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Why NFL kicking isn’t as bad as it seems this season

Written by on October 15, 2021

Here’s what we know: There were more missed kicks in Week 5 of the NFL season than in any single week during the past 34 years.

Here’s how that makes us feel: NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Here’s how it should make us feel: Eh.

NFL kicking improved steadily over the past two decades, despite the introduction of rules that make it more difficult. The long upward trend shouldn’t allow one week, as shocking as it was, to overwrite years of performance.

In some cases, perceptions have been influenced by the timing of the trouble this season. There have been 11 misses that would have brought a team into a tie or moved it ahead during the final minute of the fourth quarter or in overtime. In other cases, it has been the volume. The Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals, for instance, combined to miss five field goals during the final three minutes of regulation and overtime. A sixth attempt, Mason Crosby‘s 49-yarder, finally won the game for the Packers.

So let’s take a broader look to separate anecdote from trend and better understand what has happened so far this season.

Was it as bad as it looked in Week 5?

For the most part, yes. Kickers missed 14 field goals and 13 extra points. According to NFL Research, that total of 27 was the highest number of combined misses since Week 11 of the 1987 season.

But that gripping data point was driven largely by the extra-point misses. You don’t have to go very far to find a worse week for field goals. In Week 5 of the 2019 season, for example, there were 17 missed field goals. In 2018, there were 16 in Week 5. And in both cases, those misses came on fewer attempts than they did this past weekend.

So what’s going on with extra points?

We should avoid thinking too deeply about it at this point. (That’s easy for most of us!)

In the first four weeks of the season, place-kickers converted 94.4% of their extra points. That’s better than the 2020 and 2019 seasons, over the same time period, and right at the league average since the NFL moved extra points from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line in 2015. We should wait to see if the Week 5 downturn continues before worrying too much.

What about field goals?

Kicking accuracy has been slightly below average during the same time period, beginning with the 2015 season. Through five weeks, 82.7% of field goal attempts have been converted. That’s the second-lowest mark during the first five weeks of a season since the start of 2015, but not by much. The average between 2015 and 2020 was 83.6%, a difference of three additional converted kicks.

If you’re looking for an explanation beyond that, you might want to consider the surge of long attempts this season.

What do you mean by “long attempts”?

Through the first five weeks of this season, coaches have sent kickers out to attempt 61 kicks from at least 50 yards, including six from at least 60 yards. That’s eight more than the previous high since 2015 and 13 more than the pre-2021 average. The conversion rate has been a respectable 60.7%, but the higher volume has played a bigger role in bringing the overall average down than it usually does.

Come on. It seems like every important field goal is being missed.

There is no doubt we have seen a high number of missed field goals in clutch situations. In fact, there have been 17 such misses so far during the fourth quarter and overtime. But there have also been a substantially higher number of late-game attempts.

Here are the facts: Kickers have converted 88 of 105 such attempts for an 83.8% rate. That percentage is better than it was for similar kicks over the same time period in 2019, 2018 and 2015 and is, again, only slightly below the 84.5% average from 2015 to ’20.

So this is an issue of volume?

In many ways, yes. And one reason there has been a surge in attempts, especially from long distances, is the high number of close games the NFL has produced this season.

Through five weeks, there have been more winning scores in the final minute of regulation or in overtime (19) than in any season on record. The total of eight overtime games through five weeks has tied a league record. Overall, 21 games have been decided by three points or fewer, tied for the third most in league history through five weeks.

It stands to reason that there will be more high-leverage field goal attempts when games are close late in regulation, and especially in overtime. If the overall conversion rate stays the same — a not-unexpected outcome — there will be more misses to go with the increased number of attempts.

Aren’t there some kickers who can be relied on to rise above the average?

Of course. There are five full-time kickers who haven’t missed a field goal or an extra point this season: The Kansas City ChiefsHarrison Butker, the Chicago BearsCairo Santos, the Denver BroncosBrandon McManus, the Atlanta FalconsYounghoe Koo and the Cleveland BrownsChase McLaughlin. That list doesn’t include the Baltimore RavensJustin Tucker, who missed a 49-yarder against the Lions in Week 3 but made up for it with an NFL-record 66-yard kick to win the game on the final play. He’s pretty good, too.

In total, 10 kickers have converted at least 90% of their field goal attempts, and 16 have been perfect on extra points.

You seem to be making a lot of excuses for these guys.

Really, this is just about providing a fuller context for what has happened this season. It’s indisputable that there have been a bunch of high-profile misses. But they are coming in a season in which teams are playing more close games than usual, leading to a higher number of attempts. The actual conversion rates don’t look much different than previous seasons.

So there’s nothing to see here?

I wouldn’t go that far. Weird things can happen in kicking. But to date, there are plenty of non-performance data points to drive this analysis.

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