Things got so bad on Monday night for newly signed Tennessee Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski that the prospect of removing his pants before the final kick of the game wasn’t off the table. Gostkowski had already missed three field goals1 and an extra point against the Denver Broncos when the cameras caught him sitting on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter, his right foot shoeless and sockless.
“I mean, I would’ve taken my pants off to make that last kick, to try something different,” Gostkowski said after the game. “I wasn’t doing very well, I had to switch something up, maybe just for mental sake.”
The beleaguered kicker went on to make his final field goal attempt of the night, partially redeeming himself by splitting the uprights with just 17 seconds remaining. The final score: 16-14, Titans. The story could end there — a bit of human drama that helps make football compelling — but it turns out that Gostkowski’s Week 1 struggles were broadly representative of a terrible week for NFL kickers overall.
The field goal percentage for all teams in Week 1 was just 71.6 percent, the lowest opening-game field goal success rate leaguewide in at least 20 years,2 according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. It was also the 9th-worst kicking performance across all weeks since 2001. Of the eight weeks with a lower leaguewide field goal percentage, just one occurred in the past 15 years.3
What’s happening here? The average length of the 67 attempts in Week 1 wasn’t significantly different from past years, at 38.2 yards per attempt, so the poor results can’t be explained by longer attempts.4 Wind also can’t explain the difference: The windiest Week 15 of the past 20 years was in 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and the league converted 80 percent of its 55 attempts that year, with an average attempt distance of 37 yards.
In the age of COVID-19, some might point to the lack of a preseason as a reason for the decline in kicking success. But if that were the case, we might expect to find other measures of play quality down this year as well. According to Michael Lopez, director of football data and analytics for the NFL, the missed tackle rate is down 3 percent from Week 1 of 2019, the dropped pass rate is down 4 percent, false starts are down 15 percent, and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — such as unnecessary roughness — are down a whopping 43 percent. Lopez wrote on Twitter, “Basically every metric I’ve thought to track that would potentially get worse this year has gotten better. Except for kickers.”
And while it’s possible that some aspect of a kicker’s job could make that position more affected by a lack of preseason action than the rest of the team, it’s hard to imagine exactly what that might be. The stadiums that players are kicking in are largely empty, removing one of the biggest differentiators between practice kicks and in-game situations. And kicking itself is one of the more stable play types in football: There’s nowhere near as much chaos on a typical field goal attempt as there is on a pass or running play, for instance. Long snappers could conceivably be rusty, but they’re specialists who are allocated a roster spot to do one thing, and one thing alone, so they have strong incentives to remain sharp.
Still, if it isn’t COVID-19, and it isn’t longer attempts or more wind, what’s causing the dip? The answer is that it’s probably just randomness at work. Despite the historically low field goal percentage across the league, it’s not a significantly different result in a statistical sense than the rates we saw in other seasons since 2001. In the same way that a player like Baker Mayfield can look like one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in Week 1 against Baltimore (Total Quarterback Rating of 37.7) and then perform at an elite level the next week against Cincinnati (total QBR of 98), small samples sometimes provide results that can — if we’re not careful — convince us that we’re seeing a new trend long before we have enough evidence to be sure. So while it may be unsatisfying, the answer is instructive. We should avoid drawing broad conclusions based on limited but recent information, particularly in a high-variance sport like football.
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