Minding the Kicker—Is the Steeler Nation Angst Over Josh Scobee Justified?
Hombre de Acero’s 5 Smoldering Questions this week not surprisingly contained the following:
2. All was not positive in the Steelers victory, as Josh Scobee missed an extra point attempt, making that three misses in two weeks. As the Steelers luck with place kickers this year does not seem to be good, are you worried yet?
It’s hard to imagine there is anyone in Steeler Nation, from Head Coach Mike Tomlin down to all but the least observant fans, who aren’t at least discomfited by Scobee’s horrific 50.0% made field goal percentage so far (not to mention a missed extra point attempt.)
Therefore it may surprise you, as it did me, to discover he isn’t the lowest ranked kicker in the NFL, or even close to it, at least according to Pro Football Focus. He is ranked No. 28 out of 39 ranked kickers. Nor is he the only kicker to have missed half his attempts so far. Graham Gano, who kicks for the Panthers, has also missed half of his kicks this season. He is 3 for 6, so this is even a larger sample size than Scobee’s 2 of 4. Gano is ranked No. 5.
The other guy with a 50% record thus far is Kai Forbath. Unfortunately for him, he kicks for Washington, and that notoriously impatient franchise cut him after the first game.
Before I get into a possible why of Scobee’s woes, let’s take a moment to see why PFF might think a kicker is okay, or even very good, when they missed half of their field goal attempts. After all, isn’t that essentially their only job? It actually IS his only job in Buffalo, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Atlanta, where the team carries a place kicker, a kickoff-kicker, and a punter. It’s an interesting thing to do, and I would love to see the numbers as to how you could justify taking a spot off the 53-man roster for an extra kicker.
In the case of Scobee, the thing which has redeemed him thus far are his kickoffs. If, like Justin Tucker of the Ravens, you put the ball in the endzone 100% of the time (at least so far this season,) the number of kick return yards against you is going to be 0, with the opposing team taking the field at their own 20. This, in conjunction with other mysterious factors, gives Tucker a kickoff score of 2.6 for 11 kickoffs. This isn’t the best in the league, though.
There are a lot of factors which go into it which are opaque to us out in viewerland, and therefore the kicker with the best score thus far for kickoffs, Atlanta’s Matt Bosher, actually has a poorer start point (22.2 yard line) and more return yards against (16.7 yards) in 12 kickoffs. He doesn’t have the longest kickoffs in the league, or the greatest amount of hang time, or anything else I could think of to look at, either, which is I suspect why a lot of people aren’t impressed with Pro Football Focus. But there always seems to be a method to their madness.
To return to the Steelers’ kicker, Scobee’s score of +1.5 for kickoffs saves him from the embarrassment of two missed field goals for the moment, and I was fascinated to note that the average starting position thus far for the opposite team is the 17.5 yard line. Those few extra yards can make a difference. As this chart from the NFL Stats Blog demonstrates, reducing a team’s starting field position by only two or three yards reduces their probability of gaining any points at all from 25% to 23%. If football is a game of inches, those are some pretty important inches.
But I don’t think anyone was particularly worried about kickoffs. Maybe, however, our worry has been misplaced all this time. Here are some interesting figures for the previous few seasons, ones in which Suisham has been absolutely stellar in field goal attempts:
2014: 90.6% FG; PFF Overall Score: -3.8; No. 33 (out of 36)
2013: 93.8% FG; PFF Overall Score: 1.7; No. 37 (out of 37)
2012: 90.3% FG; PFF Overall Score: 25.6; No. 11 (out of 34)
Now let’s look at the same numbers for Scobee:
2014: 76.9% FG; PFF Overall Score: 6.9; No. 13 (out of 38)
2013: 92.0% FG; PFF Overall Score: 25.0; No. 14 (out of 37)
2012: 89.3% FG; PFF Overall Score: 18.5; No. 20 (out of 34)
Looking at these figures makes me really, really want to know what PFF is using to evaluate kickers. Obviously, things like starting field position are not entirely in the control of the kicker unless they kick it through the back of the end zone every time. But there must be a lot more going on than we understand, because the difference between, say, Suisham’s 90.6% record in 2014 and Scobee’s 76.9%, given the 32 attempts made by the Steelers in 2014, is quite a few points. 13.2 points, to be precise. That’s more than two touchdowns, less the extra point.
