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A Week To Forget For NFL Kickers

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): If Week 5 of the NFL season taught us anything, it’s that “place-kicker” is not a job for the faint of heart. Or perhaps it taught us (again) that leaving a game up to a kicker is a bad idea.

In any case, our friends at ESPN’s Stats & Information Group report that this was the first week since the extra point was moved back in 2015 to see both double-digit missed field goals and double-digit missed extra points (12 of each). So that’s … something!

Guys: Ban kickers?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Yes, we must. This was also tied for the worst week for missed extra points in the Super Bowl era. 

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): It was definitely a rough week for the kickers. But they have a pretty tough job. We only notice these things when they miss. When you make the kicks, people mostly think you were supposed to do that anyway.

One of the best things for a kicker is for nobody to notice you at all.

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Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Packers-Bengals game was a tough watch, but the Bengals especially were settling for long field goals. Unless you’re playing the Lions, these long field goals are not automatic. 

I think we have to acknowledge that on a day when no one could make a field goal, the Lions became the first team in NFL history to lose two games in one season on regulation-ending 50-plus-yard kicks. 

I mean, even Vikings kickers are automatic against the Lions.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it was pretty wild to me that on a day with a gazillion missed kicks, the Vikings didn’t miss when it counted. Did not see that coming!

neil: The universe continues to have a sense of humor.

joshua.hermsmeyer: You can’t leave Kirk Cousins that much time. 

sara.ziegler: ЁЯдг

Salfino: Part of the problem is settling for 57-yard field goals. We’re expecting too much of these guys. The Bengals had fourth-and-2 with 26 seconds and two timeouts left and should have gone for it. They also ended up leaving Aaron Rodgers enough time to make a play, which of course he did. But his kicker missed, one of five straight in that game.

sara.ziegler: The lure of the points is just too much!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, some of us are expecting not much at all from kickers. I’m not at all sure what happened on Sunday was really a bad thing if it continues to push teams to go for it more.

sara.ziegler: Chargers coach Brandon Staley might have the right idea: Los Angeles went for three fourth-down conversions, two of those well within field-goal range. Given that Chargers kicker Tristan Vizcaino missed two of his five point-after attempts, that feels defensible on several levels.

Salfino: The Chargers are awesome with going for it, but they just can’t ace the end-of-regulation test.

A football laid against an X/Y axis, with the white stripes on the ball being bar graph

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sara.ziegler: Mike, you had some harsh words for the Chargers two weeks ago when they left some time on the clock for the Chiefs to mount a comeback. They had a similar issue at the end of Sunday’s game, when the Browns were able to push Austin Ekeler into the end zone. Do you want to sternly tell Ekeler to take a knee next time?

Salfino: No, this is on the Chargers coaches. They needed to take three knees and kick the 20-yard field goal on the last play of the game and get out of Dodge. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I disagree. I think you certainly take a knee at least once, but you do not put the game on the foot of that kicker. I think you still try to score a TD but leave the Browns with 20 seconds or so.

Salfino: Why, Josh? Math is math. Who cares if he missed the extra point. If a guy can’t nail a 20-yard field goal from the middle of the field, what is he doing in the league?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, math isn’t just math. The kicker has his own 20-yard success rate, and it’s well below the number you are quoting.

Salfino: He has not missed a 20-yard FG this year. I don’t even have to look it up.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Take your knee; if they stuff you on your other plays, take a timeout and kick.

Salfino: Taking the knee only would have gotten the game down to about 45 seconds, not 20.

neil: Ekeler tried to take a knee, btw! The Browns dragged him into the end zone on that run.

sara.ziegler: I think we can all agree that the Browns made a brilliant move there.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That was super sharp by the Browns players.

neil: I feel like players have become a lot more aware of clock management stuff like this than they used to be. Perhaps more so than coaches, even!

Salfino: I found it interesting how the Chargers’ missed extra point with just over three minutes left affected Cleveland’s game management. If the game had been tied, the Browns would have scored and probably won the game with not enough time for the Chargers to respond. Instead, Cleveland played with no urgency because they had the lead, and then the Chargers got the ball back with plenty of time to at least kick the field goal. The only question was whether they would do it too quickly.

sara.ziegler: That’s an interesting issue, Mike, and gets at something Seth Walder talks about in ESPN’s go-for-it model: Sometimes aggressive play encourages more aggression from the other team. We saw that at the end of the Lions game — Detroit went for 2 and got it to go up 1, and the Vikings had to push to get a field goal instead of settling for overtime. The Chargers didn’t intend to miss their PAT, but it may have actually helped them win the game!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree with Seth! In general it is better to not induce the other team to play aggressive — which is often synonymous with more optimal play. However, I think if the environment continues to change, and teams play more optimally as a matter of course, then this weird edge will quickly fade.

