Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why They Call It Football

Why do they call it football?  Because putting the foot on the ball is an important part of the game.  Kick-offs, punts, extra points and field goals often make the difference between winning and losing a game.

However, long distance field goals have taken on increased importance this year.  Sports Illustrated recently reported that NFL kickers are on pace to make 34 more 50+ yard field goals this year than the previous record.  In fact, placekickers are on track to make more field goals from beyond midfield than were even attempted a decade ago.

Jan Stenerud is the only placekicker specialist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His career conversion rate from beyond 50 yards was only 26.6%.  In 19 pro seasons he had only one season in which he kicked more than two fields goals in excess of 50 yards.

Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski and Jacksonville's Josh Scobee each have three 50+ yarders in one game this year.   Scobee is 5 for 5 and Janikowski is 5 for 6 for the year.  David Akers of San Francisco and Phil Dawson of Cleveland are both 6 for 6 from over 50 yards this year.  (NFL stats as of 11/26/11)

Why the long distance success?  Kickers are just a lot more accurate and have bigger legs than ever.   Among kickers who have attempted at least 20 field goals so far this year, only Graham Gano of Washington, has not been successful at least 75% of the time.   He is converting 66.7% of the time but even he is 3 for 5 from 50+ yards.  Rookie Dan Bailey of Dallas is 27 for 28 for the year (96.4%) and Matt Bryant of Atlanta and Mike Nugent of Cincinnati are both 18 of 19 for the year.

In fact, of the top 25 all-time field goal percentage leaders, 21 are active players this year.  Only 4 kickers not playing today have good enough conversion rates to be in the top 25 all-time.  Those four-Mike Vanderjagt (2nd all-time at 86.466%), Matt Stover (9th-83.659%), John Carney (14th-82.414%) and Jeff Wilkins (18th-81.867%).  Jan Stenerud, the lone Hall of Fame kicker, ranks 106th all-time at 66.846%.  Lou ("The Toe") Groza ranks 151st at 54.886%.  The all-time leader is Nate Kaeding of San Diego (currently out for the year with a knee injury) at 86.5%.

Of course, you would never see this many 50 yard field goal attempts unless the head coaches did not have a lot of confidence in their kickers. Since 1994, a missed field goal outside the 20 yard line results in the ball being placed at the spot of the kick.  Therefore, a missed 50 yard field goal gives your opponent the ball at their 40 yard line with excellent field position.  You can see in the chart above that this rule change brought the number of 50+ yard attempts down between 1991 and 2001.  However, the current stable of great kickers in the league has given coaches the confidence to go for the long distance 3 pointer.  That confidence is being rewarded like never before.

Enjoy football this Thanksgiving weekend and appreciate the skill of the kickers.  There have never been better foots in football history.

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