The Evolution of Kicking

On Sunday, Mike Tomlin’s team possessed the ball inside the redzone while facing a fourth-and-two. Tomlin opted to play it safe and kick the field goal. However, Shaun Suisham shanked his kick wide left to the surprise of everyone in the stadium. Whether or not Tomlin’s decision was the right call from an EPA perspective (which it was not), shanks, like Suisham’s are becoming less and less common, regardless of the distance. Kicker accuracy has improved significantly over the past decade, which makes the decision to go for it more difficult for coaches.

Percentage Breakdown of Kicking By Year and Distance
Kicking Table

Not surprisingly, kicks within 40 yards have changed very little in terms of accuracy and have fluctuated significantly over the years. Even so, there is an upward trend in kicks mad from within forty yards. Suisham missing that kick was approximately 2% or even lower. Most of the misses from close range are coming from blocked field goals. For attempts from 40-49 yards, there is a noticeable increase in the percentage of made attempts in the past two years over the rest of the decade. Even the attempts from 40-49 have been at an all-time high over the past two years. The 11.03% increase over the past decade leads to an EPA increase of over three-tenths of a point, a significant statistic that could lead to coaches being more conservative. Advanced NFL Stats implements a 76% success rate for kicks of forty-one yards. With the recent rise in the percentage the past two years, the adjustment of that success rate to 79% or 80% would alter the EPA and WPA of whether or not to go for it on fourth down. Through Week 9, kickers are hitting 83.56% of their attempts, which provides an argument for an even higher success rate on such kicks.

Again, we see a recent spike in attempts made over 50 yards. From 2004-2010, kickers converted 53.90% of attempts from such a distance. Since 2011, that numbers has risen to an outstanding 64.06%, which does not include the rate of 63.16% through week 9 of the 2014 season. Advanced NFL Stats say that converting a field goal from fifty-one yards is only 55%. That ten percent difference is significant enough to convince more aggressive coaches to go for it on a 4th and 4 or so, when in reality, the field goal attempt yields the higher EPA.

Obviously, understanding game situation and personnel is critical. The Detroit Lions and their committee of kickers has lost them a couple games this year, and it may be wise to trust Megatron on a fourth and short. Conversely, Dan Carpenter is more reliable than most kickers and Kyle Orton and the Buffalo Bills do not exactly have an exhilarating offense. Overall, coaches may want to reexamine the EPA of kicking and give their million dollar legs a chance to score. It paid off for the Ravens when they did so on Monday Night against the Lions last year. Across the board, coaches should recognize the ever increasing odds of converting that 45 or 50 yard field goal.


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