Salfino: On the other hand, how do you stop Justin Herbert on four downs? Three is hard enough.

neil: I really enjoy how the stigma around aggressive decision-making, particularly going for it on fourth down, has basically been lifted now. It’s almost like every coach was given permission to do the optimal thing, and we’re seeing that in action.

You know who probably doesn’t love it? Defensive coordinators, who went from having to stop a team from gaining 10 yards three times to having to stop them four times.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil, isn’t it strange, though, that the coaches who seem most predisposed to going for it are defensive coaches? Guys like John Harbaugh, Sean McDermott and now Staley.

neil: They know how it feels from the other side.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s my take as well!

sara.ziegler: That’s fascinating.

Salfino: Always do the thing that the opponent doesn’t want you to do.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was an incredible win by the Chargers, and a historic loss for Cleveland. They’re the first team in NFL history to score 40 or more points, not turn the ball over and lose.

sara.ziegler: It really was a huge win for the Chargers. Does this cement them as a favorite in the AFC?

Salfino: Well, the Bills may have something to say about that.

neil: Yeah, the Bills made a pretty huge statement of their own.

Salfino: They’re the favorite in the AFC West, though!

sara.ziegler: I said “a” favorite, not “the” favorite!

But yes, the Bills looked dominant Sunday night against Kansas City. Josh Allen was 15-for-26 with 315 yards and three passing touchdowns — along with a rushing TD — against a Chiefs defense that looked, shall we say, porous.

Salfino: Here’s a great stat about the Chiefs “defense”: 

neil: The Super Bowl Loser’s Curse still isn’t a thing (beyond normal regression to the mean), but the Chiefs’ defense is really trying to make it into a thing.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The best teams in the NFL on offense so far this season are averaging 0.17 expected points added per play. The Chiefs’ defense is surrendering an average of 0.22 EPA per play. 

Salfino: I keep saying this is the Dan Marino Dolphins now, except the offense is also having problems. The book is out on how to defend them, and they’re not adjusting by attacking the middle of the field. The explosive plays when the Chiefs have the ball are now being made by the opposing defense with takeaways.

neil: But also, the Bills defense is really, really friggin’ good.

Their defense has been +17.66 scheduled-adjusted EPA per game better than average so far this year. The second-best defense, Carolina, is “only” +9.04. They’re allowing just 12.8 points per game. Buffalo has been the best and most complete team in the league so far, and it’s not remotely close.

Salfino: We thought maybe the Bills defense, which was not good last year, was a product of their schedule. But it was for real in K.C.

sara.ziegler: So has the league figured out how to play Patrick Mahomes effectively? The Bills didn’t blitz him a single time, and they played in Cover 2 on more than half of his attempts. Is that the key to keep him in check?

Salfino: Yeah, Sara, the Chiefs have to play small ball, but how do you do that with their defense? They also have to stop giving the ball away to play this way. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think you figure out Mahomes, of course, but as they mentioned on the broadcast, teams are certainly going to copy what’s working. They have the Washington Football Team next, which will likely try and use some of the same schemes to control Mahomes. But Washington has helped to prove the adage that you shouldn’t rely on defense in the NFL, so I would be very hesitant to conclude that Andy Reid and Mahomes are incapable of overcoming this new challenge.

neil: Also, Mahomes still leads the NFL in Total QBR.

He didn’t have his best game last night, but he — and that offense — are not the problem. 

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Salfino: Mahomes is great, no doubt, but Herbert is at least nearly as good and plays in the same division, which is a tough break for the Chiefs. 

sara.ziegler: It still seems possible to me that the schedule will open up a little for the Chiefs, they’ll reel off a string of wins, and everyone will forget all about their problems.

neil: I think that’s right, Sara. They’ve played the seventh-toughest Elo schedule so far; their future schedule ranks 19th-toughest.

Salfino: I don’t think the Chargers are going away, Sara. I think they’re a legit 13-win team.

sara.ziegler: I agree with that! I just think the Chiefs are still in the mix, when all is said and done.

neil: Both things can be true. Our model only gives K.C. a 19 percent chance to win the AFC West, but they’re still ninth in Super Bowl odds at 4 percent.

