Key Takeaways:

  • NFL teams are attempting more long field goals as they get smarter about fourth down decision making.
  • Despite attempting more of these kicks, NFL kickers are still outperforming expectations and creating an award that justifies the risk.
  • In terms of missing easy kicks, 2020 is in line with recent seasons, and individual kickers don’t seem particularly more or less likely to have “bad misses” carry over from one year to the next.

Introduction

With the growing usage of data and research analytics in the NFL, teams have figured out that it’s usually more advantageous when trying to win a game to continue to try and score rather than giving up and inviting your opponent to score on you. Any casual viewer can notice the increase of “going for it” on fourth down in recent years. It can be inferred that changes in field goal decision making and performance are changing in some way, too.

Trends in Attempts

One may expect that if teams are attempting more fourth down conversions, they are also kicking fewer field goals. This is an oversimplification. From a rate perspective, field goal attempts without respect to distance are up this year. As a percentage of fourth downs within the 48-yard line (65-yard FG attempt) and five yards or greater away from a first down, coaches are electing to attempt a field goal 64% of the time, a four percentage point increase from 2019.  

If your eyes haven’t told you this already, the numbers will—field goal attempts from over 50 yards have also increased this year. Since 2015, there has been an average number of 133 field goal attempts of 50 yards or longer through Week 15. In the entire 2019 season, there were 145, including 127 on fourth down. With two weeks remaining in the 2020 NFL season, there have already been 154 attempts of that length, 130 of them on fourth down.

So far this year, these field goal attempts constitute 21% of fourth down decisions from between the 33-yard line and 49-yard line, a four percentage point increase from last year. Following the same logic presented earlier, these lengthy attempts will probably increase as teams are more desperate to score in high-leverage games towards the end of the regular season. From 33 or more yards out, this will probably manifest in more field goal tries than fourth down conversions and definitely less punting.

Trends in Expectations

Coaches are asking their kickers to attempt longer field goals these days, as we now know. So far, it’s working, as 64% of field goals from outside 50 yards have made it through the goal posts in 2020. This is up from last year’s rate of 58%.

Using an expected field goal model that takes into account distance and weather for every attempt, we can see how likelihoods of success line up with actual results. Expected rates of success for field goals greater than 50 yards have been on the decline since 2017, but had a recent uptick in 2020. For the most part, kickers have been overperforming their expectations from this range.

Expected vs. Actual Field Goal Success Rates, 50+ Yards

YearAttemptsExpectedActual
201715462%69%
201815260%64%
201914558%58%
202015460%64%

Strangely enough, kickers had been, in general, underperforming from other yardages until 2020. 2018 and 2019 see underperformance as large as 5% from 40-49 yards out, and in 2020 kickers are making about the same amount of field goals as we’d expect from most yardages.

Trends in Bad Misses

A brief glance at the numbers may indicate that kicker talent is stagnant, with a consistent success rate on field goals from all yardages of between 84% and 85% since 2015 (2019 was anomalous with 82%, but 2019 was weird in a lot of ways). Success rates, even when breaking down by distance, are usually consistent within their own groups.

For this reason, let’s take a look at how kickers have been performing among “easy” field goal tries throughout the years. I’ll define an “easy” field goal as a field goal with an expected conversion rate of 85%. This means that 85% of the time, we would expect the kicker to make that field goal given the distance and certain weather conditions. It follows that a bad miss is defined as an easy field goal that is not successful. After all, a missed field goal is essentially the same as a turnover.

Bad Misses by Season

SeasonCount, through week 15Count, through season
20152731
20162937
20174553
20182226
20192933
202028?

League-wide, the past three years have shown a consistent number of bad misses. On average, 15% of the league’s bad misses occur in the final 10% of games played in the regular season. This makes sense, with increased pressure on kickers to help win games.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t that many repeat offenders for bad misses. Most kickers who have had bad misses in the past three years haven’t been missing consistently from year to year, and they only have one or two egregious mistakes. If they were missing that poorly, they probably wouldn’t be getting many more opportunities.

Greg Zuerlein is an exception—he’s had one bad miss in 2018, four in 2019, and one in 2020. The four in 2019 is the most any kicker has had in a season in that time span. Cody Parkey, a favorite of NFL fans to rag on, had two bad misses in 2018, none in 2019, and two more this year.

Conclusion

NFL coaches are making the decision to try for more long field goals this year, and so far, it’s working out for them. They’re notching 3 points rather than handing the ball to the other team for nothing approximately 64% of the time. Kickers are overperforming at distances of 50 yards or greater, while expected success for these field goals is decreasing year to year. As far as easy field goals, this year’s NFL season featured nearly 28 bad field goal misses, which is in line with the previous year’s total (a notably poor year for kickers). It might seem like kickers can hardly do their job anymore, but overall, there’s been mostly consistency among kickers and field goals in the NFL—the only difference is the strategy.

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