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The Greatest Field Goal Kickers Ever, Part I

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 15, 2009

Last summer, I wrote a five part series on the Greatest QBs of All Time; since then I've studied the Greatest WRs Ever and the Most Dominant RBs in history. I've taken quick looks at Great coaching records, and really talented Defensive Line units, Linebacker Corps, and front sevens. While my examination of real football players is not finished, for the next three days bear with me as I take a less popular, less interesting, and less noteworthy look at the kicker position. I don't hate kickers as much as Doug, but I don't anticipate this being the most exciting thing you'll ever read. That said, if we're going to rank all the kickers, we're going to do it correctly.

There have been many rules changes throughout the history of the NFL. Thanks to Mike Herman, a good friend and the leading (only?) expert on all things kicker related, let's examine some of the more notable changes that have impacted the kicking game. A complete list can be found here.

  • 1904: Field goal value was changed from five points to four
  • 1909: Field goal value was changed from four points to three
  • 1945: Hashmarks were moved nearer to the center of the field, from 15 yards to 20 yards away from the sidelines.
  • 1966: Goal posts offset from the goal line, painted bright yellow, and with uprights 20 feet above the cross-bar were made standard in the NFL.
  • 1967: "sling-shot" goal posts (with one curved support from the ground) were made standard in the NFL
  • 1972: Hashmarks were moved nearer to the center of the field, 23 yards, 1 foot, 9 inches from the sidelines; the hashmarks were now 18 feet, 6 inches apart (the same width as the goalposts), cutting down on severe angles for short field goal attempts
  • 1974: The goal posts were moved from the goal line to the end lines and the uprights were extended to 30 feet above the crossbar; for missed field goals from beyond the 20, the ball was now returned to the line of scrimmage
  • 1994: On all missed field goals when the spot of the kick was beyond the 20 yard line, the defensive team taking possession received possession at the spot of the kick; on any field goal attempted and missed when the spot of the kick was on or inside the 20, the defensive team took possession at the 20. The two-point conversion option was introduced this year as well.
  • 1999: K-ball implemented for all kicking plays in a game

Before going on, I should note that this post is really Part I-B, because Doug wrote Part I-A almost exactly one year ago. That's strongly recommended reading before reading the rest of this post.

Here at PFR, we've got complete data on all kickers since the merger, incomplete data on kickers from 1960-1970, and data on kickers from pre-1960 but without distance breakdowns. Keep that in mind whenever I use phrases like "greatest X of all time" or "worst Y ever." Roughly complete data is what we're dealing with here, but there always exists the possibility that something crazy happened in 1955. In particular, Lou Groza may be the best kicker of all time, but until we get some distance breakdowns on his field goal attempts, I'm unfortunately going to have to ignore him.

So how do we grade kickers? Obviously we're going to need to adjust for era and for field goal length when rating the kickers, but we'll also need to note some of those rule changes that impact the value of a field goal. From 1960-1973, a 30 yard field goal was attempted when the line of scrimmage was the 23-yard line. When Steve Myhra kicked the 20-yard-FG that sent the '58 championship game into overtime, the LOS was the 13-yard line. Since1974 \, the line of scrimmage has always been 17-18 yards shorter than the length of the field goal, as opposed to seven or eight yards. Why does this matter?

Because to measure the value of a successful field goal, we need to measure the value of an unsuccessful one; to do that, we need to know where the ball will be placed following a missed field goal. It's also important to keep in mind the rule change about missed field goals from beyond the 20-yard-line. The table below should help; it shows where the ball would be spotted following some sample missed field goals across three eras:

Year		25-yard FG   33-yard FG   50-yard FG
1960-1973	20           26           43
1974-1993       20           20           33
1994-curr       20           23           40

While the differences aren't significant, they're worth noting if we want to be accurate. What this means is we're going to need three separate formulas for ranking field goal kickers, depending on whether the season was between '60 and '73 ("early"), '74 and '93 ("middle") or since 1994 ("late").

The average starting field position following a kickoff is around the 27-yard-line. The NFL moved the kickoff back from the 35 to the 30 starting in 1994, so I'm going to simply declare the average kickoff return will take you to the 22-yard-line from 1960-1993 and to the 27-yard-line for any kickoffs since 1994. What's this all mean?

A 33-yard-FG has always been worth three points, but the value of the alternative field position has changed. In the Early period, a missed 33-yard FG cost you three points and four yards of field position. In the Middle Period, it cost you three points but you picked up two yards of field position. Now, a missed 33-yarder costs you three points but you gain four yards in field position. Fascinating stuff, indeed.