Salfino: How does this defense get better? How does it even get remotely average?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think we ask versions of that question every year, Mike, and defenses always seem to regress to the mean.

neil: It probably doesn’t get better, at least not by much. But maybe it doesn’t stay dead last — right now it’s below the Jaguars in strength-of-schedule-adjusted EPA per game.

sara.ziegler: Yikes.

Salfino: So you think they’ll randomly get better? That makes sense to me, seriously. But I think their style of playing defense — basically selling out to make one big play on every drive — is just conceptually bad and thus not likely to change.

An old-timey football player overlaid against a football field background. The field is part orange and part green.

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neil: Basically, they just need to win shootouts against any reasonably competent offense. But they have the best offense for that. It reminds me of those 2000 Greatest Show on Turf Rams, a flawed team that had to win on pure offense (and ultimately fell short).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Honest answer is that there is a lot of randomness, but also the offenses they face will be weaker.

sara.ziegler: That seems right to me.

Salfino: They have the offense as long as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are healthy, beyond Mahomes, of course. (They’ve been very lucky in that regard during the Mahomes era.)

sara.ziegler: So it seems like the Bills and Chargers are the class of the AFC at the moment (with the Ravens still to play in Week 5). Over in the NFC, the Arizona Cardinals are the last undefeated team standing after hanging on to beat the San Francisco 49ers. Are you guys buying Kyler Murray and the Cardinals?

joshua.hermsmeyer: As the best team in the West? Absolutely. As the best team in the NFC, maybe. As the best in the NFL, no way.

neil: I certainly think they are legit Super Bowl contenders, and better than we all expected. Their defense has gotten a lot better since last year.

Salfino: The Cardinals got lucky that Jimmy Garoppolo was out, and their offense was handled by the Niners. I think we have to accept the Cardinals are a contender to win the NFC. They’re one of the five teams or so. I don’t see much separation, either.

neil: The last unbeaten team (or teams) in the league each year — which Arizona is guaranteed to be — has a pretty decent track record of making the Super Bowl. (They’ve done it in 53 percent of seasons since the merger.)

But we won’t talk about last year’s Steelers.

Salfino: Great stat!

sara.ziegler: That’s surprising! I would have expected more Steeler-like turns.

Salfino: Minnesota had the Cardinals beat, and they should have lost Sunday, but that’s still a great stat.

neil: I love how Murray’s career keeps ascending. He’s such a joy to watch.

(Also, his completion percentage and QBR are exactly the same — 75.2. Totally meaningless stat, but fun. Lol.)

Salfino: He’s playing well from the pocket now even.

neil: And this kid Rondale Moore, a rookie who was the 49th overall pick out of Purdue, has been making some truly ridiculous catches off Murray throws.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So has Nuk. Amazing collection of talent at the skill positions.

sara.ziegler: So aside from the Cardinals, who else do you like in the NFC? The Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams are all 4-1. Of that group of five, which one goes to the Super Bowl?

neil: I still like the Bucs there.

joshua.hermsmeyer: We like the Bucs of that group, and I agree. I think the Rams and Goff, I mean Stafford, are overrated. Green Bay has been a little up and down, but I like them next.

Salfino: Like I said, this is a tight grouping. I see problems for all of them. Can J.J. Watt stay healthy for the Cardinals, and can they get some running game going? The Tampa Bay pass defense is not championship caliber. Rodgers has not really gotten it going like last year yet. The Rams defense has significantly regressed, more than could have been reasonably expected. Dallas is the only team I can’t find a problem with beyond Mike McCarthy.

sara.ziegler: I was gonna say — where’s the love for the ‘Boys?

Salfino: McCarthy at least doesn’t really do anything.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dallas is the most loved franchise in the NFL — they don’t need any from me.

Salfino: I’m with Josh!

Also the most hated, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Stefon Diggs’s little brother is something else, though. 

neil: Six INTs already!

sara.ziegler: Very impressed with the entire Diggs family.

Salfino: Trevon Diggs is the Defensive Player of the Year right now. Those picks are ridiculous. This isn’t the 1960s with interceptions. They are rare plays now.

neil: Is that shade at Night Train Lane? Because I won’t stand for it.

Salfino: Night Train was the most vicious player in NFL history.

The Night Train Neck Tie! 

neil: You just didn’t throw in the vicinity of the Night Train — not if you knew what was good for you.

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Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.