Kicker: The Final Piece to the Puzzle
With all of the talk of free safety and offensive tackle, we often overlook a spot on the roster that is perhaps more vital to a team’s success than both of the aforementioned positions: kicker.
The Cowboys currently have the league’s most athletic kicker in David Buehler, but do they have one who can, you know, kick field goals? Wade Phillips seems to believe Buehler is capable of winning all kicking duties, even calling him the favorite to do so.
But what if he can’t? How would that impact the Cowboys? How important is an accurate field goal kicker to a team’s success?
Below is an article I published a few years ago regarding the importance of kickers to a team’s overall win total. Perhaps the conclusions will help us determine if the Cowboys would be wise to give Buehler an opportunity to try his hand (or foot) at all kicking duties, or if they should splurge on a proven guy.
Kickers are often forgotten or neglected, sitting alone or next to the punter (same thing), in the locker room. But how much do these awkward little men actually affect the outcome of games? How much value does a good kicker add to a team compared to, say, a good middle linebacker?
To decipher a kicker’s worth, I decided to make the comparison between the impact a great kicker (90 percent accuracy) has on a team, and that of a sub-par kicker (70 percent accuracy). The study is not without its limitations, but the results may surprise you…
We will assume our kickers attempt 40 field goals in a year. This is a large amount, but not unattainable. Our great kicker would make 36, while our sub-par kicker would connect on just 28.
Over the course of a 16-game season, we will assume, for the sake of argument, that three of these eight extra field goals are in one game, two are in one game, and the other three are in three separate games. While this is not probable, it is actually the most likely dispersion of field goals as compared to any other individual random sequence.
In the 2008 regular season, 50 games ended with a margin of victory of three points or less (albeit many were exactly three, and thus a field goal only ties), 40 by 4-6 points, 41 by 7-9 points, and 125 by 10+ points. This is equivalent to 19.53 percent of games ending with a margin of three or less, 15.63 percent for 4-6, 16.02 percent for 7-9, and 48.83 percent for 10+ points.
Margins of victory of 10+ points are thrown out, as the chance of having four extra field goals appear in one game when randomly dispersed over a 16 game season is minute. Although the distribution of field goals is not actually random, it is close enough that making this assumption will not significantly alter the results of our analysis.
The aforementioned percentages for the individual margins of victory equate to about 3.1 games, 2.5 games, and 2.6 games per year that are decided by the respective margins.
We only have one game where our 90 percent kicker makes three field goals. The chance of that game falling on a game decided by nine or less points is 51.25 percent. We will thus award .51 “wins” for this scenario.
The reasoning behind determining non-whole number “wins” is simple. Technically speaking, each team goes into a game with a 50 percent chance of winning (if we make the assumption that they are of equal talent). A league with perfectly dispersed talent would result in every team going 8-8 for the season. The 50 percent pre-game win probability results in .5 wins per game, and thus a total of eight for the season.
Next, we will assume our 90 percent kicker makes two field goals in one game as well. The chance of that game being decided by six points or less is 35 percent, so we will award .35 “wins”
The 90 percent kicker’s chance of making just one field goal in a game decided by three points or less is right around 40 percent, so we will award .4 “wins,” for a total of 1.26 “wins.”
However, this number is a bit inflated, as we have not yet factored in games where the extra field goals would have resulted in a tie at the end of regulation (i.e. games decided by exactly three, six, and nine points).
Of the 50 games decided by three or less points, 27 (54 percent) were decided by exactly three points. If we assume our kicker’s team wins half of these games, we should take away 27 percent of our .4 wins from games decided by three or less points. This results in just .29 wins.
Of the 40 games decided by 4-6 points, nine (22.5 percent), were decided by exactly six. Using the same methodology as in the previous example, we go from .35 wins to .31 wins.
Of the 41 games decided by 7-9 points, nine (22 percent), were decided by exactly nine points. We then go from .51 wins to .45 wins in games decided by 7-9 points.
Thus, the difference in wins between a good kicker and a sub-par kicker is 1.05 wins a season. It is important to remember this is not simply the win shares for a kicker, but the difference in wins for a great kicker over a sub-par kicker.
There are certainly limitations on this study. First, it is hard to determine whether a kicker is “truly” a 90 percent guy or a 70 percent guy. Even with 40 field goal attempts, the sample size is small enough that, over the long run, we should expect a few 70 percent kickers to kick 90 percent for the season, and vice versa.
Further, “good” kickers, particularly ones with strong legs, are called upon to attempt longer field goals, ultimately lowering their accuracy. Thus, it is important to remember that the career 85 percent kicker may not be as valuable to his team as the stronger-legged 79 percent kicker.
As mentioned before, we have assumed the distribution of surplus field goals is a random event. This is certainly not the case, although the resulting effects do seem to be negligible.
If it was to affect the result of 1.05 extra wins, however, it may very well increase this number, as teams generally kick field goals in close games. With field goal attempts slightly skewed toward these games where the outcome is not yet decided, we might expect the result to be closer toward 1.1 wins, or perhaps even higher.
Ultimately, my study showed that having a reliable kicker is incredibly important to a team’s success. For the Cowboys, Buehler may or may not be the answer. Regardless of the organization’s confidence in Buehler, it is imperative they secure a backup plan if things do not work out as anticipated. In a division as competitive as the NFC East, the extra win that could result from the addition of an above-average kicker cannot be overstated.