The New, Improved Extra Point Attempt—Did It Mess With Kicker’s Heads?

via Steelers.com

If you were paying attention at all in 2015 you know what I’m talking about. As NFL writer Kevin Patra reported last May:

The NFL has been tinkering with the PAT in hopes of making it a more difficult and therefore entertaining play for spectators. The latest change might be just the first step of further adjustments in years to come.

It appears to have worked extremely well.

I confess I was pretty skeptical when they announced the change. After all, this took it from a 19-yard kick to a 32-yard kick, a distance that equates to a high degree of accuracy among NFL kickers. No biggie, right?

Well, it appears it is a biggie, because a large number of extra points were missed in the 2015 season, something that hadn’t been seen for years. But furthermore, kicker accuracy overall was down, and at least a few kickers were attributing this to the mental stress of the longer PAT.

Unless you have managed to block it out (and if you had I apologize for bringing it up) we got an object lesson in just what it means to not have a reliable kicker early in the season. But painful as it was, at least we had company, as indeed the overall accuracy of kicking dropped for the first time in a very long time. It has been on an upward trajectory for years.

And while I can’t easily give you those overall numbers, I don’t need to, because it was reported on, in exquisite detail, a year ago by Benjamin Morris of fivethirtyeight. He demonstrates, in painstaking and exquisite detail, just how much more accurate kickers have gotten.

Because of my admiration for a certain Kickin’ Canuck I looked at a much smaller set of data a few years ago. Had I seen Morris’ article I might have collected the data a bit differently, but it still illustrates something that has held true through the years.

Several years ago I published an article about Shaun Suisham, as there were still many in Steeler Nation who were moaning about him. In it, I compared him to some former (and current, at least at the time) kickers. I updated it this last fall, including the numbers. Here’s the explanation from the August article, rather than typing it all out again:

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.)

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.

I published the following chart to illustrate this. This is the career averages of the kickers I chose for the comparison—Gary Anderson, Jason Hanson, Adam Vinatieri, Sebastian Janikowski, Phil Dawson, and of course Shaun Suisham:

Average Kicker Accuracy by Distance

 

As you can see, there is a classic downward curve in accuracy as the distance increases, which shouldn’t surprise anyone but apparently does.

I didn’t even bother with the PAT, because hardly anyone ever missed them.

I decided to have another look at those numbers now that the season is over, and add the season averages for the 2005, 2014, and 2015. Here they are:

 

Avg. Accuracy, Distance

 

The purple line is the same one as in the first chart. Not too surprisingly, since it contains data from kickers who worked earlier in league history, it tracks the best with the average from 2005. As you can see the accuracy has greatly increased for kicks over 50 yards, although not much, oddly, for kicks of 40-49 yards.

The oddest line of all is the yellow one, which is Chris Boswell’s 2015 season. Admittedly the sample size is small, but it’s quite odd, really. He was 100% accurate at every distance but 40 – 49 yards, and was similar to the rest of the league at that distance. He only had two attempts from 50+ yards, but this isn’t completely out of line with the rest of the league, especially taking into account the fact that he didn’t play for the first quarter of the season. in fact, almost 25% of the 39 ranked kickers on NFL.com had two or less attempts from 50+ in 2015.

But in light of the statements about kicker accuracy being down this season, the only distance in which the average dropped from 2014 was from 20 – 29 yards (and the drop was from 97.6% to 97.4%, which is well within normal variance.)

So it would appear that while there was a dip early in the season, accuracy was actually better in the latter part of the season than in 2014, already a banner year.

To return to the PAT question, there were three kickers for which I already had the numbers, who had a long career, and who were still kicking in 2015—Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson, and Sebastian Janikowski. And indeed their accuracy took a big hit:

xtra pt 3 kickersOf course it’s easy to forget that whole “distance decreases with accuracy” thing, and in fact these percentages are at least slightly more accurate in every case than their overall 30-39 yard accuracy. However, since a 32-yard kick is at the low end of that range, that is to be expected as well.

This probably seems like a lot of fuss over something which should be obvious, but that’s the point—it’s easy to overlook the logic of it. And many of us did when we thought “What’s the big deal about another 13 yards? It’s still a chip shot.” Except it isn’t, or at least not in the way a 19-yard kick is.

One final thing these numbers show, ironically—as much as I love Shaun Suisham, newly-minted citizen of the U.S. of A, if I were the Steelers I would have to look at the numbers. Both the accuracy numbers (and Suisham is very accurate, especially, oddly, in the 40-49 range) and the salary numbers. And as a result I fear he will be gone soon. Well, as they say, NFL stands for “Not for Long…”

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