Kickers Are Getting Better and Better

This past Sunday we saw the all time FG distance record tied for the second time in a year. And it wasn't indoors or even in Denver. I've previously written about how FG accuracy has improved even as attempt distances have increased., but even in the last few years kicking accuracy at long distances has improved significantly. This trend shows no sign of slowing, and it has significant implications for the sport.

In an analysis of the previous overtime format, I noted the following:

In 1974, the league FG% was 60.6%. This year, it was 84.5%. And that even masks how much kickers have truly improved. In 1974, 36% of all FG attempts were from 40 yards or beyond. In 2008, the figure was 41%. These days, teams aren’t looking to get inside the 25 for a field goal attempt, they’re just hoping to get inside the 40. Getting a quick score in overtime has become a far easier proposition. Field goals have gradually warped NFL football. In 1974, there were 3.0 FG attempts each game compared to 3.9 in 2008, a 30% increase.

This isn't just a phenomenon of the '70s and '80s and it's not just due to the transition to the soccer-style kick. Since 2000, FG kickers have become more accurate, particularly at very long distances. The chart below shows FG success rates in three four-year mini-eras since 2000.

The green line is for the most recent era, 2008-11. The red line is the middle era 2004-07, and the blue line is the early era 2000-03. The higher the line, the more often an attempt of each distance is successful.

It appears that by the middle of the recent decade, FG attempts become more accurate in the middle distances, from about the 15-yard line out to the 30-yard line (32 yard attempt distances to 47 attempt distances). Then in the last four seasons, kickers became significantly more accurate at very long distances.

This affects the game in at least two ways. First, it makes FG attempts more worthwhile at longer distances than they were before, meaning that punts and conversion attempts on fourth down become relatively less lucrative.

Second, it becomes easier for offenses to score last second FGs to tie or win. They need less time and yards on their final drive to steal a win. Plus, this phenomenon creates a secondary effect. It means that teams with the ball and a small lead late in games should be less willing to give up the ball and trust their defense. As kickers improve, it becomes smarter to try to pass to covert first downs and keep the ball out of the hands of the opponents. The tactic of burning some clock with three runs into a brick wall followed by a punt is becoming less wise every day.

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13 Responses to “Kickers Are Getting Better and Better”

  1. jditoro says:

    thoughts on what is driving improvement? are the veterans getting better, or has a new crop of younger guns entered the picture?

  2. Kulko says:

    I think it is just the higher professionalism of kicking overall, together with some improvements in Technique und material.
    Thats combined with a slow change in using pattern, which has coaches learning over the years that they could try longer and longer field goals and kicker learning the appropriate technique to make them.

    Which the league would do something, because it further increases the randomness of endgames.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I'm also curious - why

  4. Ian Simcox says:

    Hard to say why, it's just a human progression thing. Back in 1984, the 100m mens gold medal was won in a time of 9.99s. This year, a 9.99 would only have beaten Asafa Powell, who pulled up injured. It's just the way sports performance is evolving and continues to evolve.

  5. Brian Burke says:

    If we were talking about baseball (or cycling), we all know what our first suspicion would be. I have no evidence that the performance is based on PED usage, but the fact that no one raises the possibility is interesting.

  6. Jon Green says:

    I think the NFL is getting better at finding guys who are great kickers, no matter where they went to school. I went to school with Greg Zuerlein, the Rams new kicker, at a D2 school (Nebraska-Omaha) and he was a stud ever since he started kicking. I'm not sure how he slipped through the cracks to end up a D2 kicker but obviously a lot of D1 teams would have loved to have him. Perhaps in the past it was easy to just draft the top college kickers (by reputation) and just let them do their thing assuming nothing was better out there... now maybe they are doing a better job of giving guys with great numbers (but not a great college career by attention) a chance?

    I wonder if there is a similar trend in college football where it seems every week the story is of a kicker who missed a FG they "should" have made. Perhaps this just shows the cream rising to the top.

  7. Ian Simcox says:

    Brian - good point about PED but what I always find interesting about doping arguments is that all these players are basically taking PED, just ones that are declared by the governing body to be legal. Most of the nutrition and supplements taken by the players are only a board decision away from being illegal.

    Same with the 100m sprinters I brought up. Usain Bolt will have some cocktail to take that enables him to run at the speeds he does, it's just not one that's been classed illegal.

    Doping is, at its heart, a bureaucratic rather than a moral argument.

  8. Sam P says:

    Are there PEDs likely to improve accuracy? I'd think accuracy is likely to be the limiting factor rather than distance--we already see many kick-offs going through the end zone so that's more than 70 yards distance.

  9. Brett says:

    Sam P - Having the ability to kick the ball farther could help accuracy in that kickers can use a less-than-full-power kick and focus more on maintaining proper mechanics. I know I hit golf balls much better when I take a nice easy swing.

  10. Will says:


    Are these more recent results weighted more heavily into your WP regressions than the older results, or should we expect WP to under-predict FG payoff?

  11. James says:

    Ian, I thought almost all supplements were shown to have very little if any positive effect in scientific studies?

  12. Anonymous says:

    There are innocent reasons for improved performance. A country with more people is likely to have their 30 best kickers and runners be better than one with fewer people. A country with more people and more disposable income is more likely to pay more to watch the top athletes, which means more athletes can invest more of their time into training.

    The performance of a country's top athletes should improve as long as the country's population and income grow.

    I suppose if kicker performance has improved more than the performance of other athletes, we'd still need to answer why. Did kicker salaries go up 10-15 years ago when the latest crop of kickers would have been making choices between a kicking career or a business career?

  13. Anonymous says:

    janokoski is the best kicker in the AFC.akers is the best kicker in the NFC.

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