We've got data on field goal tries in ten yard increments (that might be changing, soon). As a result, I'm going to have to approximate how long each field goal attempt actually was. All missed field goals from 10-19 yards have always brought you back to the 20-yard-line. Attempts from 20-29 yards, 30-39 yards, 40-49 yards, and over 50 yards will be considered 26, 36, 46 and 54 yard attempts. Here's where missed field goals from each era would take you:

Year		10-19   26   36   46   54
1960-1973	20      20   29   39   47
1974-1993       20      20   20   29   37
1994-curr       20      20   26   36   44

Those numbers can then be compared to where the opposition would take over following a successful field goal (the 22 in the Early and Middle years, the 27 in the Late years), and we can use Romer point values to show the difference.

Year	        10+	26	 36	46	54
1960-1973	0.13	0.13	-0.46	-1.09	-1.49
1974-1993	0.13	0.13	 0.13	-0.46	-0.97
1994-curr	0.46	0.46	 0.07	-0.57	-1.02

To explain what that means, a missed 54 yard field goal in 2009 gives the opponent the ball at the 44, which would put them in a +1.73 position according to Romer. A successful 54-yarder gives the other team the ball at the 27, a +0.71 position; therefore the miss is worth -1.02 points of field position. Of course, a miss also costs you three points on the scoreboard -- the table below incorporates that:

Year	         10+	 26	 36	 46	 54
1960-1973	-2.87	-2.87	-3.46	-4.09	-4.49
1974-1993	-2.87	-2.87	-2.87	-3.46	-3.97
1994-curr	-2.54	-2.54	-2.93	-3.57	-4.02

One more example. A missed 46 yarder in 1968 occurred when the LOS was the 39, and that's where the other team would gain possession. Having the ball at the 39 is a +1.47 situation. A successful field goal would give the opponent possession at the 22, a +0.38 situation. So the average difference between a successful and unsuccessful 46 yard field goal in the Early period is 3 points on the board and 1.09 points of field position, or 4.09 points total.

Now all we need to do is figure out how likely it is that the average kicker would make any given field goal, and we can then compare every kicker to the league average. Bring your popcorn tomorrow -- we'll be examining the best and worst seasons in kicker history. On Wednesday, we'll look at the greatest and worst kickers of all time over the course of each placekicker's career.

Let's close today with some kicker trivia. Be prepared to wow your friends. The answers will be posted on Wednesday. Whoever answers the most number of questions correctly will gain an incredible amount of respect from Mike Herman.

1) Who holds the record for most missed field goals in a season?

2) What is the record for most extra points missed in a season and what three kickers hold it?

3) What kicker has the lowest single season field goal percentage, minimum one field goal made?

4) Who was the first soccer style kicker, what team signed him and in what year?

5) What two kickers hold the record for longest field goal made?

6) What kicker holds the record for most consecutive extra points made?

7) What three kickers hold the record for most XP made in a game?

8) What two kickers hold the record for most field goals attempted in a season?

9) What kicker holds the record for most consecutive field goals made?

10) Who are the only five kickers to make 100% of their field goal attempts in a single season, minimum ten attempts? Hint: The fifth kicker joined the group in 2008.

11) Who attempted the most field goals in a single game?

12) Name the three kickers in the HOF? Hint: Only one of the players was a pure kicker.

13) Who is the only kicker to win an NFL MVP award?

14) Recycled trivia edition: What player/kicker combination have combined for the most touchdowns/point after touchdowns?

15) What kicker has the most points in a season?

16) What kicker has made and attempted the most extra points in a season?

17) What kicker has made the most field goals in a single season?

18) What three kickers have hit three 50-yard field goals in a single game?

19) Who holds the Johnny Unitas kicking record -- most consecutive games with a field goal made?

20) What kicker holds the record for most field goals made in a game?

21) How many kickers have been selected in the first round of the draft?

22) What kicker set the record with 18 consecutive years with one team?

23) What kicker spent one year with four different teams?

24) What two kickers hold the record for playing for the most teams?

25) What kicker holds the record for most Pro Bowls made?

26) What kicker holds the record for most first team All Pro honors?

27) Who has made the most field goals in NFL history?

28) Who has missed the most field goals in NFL history?

29) Who has scored the most points in NFL history?

30) Who has made the most extra points in NFL history?

31) What two kickers have made the most 50 yard field goals in a single season?