But for the moment let’s assume that an entire organization set up for the purpose of collecting and analyzing game data knows more about what is going on behind the scenes than the average fan. (Shocking, I know. It has already been suggested that perhaps the coaching staff knows more than the average fan, and that was hard enough to swallow.) This means that something about Scobee’s kickoffs was sufficiently splendid to blot out the 18 points the Jaguars didn’t make that season (Scobee was 20 of 26.)
Let’s look at starting field position again in 2014. The Steelers opponents began at an average of the 23 yard line, the Jaguars opponents at an average of the 19. Looking again at the handy chart linked above we can see this reduces the opponent’s chances of scoring a touchdown by 6%. But for those of us watching, we mostly don’t make too much of opponent starting field position, unless it is perilously close to our own territory much of the time. Conversely, we can see that stomach-churning “no good” signal from the referees with no problem whatsoever.
Yes, a missed kick at the end of a game can be a killer, for more than just your team, as the Steelers found out in 2013 when Ryan Succop missed the kick heard around the league. But the majority of kicks aren’t the game-winning or losing things we think of them as.
Perhaps they were more important to the Steelers in the not-long-ago days when many games were decided by three points or less. This isn’t to say a missed field goal or two might not cost them a game down the stretch. But maybe we are putting too much of the burden on the kickers’ shoulders in the first place.
As I have already noted elsewhere, nobody would be talking about this at all had the Steelers offense done its job and put touchdowns on the board on those two failed drives in Game 1. Considering that the Patriots’ defense is ranked at No. 32 at the moment by Pro Football Focus, and that the Steelers’ much-maligned defense nonetheless managed to hold the Great Tom Brady to 28 points, maybe we fans are pointing the finger in the wrong direction. I’m guessing a few fingers were pointed in the right direction during the ensuing week of practice, because the offense came out in Game 2 ready to steam-roll the 49ers defense, and seemingly scored at will. Always the best plan…
But enough about this. Instead, let’s delve into something I noticed in the first game, but forgot until Dale Lolley said the following on his NFL from the Sidelines blog Tuesday:
* Tomlin said he’s not concerned with placekicker Josh Scobee at this point. Scobee has missed two of four field goal attempts and missed a PAT against the 49ers.
Part of the problem could be new punter Jordan Berry, who is the holder, but that’s just a theory on my part. I, and the Steelers, expect Scobee to be better as the season moves on.
The thing I remembered was an off-hand remark by one of the commentators partway the New England game to the effect that Berry was now the holder. I believe that was before attempt No. 3, the one which actually went through the uprights.
I went back and looked at the game play-by-play, and the holder for the first and second field goal attempts, which were no good, is “J. Berry.” The holder for the third is not specified. The holder for the fourth, also good, was again “J. Berry.” Apparently I misunderstood the comment, which must have been that Berry was NOT the holder.
As you recall, the only field goal attempt last Sunday was an aborted one, due to a San Francisco penalty, and the Steelers elected to go for it from the new ball placement (the one-yard line instead of the two.)
When asked about adjusting to the new circumstances after his trade to the Steelers, Scobee made a comment to the effect that he spent about an hour sorting out the snap and hold with the rest of the kick unit, and after all it wasn’t rocket science. (This is a massive paraphrase, since I can’t find the article.) He might have been unduly optimistic.
It occurred to me that Berry might not have a lot of experience as a holder. One of the only things I found was in this article posted during the offseason on Steelers Depot, analyzing the punting competition:
What Does the Tape Say?
Berry is good under pressure and can adapt on the fly, especially during fake punts and field goals. He seems comfortable as a field goal holder and has a lot of experience as one.
The one other item I found was in regards to Berry taking a direct snap from the holder position and running it in 25 yards for a touchdown while at Eastern Kentucky.
It’s worth remembering that Berry’s experience was over a year old, as he was undrafted in 2014 and went back to Australia, where he had to work out on his own. I expect he wasn’t doing a lot of holding practice during that time.
I checked to see who was the holder for the two (successful) field goal attempts in the final preseason game, and Brad Wing and Berry each held once. So at least that time he was okay.
In the end, if the Steelers’ offense can manage to convert red zone appearances into touchdowns a majority of the time it probably won’t matter very much if the occasional field goal attempt is missed. But it will certainly continue to bug all of us fans. Perhaps we can all take cleansing breaths and mutter the mantra “kickoffs matter more than field goals.” I’m not sure any of us will believe it, though.
So let’s hope our lovely young punter and shiny slightly used kicker can find a way to up the conversion rate. Maybe it is rocket science after all. And in the meantime let’s try not to sound like Washington fans.