Columnists, Sports

First and Goal: Are NFL kickers getting worse?

Kickers: Everybody hates them because games always come down to them even though they are probably the least athletic players on the team. When a clutch kick is made, everybody cheers, but when that last-second kick is missed, kickers receive more hate than any other player on the team. Kickers been missing important kicks since field goal attempts became common, but these days it seems the number of missed kicks continues to grow every year.

For the past few seasons, field goal kickers in the National Football League have gotten significantly worse. The NFL moved the extra point distance back before the 2015 season and ever since that rule change there seems to have been an upward trend in high-profile kicking mishaps.

The plague on kickers does not discriminate, either. No kicker has been spared from this phenomenon and it has affected everyone from all-time greats like Stephen Gostkowski ─ his missed extra point in Denver in the 2016 playoffs and missed field goal in Super Bowl LII come to mind ─ to former Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey’s “double doink” off the post and crossbar last season.

There could be a bias because audiences tend to remember the missed kicks more than the ones that made it, but I decided I needed statistical evidence to support my theory that kickers are missing more field goals since the extra point was moved back.

The extra point was moved from the two-yard line to the 15-yard line before the 2015 season in order to make extra point attempts a more competitive play. It might not seem like much, but moving the extra point from a distance of 20 yards to 33 yards affected the entire league.

I used Pro Football Reference’s player season finder tool to get the data I analyzed. Two sets of data were analyzed: The first were kicking stats from the 2010 to 2014 seasons and the second data set was from the 2015 season up to week 12’s stats. To be included in this analysis, a kicker had to have played at least one full season over the five-year period in order to weed out backup kickers or kickers that had gotten cut.

From the 2010 season through the 2014 season, kickers that played at least one full season made 88.3 percent of field goal attempts and 99.5 percent of 20-yard extra point attempts. From 2015 up to week 12 of the this season, kickers have made 86.9 percent of field goal attempts and only 95.1 of 33-yard extra point attempts.

A 2 percent drop in kicks might not seem like much, but looking at the raw numbers, it adds up to almost 200 fewer kicks made. From 2010 to 2014, kickers made 2,684 field goals compared to 2,469 converted field goals since the extra point was moved back.

These numbers are over a broad five-year period, but analyzing stats for this year paints a distressing picture.

Kickers that have attempted 10 or more field goals this season are kicking at only an 80 percent clip, a stat that should sound alarms in every NFL office and could shift offensive philosophies around the league.

When these numbers were analyzed, there were still five weeks left in the season, but assuming each kicker makes two kicks in each game for the final five weeks of the season, there will be 320 kicks made. However, we can’t assume that two field goals will be made by each kicker over the final stretch of the season. If the trend of only 80 percent of kicks being made stays true, then 256 kicks will be made. That would put the number of successful field goals from 2015 through the present higher than the 2010 through 2014 season total.

Yet, we can’t assume each kicker will make two field goals in each game — most won’t even have the chance to make two field goal attempts in each game.

Kicking trends might not seem notable in the grand scheme of the league, but NFL teams are scoring more points now because of rule changes that have hindered defenses, but many of these points are not coming from kickers.

Players these days are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been before on both sides of the ball and they put up huge stat lines weekly, yet most kickers seem to have not followed this upward trend.

Why are kickers struggling to make kicks these days? We might not ever know.

My theory involves the movement of the extra point attempt, which is why I included extra point percent in the stats. The extra point used to be automatic for most kickers, which provided a confidence boost for the kicker since they were able to put the ball through the goal posts with ease multiple times per game.

Since the extra point attempt was moved back, the kicks are still made with regularity but the kicks are no longer automatic and even the best kickers will miss every once in a while, which affects a kicker’s self-confidence.

Missed extra points draw nasty boos at home or opposing cheers on the road, which affects the mental status of kickers and can snowball into multiple missed kicks as shown by the 2 percent drop in field goal percent since the extra point was moved back in 2015.

It seems silly that many football games come down to the least athletic players on the team, but we shouldn’t downplay how hard kicking a field goal is. Kickers see limited action during the game and then are expected to perform in extreme-pressure situations and if they underperform they face the ire of their own fans.

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