With 91 games in the book for the 2012 NFL season, kickers are off to a historically great start.
Depending on which team you root for, you may not want to believe it after a crazy Week 6 which saw many game-deciding field-goal attempts. Some were successful (Atlanta, Tennessee, Detroit, Buffalo, Arizona), but some were not (Pittsburgh, Dallas, St. Louis…Arizona).
So far, kickers have made 326 out of 372 field-goal attempts this season (87.63 percent). That would be the highest percentage in NFL history, exceeding the previous record of 84.50 percent (2008 season).
Being a NFL kicker is a tough gig, as no one considers you a legitimate football player. But one bad kick in the clutch, and you can expect to draw the ire of rabid fans.
The job may only be getting tougher, as the standard of excellence keeps rising. Despite no significant rule changes being made to the kicking game, the percentages keep increasing.
Incredibly, the top nine seasons in NFL history for field-goal percentage are the last nine seasons (2004-2012).
What’s going on? Are kickers really that much better in today’s game? How big of an impact is distance having? Let’s examine.
History of field-goal rates
Believe it or not, there was a time when the league converted on fewer than half of its field goals. But that was before the 1970 merger, and it was in 1972 when the NFL moved the hash marks to the center of the field, cutting down on the sharper angles for field goals.
It was in 1972 when the league-wide field-goal percentage first exceeded 60.0 percent (it was 61.1 percent). In 1974, the league moved the goal posts from the goal line and to the back of the end zone, just as it is located today. No more of those field goals coming from fewer than 18 yards.
From 1983 to 1992, kickers mostly remained in a 70-75 percent range. It was in 1993 when kickers first exceeded 75.0 percent (actual number was 76.6 percent). Three seasons later, they hit 80.0 percent for the first time in 1996, but that did not happen again until 2004.
Since 2004, it has been nothing but over 80 percent for a season, and we are starting to see that push towards the mid-80s.
In thinking the 87.63 percent this season may be a result of favorable weather early in the season, the following is a look at field-goal rates from 2000-2012 for just the first six weeks of the season compared to the entire regular season.
The last column is the decline, which compares Weeks 1-6 to Weeks 7-17. Data was collected from the Pro-Football-Reference Game Play Finder.
Generally, field-goal rates do in fact decline in the last 11 weeks of the regular season. Even though we have seen an equal number of seasons (six) in which they improve, the overall change is a decline of 0.37 percentage points.
Though we came close in 2011 (86.35 percent), the 87.63 percent this season is in fact the highest through six weeks in NFL history. While it will likely decrease, there is still a good chance we see a new record for highest field-goal percentage in a season.
Going the distance
If kickers are making field goals at a higher rate, then they must be attempting more short kicks to pad the stats, right?
Not exactly. While kickers are 101-for-101 on field goals of fewer than 30 yards this season, that represents 27.2 percent of all field-goal attempts in 2012.
Compare that to 2003, the last season the NFL was under 80.0 percent, and kickers attempted 30.1 percent of their field goals from under 30 yards. They were kicking shorter more often nine years ago.
The difference is coming in the long-range success for today’s kickers.
Through six weeks, 2012 kickers are already 36-of-54 (66.7 percent) on field-goal attempts of more than 50 yards. Here is the short and long of it this century.
Since 2008, kickers are making 60.0 percent of their field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards. They are also attempting them more often, with rates almost doubling the beginning of the decade.
So far, the 2012 season has the lowest percentage of field-goal attempts from fewer than 30 yards (27.2 percent), and the highest percent from more than 50 yards (14.5 percent).
Last season, there were 90 successful field goals of 50-plus yards, shattering the previous record of 66 (2008). This season, kickers are on pace to make 101.3 long field goals.
Factors for longer field goals
While there are more indoor stadiums than in the past, not to mention retractable roofs, an influx of talented, strong-legged youth also helps.
Greg Zuerlein is the popular rookie kicker for the St. Louis Rams, and he’s had an incredible start to his career with a lot of long makes.
But on Sunday, he missed three times, including a 66-yard field goal at the end of the game that would have been the greatest kick in regular-season history. Zuerlein had the distance, but not the accuracy.
Blair Walsh, another good rookie, kicks for the Minnesota Vikings. He is 16-of-17 on the year and 6-of-7 from more than 40 yards. Walsh hit a 55-yard game-tying field goal in Week 1 to force overtime with Jacksonville. Walsh won the game on a 38-yard field goal.
Baltimore had to replace Billy Cundiff after last season’s disaster in the AFC Championship, and rookie Justin Tucker is 12-of-13 so far.
Matt Prater has been a very good kicker for Denver, though he has home-field advantage with that altitude.
The league is still full of some “old reliable” kickers as well, such as Rob Bironas (Tennessee), Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis), Stephen Gostkowski (New England), Matt Bryant (Atlanta), Phil Dawson (Cleveland), Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland), Robbie Gould (Chicago), Jason Hanson (Detroit) and Lawrence Tynes (New York Giants).
Out of the top 20 kickers in NFL history in field-goal percentage (min. 100 attempts), 13 of them are active this season. All 20 were active in the 2006 season.
If Rodney Dangerfield played in the NFL…
Maybe this is the year we start to show kickers more respect. They are football players.
Even punters are people, too. The seven highest seasons in NFL history in average yards per punt are all of the last seven seasons (2006-2012).
“Bigger, faster, stronger” appears to even apply to those oddball kickers, who are paid well to participate in a small number of plays each week.
But they can be big plays that decide your team’s fate. It was unbelievable to watch Arizona kicker Jay Feely nail a career-long 61-yard field goal to tie the game with Buffalo on Sunday (previous best was 55 yards) then miss the 38-yard kick off the left upright with a chance to win the game.
While those failed moments in the clutch are still going to happen with the added pressure, make no mistake: Today’s kickers are more likely to not only make the field goal, but to make them from a longer distance as well.
We are living through a golden age of kicking but will continue to only care when the kicker screws up. The good news is that may be happening less frequently than at any other point in NFL history.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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