hall of Fame game was relatively devoid of thrills, I would have been very happy for it to be devoid of one of the few “exciting” events that occurred. I am speaking, of course, of the injury to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ kicker, Shaun Suisham.

Since being signed by the Steelers in 2010 he has been both a solid kicker and a solid human being. Here’s how he ended up in Pittsburgh.

Back in 2010 the Steelers not only lost a game to the Patriots at Heinz Field, in rather embarrassing fashion, but they lost their kicker, too. Unlike this year’s kicker loss, though, this was for a combination of poor performance and what you might call poor life choices.

Shortly before the last straw broke the Rooneys’ backs, I published an article call Kickers and the Role of the Psyche in Performance. 

In the article I compared kickers to French horn players in an orchestra for the purpose of exploring the psychological issues which come with doing something quite difficult under a great deal of pressure.

My youngest son, who is both a sports fan and a professional horn player, responded to the article with a very long comment. (I guess he takes after his mother.) In one part of it he discussed auditioning for a job:

Under these circumstance I believe that one’s ability to perform is reduced by at least 50% or more, according to my experience. There is an overwhelming sensation, mental and physical, of the need to perform perfectly RIGHT NOW, in that moment.

Now add to that the unbelievable pressure of the NFL environment; millions of fans watching and a legion of pundits ready to jump on every little mistake… if an audition is bad, I can only imagine what an NFL kicker’s life must be like.

The point is that there is a great deal more that goes into kicking performance than mere ability, talent, or want-to. Really, even a small advantage in psyche can make a world of difference. For this reason the ‘best’ player is often not the one to win the audition, but the winner is whoever handled the pressure best; who had their ability decreased the least by the circumstances.

Which is why Jeff Reed, and not Kris Brown, has been our kicker for the last several years (despite probably being not as gifted a kicker).

In Reed, the Steelers had found a capable kicker who could handle both the pressure of Steeler Nation, and of Heinz Field. My thought is that this sort of psyche is a rare commodity, even in the rarified air of NFL-level talent…

Apparently the pressure actually got to Reed in the end—probably a combination of increasing pressure to kick well with each kick that went bad and a concomitant decrease in self-control. Whatever the problem, the team couldn’t put up with it any more.

Which meant the Steelers, in emergency-kicker-seeking mode, had to choose from the tiny pool of free agent kickers. Rather like this year, only past mid-season. The guy they found on the couch was Shaun Suisham, who had not been offered another contract by the Dallas Cowboys after the 2009 season. Prior to that he had kicked for the Washington Redskins for the 2007 and 2008 seasons, as well as part of 2006 and the first portion of 2009.

He wasn’t bad in Washington, for the most part—in fact he was pretty good. But he had a couple of big misses and they cut him. He only had two games in Dallas to make an impression, and the impression wasn’t a good one. After the Steelers signed him a number of D.C. fans assured Steeler fans “he will break your heart, sooner or later.”

After an extremely solid remainder of 2010 (the last seven games) in which he made 93.3% of his kicks, he was three for five in the playoffs and Super Bowl.  (One of the misses was from over 50 yards, a distance at which few kickers are accurate and Suisham is distinctly inaccurate.)

In the 2011 season things weren’t so good, and his regular-season average plummeted to 74.2%. However, he was 3 for 3 in the post season.

As he continued to improve from there, Steeler Nation’s attitude changed, ever so slowly. But he now has the highest career average in Steelers history. This is not just his average with the Steelers but includes his less stellar performances with other clubs.

If you look at his statistics Suisham compares very well not just with other Steelers kickers but with the kickers you find in articles with titles like “All-Time Best Kickers.” I decided to run some charts comparing him a couple of these “greats,” which includes Gary Anderson, the previous record-holding Steelers kicker. Other than Anderson, all of them kicked at least until 2012. I also added Phil Dawson to the list, who was probably the Brown’s most consistent offensive player for years, and Sebastian Janikowski, who was one of the very few kickers ever drafted in the first round. (The other two were drafted in 1966 and 1978. The 1978 pick was particularly bad—the St Louis Cardinals drafted a kicker No. 15 overall, and by his third season they cut him. Janikowski, conversely, has been very good for Oakland.)

There are no kickers on the list with a league tenure of less than ten years, since  you aren’t going to make it on a “greatest” list without a substantial resumé. Therefore these figures don’t take into account the strange uptick over the past couple of seasons in kicker accuracy. 

I don’t know whether it is something in the Wheaties or some secret new performance-enhancing drug the NFL hasn’t gotten around to banning, but many kickers are making longer kicks and accumulating a generally higher accuracy rate. It could turn out to be a blip on the radar, although a few of the young guys, like the Baltimore Ravens’ Justin Tucker for instance, look to just be really good.

First I thought it would be useful to remind ourselves of something which seems obvious but appears to be forgotten by fans on a regular basis—it gets increasingly difficult to make kicks as the distance increases.

If you combine this with weather effects at outdoor venues being magnified by distance (and Heinz Field has always been one of the worst from the standpoint of weather effects) it’s obvious it’s a lot harder to nail a 49-yard kick than a 29-yard one. And yet fans act as if it’s their birthright to have 100% accuracy from their kickers, whatever the distance.

To demonstrate, here’s a visual. (Please note, the first two charts begin at 25%, since the bottom quarter is never used.)

Average Kicker Accuracy by Distance

You can see a beautifully classic descent in accuracy as the distance increases. These averages are from the five kickers I selected to compare plus Shaun Suisham.

Individual accuracy by distance

The next shows a similar curve on the individual stats. Most of the kickers are within a pretty close range at most distances, with two exceptions, both involving Suisham. He is, oddly, significantly more accurate from 40 – 49 yards than the others, and he and Gary Anderson are by far the least accurate over 50 yards.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that there are a lot fewer kicks from over 50 yards than any other distance except perhaps 0 – 19 yards, so the sample size is a lot smaller. Suisham is, however, not known for a particularly “big” leg. One of those misses, for example, was from 54 yards, an attempt two yards longer than his career long, and it was straight as an arrow but two yards short.

Career avg:worst:best

The final chart compares the career average, the worst year, and the best year for each kicker. Gary Anderson did something no other kicker in our group has done—had a perfect season. It was in 1998, his 17th year in the league, when he was kicking for the Vikings. He went on to kick another six years. Amazing…

Otherwise, Vinatieri and Suisham had the least bad “worst” years. They are a bit bunched up, but Phil Dawson and Suisham are essentially tied for Career Average (Dawson has a tenth of a percent better career score) and Vinatieri is close behind them.  Suisham is middle of the pack for best year. (Note that the chart begins at 60%, as it makes it considerably more legible.)

Has Suisham been absolutely flawless as a Steelers kicker? Well, obviously no. Few kickers are. And long kick-offs, also due to the lack of a really “big” leg, get a bit thin on the ground as the weather gets cold and the ball gets hard. Has he had a few misses that have hurt the team? A few.

But overall he has been fantastic. So good, in fact, the Steelers signed him to a four-year extension and didn’t even bother to bring in any competition to camp this season.

So I suppose you could say the real reason Shaun Suisham is out for the year is that he’s been so good there was no one else to trot out during the preseason games. Somehow this seems like a Greek tragedy turned on its head—instead of the protagonist being brought down by his hamatia, (fatal flaws,) Suisham was brought down by his greatness.

Although since hamartia can also refer to an error of judgment as opposed to a character flaw, I suppose we can go the full circle and say he shouldn’t have been trying to make a tackle in a preseason game.

However you choose to look at it, it’s a crying shame.

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