By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day
Here are two seemingly-contradictory but usually-true statements about pro football:
1) Special teams are the most consistently underrated facet of the game.
2) 99% of kickers are fungible and shouldn’t be paid top dollar.
Somewhere at the point where these two statements meet is Adam Vinatieri. You can put together your own Vinatieri’s-a-clutch-god biography using “tuck rule”, “Super Bowl”, “snow angel”, “Ford F-150”, and several other wonderful items I’m sure you can get in the Adam Vinatieri Refrigerator Poetry kit. Point is, everyone reading this knows Vinatieri’s history and what happened this offseason. The more important question, and the one I’m going to answer through discussing those two statements above, is simple. “Why?”
Some announcers will pay lip service to the idea that special teams are particularly underrated, sure, but let’s be serious. If you asked the average announcer to name some great special team gunners, he would probably get Steve Tasker and – maybe – Bill Bates (if you were asking Troy Aikman and Daryl Johnston – and there’s a chance that neither of them actually remembers their own name, let alone Bates’) out of his mouth before changing the topic. By simply looking at the last few Super Bowls, though, it’s simply a fact that special teams played a huge and arguably instrumental role in determining who won. Forget the two Vinatieri game-winning kicks for a second. Last year, Tom Rouen’s incompetence in the Super Bowl led to the first four-touchback punting game since 2001 (playoffs or regular season), and handed the Steelers the equivalent of forty or fifty yards of field position compared to what an average punter in the same situations would have done. Two years earlier, Vinatieri was set up for his game-winner when John Kasay’s stray kickoff gave the Patriots the ball on their own 40, only seconds after Kasay had tied the game with an extra point.
To make a mostly irrelevant aside, no one ever remembers Vinatieri missing a chip shot from 31 yards in the first quarter of this game. Of course, it doesn’t make his game-winning kick any less meaningful, but if he makes the easy one in the first quarter, he doesn’t need to win the game at the end. Maybe it was some sort of misguided Uggy Urbina tribute. I digress.
Special teams are measured at Football Outsiders using our DVOA statistic. For a detailed explanation of how we measure their performance, please see our newly-updated methods page. With regards to kickers, we measure how well they kick relative to an average kicker in the same situation. It’s no stretch to think that simple kick percentage or points aren’t really accurate measures of kicker performance; for example, a kicker who goes 27-34 in Buffalo is probably doing more difficult work and performing better than a kicker who goes 29-30 kicking in Minnesota’s dome. As a result, when it comes to field goals, we also adjust our statistics for location of the attempt – much like park effects in baseball, kickers are consistently better on turf than on natural grass, in a warm weather stadium than in a cold one, and in Denver (or Mexico City) than anywhere else. We also adjust our numbers for the forgotten (by most fans) aspect of a kicker’s job – kickoffs.
Kickoffs are forgotten about, mostly, because they’re not particularly focused upon. If you watch one on TV, you’re likely to hear Mike Patrick still rambling on about how Brett Favre’s rambunctiousness just earned the Packers a touchdown on the previous drive, often with a closeup of Favre drinking Gatorade or getting fitted for a suit on the sideline while the kick is in the air. Would that ever happen while a field goal was in the air? Of course not. In addition, the result of a kickoff that isn’t a touchback is often credited to the kick returner first and the coverage team second, without considering the hang time of the kick. Finally, kickoffs don’t show up in a kicker’s fantasy football stats, and without that to consider, the kicking game loses relevance to a good amount of fans – at least, until your team’s kicker misses two kicks in overtime. Hi New York. If I haven’t made it clear already, allow me to instill it further: field position is the hidden game within a game, and one that needs to consistently be won. Kickoffs can be a huge part of that. Just for reference, here’s how teams who kick off well do as opposed to teams who kick off poorly:
A couple of notes: First, since we only have play-by-play data stretching back to 1997 processed as of right now, we only have Kickoff DVOA statistics for those teams. Furthermore, I didn’t include the kickoff stats in this table – if I did, you would see how bad that 2000 Buffalo Bills team was at kicking off. Kickoffs cost the Bills -32.1 points worth of field position; the second worst team lost just -20.9 points worth of field position. The difference between that Bills team and the second worst team was greater than the second worst team in the era and, say, the twentieth. The average beginning line of scrimmage after a Buffalo kickoff that year was on the opposition’s 37 yard line. 37! Imagine how good that Bills team could’ve been if they’d started Doug Flutie at quarterback all year and let him kick, too.
Now, let’s make the same comparison for the ten best and worst teams at kicking field goals in the DVOA Era:
Yep – you’re reading that right. Adam Vinatieri had two of the top ten performances on field goals and extra points of the last ten years in 2002 and 2004… and had one of the ten worst in 2003. (In 2005, Vinatieri was almost dead average, ranking 17th in the NFL.) Now, I don’t mean to imply that Vinatieri’s 2002 and 2004 are nullified by his poor 2003; you could form a reasonably convincing argument that 2003 was a fluke, supplemented by Vinatieri playing through a back injury. That being said, there’s certainly evidence pointing towards the idea that Vinatieri’s numbers would have decreased.
Take the ten kickers on the best FG/XP performance list on the left. Not counting Neil Rackers and Joe Nedney (who we obviously don’t have year-after data for), the eight best field goal kicking seasons in the last ten years have been followed with seasons where those kickers averaged…18th in the league. If you eliminate Vinatieri’s ’03 because of his back injury, they average 16th. Gary Anderson went from having a flawless season to being next-to-last the year after. Mike Vanderjagt went from 1st in 2003 to 27th in 2004. Same kickers. Same teams, same situations. The best of the best simply just regressed to the mean. You simply just don’t see this sort of behavior at other positions anywhere near as frequently or consistently.
Later on this week, I’ll be analyzing the likelihood that the money the Colts spent on Vinatieri will be well-spent.