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Rackers > Cribbs?

Posted by Doug on June 18, 2008

This post will do for field goal kicking essentially what Chase's recent series of posts did for return games. It will also introduce some new data that's soon to hit the main part of p-f-r.

Let's start by looking at Tony Franklin 1979, Kevin Butler 1985, and Matt Stover 2006.

                       FGA FGM    PCT
======================================
Matt Stover     2006    30  28   93.3%
Kevin Butler    1985    37  31   83.8%
Tony Franklin   1979    31  23   74.2%

I'm now going to make a case that Franklin's season was the best of the three. You never saw that coming, did you?

The obvious observation to make here is that field goal kicking percentages have been rising consistently for a long time. And that's right. Here are the league-wide field goal percentages since the posts were moved to the back of the end zone in 1974:

1974  0.606
1975  0.642
1976  0.595
1977  0.583
1978  0.631
1979  0.631
1980  0.634
1981  0.659
1982  0.689
1983  0.715
1984  0.717
1985  0.722
1986  0.686
1987  0.705
1988  0.717
1989  0.725
1990  0.744
1991  0.735
1992  0.726
1993  0.774
1994  0.790
1995  0.774
1996  0.801
1997  0.781
1998  0.796
1999  0.777
2000  0.796
2001  0.763
2002  0.776
2003  0.792
2004  0.808
2005  0.810
2006  0.814
2007  0.830

So we might compute as follows: in 1979, an average kicker would have made 19.6 out of 31 field goals. Franklin made 23, so he was about 3.4 field goals above average. Using similar computations on Stover and Butler, we get this:

            FG above average
============================
Butler            4.30
Stover            3.57
Franklin          3.45

Franklin's still at the bottom, so you know there's another twist coming. This is where I show off the new data: field goals made and attempted by distance!

                      0--19    20--29   30--39   40--49    50+
==================================================================
K Butler       1985 |  2  2  | 13 13  | 14 13  |  6  3  |  2  0  |
M Stover       2006 |  0  0  | 13 12  |  9  9  |  7  6  |  1  1  |
T Franklin     1979 |  1  1  |  5  5  |  8  7  | 10  7  |  7  3  |

More than half of Franklin's attempts (17 of 31) came from 40 yards away or more. Only eight of Butler's 37 attempts and eight of Stover's 30 were from 40 yards or more. This is quite a difference. In fact, if Franklin had made one more of his 30--39 attempts, or if Butler had missed one more of his, we would have a fantastic Simpson's paradox example.

Anyway, we'll adjust for this difference. Essentially, we do the same thing as we did above --- compute field goals above league average --- but instead of doing it to the totals, we'll do it for each individual distance and add them up.

Here are Franklin's numbers. I'll explain afterward:


                          0--19       20--29     30--39       40--49         50+
======================================================================================
T Franklin     1979 |  1  1  0.7 |  5  5  4.4 |  8  7  5.3 | 10  7  4.5 |  7  3  2.3 |

Take a look at the 50+ numbers: "7, 3, 2.3". That means that Franklin attempted 7, he made 3, and a 1979 league average kicker would have made 2.3. So Franklin gets credit for 0.7 field goals above average (FGAA). Likewise, he gets 2.5 FGAA for his 40--49 yard efforts, and so on. Once you add it up, you get that Franklin was about 5.7 field goals above average. Here are Stover's and Butler's numbers:


                          0--19       20--29     30--39       40--49         50+        FGAA
=============================================================================================
T Franklin     1979 |  1  1  0.7 |  5  5  4.4 |  8  7  5.3 | 10  7  4.5 |  7  3  2.3 |  5.69
K Butler       1985 |  2  2  1.9 | 13 13 11.4 | 14 13 11.1 |  6  3  3.6 |  2  0  0.8 |  2.32
M Stover       2006 |  0  0  0.0 | 13 12 12.4 |  9  9  7.7 |  7  6  5.1 |  1  1  0.5 |  2.26

Let's now engage in some moderate craziness and see if we can translate these numbers into points or, better yet, wins. I'll admit right now that in what follows I'm going to make some assumptions that aren't completely without justification, but that might rightly be called sloppy. I'm just having fun here. Consider this post to be the back of a big envelope.

So how many points do 5.69 field goals above average translate to? 5.69 times 3? No, there's more to the story.

What's the difference between a made 50-yarder and a missed 50-yarder? (I should say, between a sterilized hypothetical average 50-yarder and a sterilized hypothetical average missed 50-yarder).

1. Three points.

2. About 15 yards of field position on the opposing team's next possession. If you miss the field goal, the other team takes over at the 40. If you make it, then you kick off, and I'll assume that the average starting field position after a sterilized hypothetical average kickoff is about the 25 yard line.

Using the rule that (somewhere around) 20 yards is worth a point, we see that one 50-yard field goal above average is worth almost 4 points above average. On the other hand, a missed 20-yard field goal costs you three points, but it actually helps you a little bit (around 5ish yards) in terms of field position on the opposing team's next possession.

Now, if we apply these assumptions to Franklin's, Stover's, and Butler's numbers, we can get an estimate for how many points each of those kickers added beyond what an average kicker would have.

                     PTs above avg
==================================
T Franklin     1979 |   17.1
M Stover       2006 |    7.8
K Butler       1985 |    5.6

Now I do this for every kicker-season since 1974, and I express it in terms of "points above average per 16 scheduled games" (i.e. I'm pro-rating the short seasons: pre-1978, 1982, and 1987). Here are the top field goal kicking seasons of the period:

                    PTs above avg
==================================
N Rackers      2005 |   25.4
F Steinfort    1980 |   23.3
M Moseley      1982 |   23.0
G Anderson     1998 |   22.0
M Andersen     1985 |   21.6
R Allegre      1983 |   20.7
M Vanderjagt   2003 |   20.3
P Stoyanovich  1997 |   20.1
D Biasucci     1987 |   20.0
C Blanchard    1996 |   19.0
N Lowery       1985 |   17.8
T Fritsch      1979 |   17.6
T Franklin     1979 |   17.1
M Moseley      1979 |   16.6
J Wilkins      2003 |   16.6
E Murray       1989 |   16.6
R Ruzek        1987 |   16.2
N Lowery       1982 |   15.7
M Andersen     1987 |   15.1
N Lowery       1990 |   15.1
A Del Greco    1995 |   15.0
N Lowery       1980 |   14.8
J Hanson       2003 |   14.8
M Andersen     1986 |   14.6
J Stenerud     1981 |   14.5
M Moseley      1977 |   14.4
N Lowery       1988 |   14.4
P McFadden     1984 |   14.4
N Johnson      1993 |   14.3
M Andersen     1992 |   14.2
J Nedney       2005 |   14.0
A Haji-Sheikh  1983 |   14.0
D Biasucci     1988 |   14.0
G Anderson     1987 |   13.6
R Longwell     2000 |   13.6
M Vanderjagt   1998 |   13.6
A Del Greco    1998 |   13.5
R Szaro        1976 |   13.5
M Andersen     1995 |   13.4
M Zendejas     1987 |   13.4
T Zendejas     1991 |   13.4
M Vanderjagt   2001 |   13.2
G Yepremian    1978 |   13.2
T Dempsey      1975 |   13.0
M Hollis       2000 |   12.8
M Stover       2000 |   12.8
N Lowery       1983 |   12.7
J Elam         2001 |   12.7

What are 25 points worth? Obviously it depends a lot on when you get the points, but 25 "average" points are worth quite a lot. That's like starting every game with a one-and-a-half point lead. That's not insignificant. I'd guess it's worth between 1 and 2 wins over the course of an average season.

So, was Neil Rackers' 2005 worth as much as Josh Cribbs' 2007?

In the above-linked post, my colleague Chase Stuart argues that Cribbs was about 600 return yards better than average. Using 20 yards per point, that's about 30 points, which is a little more than Rackers' 25. However, consider the following:

  1. Cribbs' 30 points were virtually all what you might call generic theoretical points, the kind of "points" that you accrue over time by starting lots of drives at the 40 instead of the 30. But kicker points seem somehow more real, because you only attempt field goals when it makes strategical sense to do so. A field goal attempt on the last play of the game when you're down by one is worth a lot more than 3 theoretical points. A field goal attempt on the last play of the game when you're down four is worth nothing. That's why you don't see any of the latter. In short, I think it's likely that a greater proportion of the "points" Cribbs added (or any other non-kicker's; I'm not knocking Cribbs) were wasted.
  2. As Chase pointed out in the previous post, many of the "points" we are attributing to Cribbs actually belong to the 10 guys blocking for him. The same is true of Rackers, of course, but I think to a much, much lesser extent.

Adding it all up, I do think that Arizona's 2005 field goal kicking unit was at least as valuable as Cleveland's 2007 return units, and that Rackers' 2005 was more valuable than Cribbs' 2007.

As Chase points out, though, the Cleveland return game is probably (<---- unfounded assertion as far as I know) more likely to regress next year than similarly valuable passing or running attacks or defensive units. The same is probably true of kickers, as Rackers himself demonstrated by posting a 2006 season that was roughly 5 points below average.

I had hoped to talk about Mark Moseley's 1982 MVP award in this post, but it looks like that will have to wait for a future post.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 at 1:31 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.