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Finally, you can settle all those bar bets about which teams pay their kickers too much! Matt Prater was the best kicker this season, with a Pro Football Focus grade of 63.5, but was he the best bargain? Read more to find out!

There are a couple of things to note about kickers. Thirty-six kickers played in 12 or more of their teams’ games this season, meaning they attempted field goals, or kickoffs, or both. Five of them are actually punters, at least technically, as they punt and kickoff, leaving five kickers in the league who contribute to their teams by kicking field goals. The five hybrids, who kick and punt, are not considered in this evaluation.

These numbers come from PFF and Spotrac.com, and concern only the regular season. The PFF grades control for quite a bit, measuring kickoff success and touchbacks, adjusting for field goal distance differences, etc., but they do not control for the thin air in Denver. Take Prater’s high marks with a grain of salt; he is still a good kicker though. A player’s contract quality is determined by the number of standard deviations their performance grade is above/below the average at their position, minus the number of standard deviations their average annual salary is above/below the average at their position.

The Top Five Kickers of the 2013 NFL Season (PFF Grade in parentheses)

  • 1. Matt Prater, DEN (63.5)
  • 2. Stephen Gostkowski, NE (46)
  • 3. Graham Gano, CAR (45)
  • 4. Dan Bailey, DAL (41.3)
  • 5. Steven Hauschka, SEA (33.8)

The Worst Five Kickers of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. David Akers, DET (6.9)
  • 28. Matt Bryant, ATL (6.8)
  • 29. Rian Lindell, TB (6.6)
  • 30. Kai Forbath, WAS (3)
  • 31. Shaun Suisham, PIT (1.7)

Pittsburgh is possibly the worst place to kick footballs, but again, Prater is probably better by some degree, if not 40 times better. Who gets paid the most?

Highest Five Average Kicker Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season (millions of $)

  • 1. Sebastian Janikowski, OAK ($3.775 million)
  • 2. Josh Scobee, JAC ($3.45m)
  • 3. Rob Bironas, TEN ($3.338m)
  • 4. Matt Prater, DEN ($3.25m)
  • 5. Dan Bailey, DAL ($3.214m)

Lowest Five Average Kicker Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. Greg Zuerlein, STL ($0.569m)
  • 28. Blair Walsh, MIN ($0.554m)
  • 29. Randy Bullock, HOU ($0.551m)
  • 30. Justin Tucker, BAL & Kai Forbath, WAS ($0.48m)

Apart from being good, there is a reason why teams like good young players: they come cheap on their first contract. How do they compare to the veterans, when evaluating which teams got the most leg for their buck? Remember,

Contract Quality = # SDs performance above/below average – # SDs salary above/below average

Five Best Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season (CQ in parentheses)

  • 1. Graham Gano, CAR (2.58)
  • 2. Justin Tucker, BAL (1.91)
  • 3. Greg Zuerlein, STL (1.76)
  • 4. Steven Hauschka, SEA (1.65)
  • 5. Matt Prater, DEN (1.63)

Congratulations to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman! With the third-best on-field performance, and the 24th-lowest average salary, Graham Gano has been a steal.

Five Worst Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. Rob Bironas, TEN (-1.74)
  • 28. Adam Vinatieri, IND (-1.96)
  • 29. Matt Bryant, ATL (-2.06)
  • 30. Sebastian Janikowski, OAK (-2.13)
  • 31. Mason Crosby, GB (-2.14)

And it’s Crosby by a nose! Really a shame, because there is often a nice poetry when the most expensive paid player at a position just happens to be the most overpaid. Next time, Janikowski.

A final question: do kickers have it easy, or hard? They are NFL athletes without the wear and tear on their bodies. They do not work as much as other players (in terms of game time). Though forever lacking the stardom of quarterbacks, they are the only other scoring players of whom there is only one at their position, and likely more popular than a good many “regular” position players. And as Vinatieri showed us in three different Pats Super Bowls, they can take a lot of credit and become very popular with just a few good kicks. However, they suffer from few opportunities. A run of bad luck and a few consecutive missed kicks, the random error in a sample, can end their careers, as Garrett Hartley experienced this season. Their opportunities to show improvement are limited, kicking only 30-40 field goals a year, with maybe 80-100 kickoffs. Most other players see that many opportunities to make a play every game. And kickers know they usually determine the outcome of close, memorable games. They face a pressure exclusive to them. Oh, and occasionally they have to tackle speedy hot shots twice their size, or worse, they are blocked by eager special teamers three times their size.

Now that all the bar bets on overpaid and underpaid kickers are settled, move on to this one! Do kickers have it easy, or hard?

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I checked my notes on silly things announcers say during games, and I thought I’d get back to it. Let’s go!

At home in Week 13, the Texans force a Patriots’ punt and get the ball back just before halftime.

CBS play-by-play veteran Greg Gumbel:

And with 28 seconds on the clock, the Texans will have the ball at their own 20 yard line, and unless something really, really strange happens they’re going to go the locker room with the lead.

I guess this is the equivalent of whatever an honorable mention would be in this series. John Madden said things like this all the time. When you’re public speaking for three hours, you’ll probably end up saying something “really, really” obvious somewhere in there. I’m mostly fine with announcers saying a few things here and there just to fill in the broadcast, but I still thought this was funny.

At home in Week 13, the Panthers gain two yards on 3rd&G from the Bucs’ three yard line with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.

Fox’s play-by-play man Chris Myers:

Now let’s see if he’s going to go for it or not, remember he said he plays percentages, he’s going to let the clock run, of course you can always go for it, if you miss it you pin Tampa Bay back there with your time outs.

Color commentator Tim Ryan, former third round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1990 NFL Draft:

I’m never chasing points early in games, Riverboat Ron or not, check the analytics, take the points.

Ugh. Tim, I’m taking your advice, and actually checking the analytics. (Although it’s really obvious going for it is the better strategy.) HEY, the analytics say that going for it provides the Panthers a 79% chance of winning and kicking the field goal results in a 74% chance of winning. Tim, if I agreed to give you $3 every day (100% of days) over four weeks, or if I agreed to give you $7 on 19 days within four weeks (68% of days), which would you prefer? The 100% chance of $3 ($3 on average each day, $84 total), or the 68% chance of $7 ($4.76 on average each day, $133 total)? Yes Tim, as the NFL average of converting 4th&1 is 68%1, the deal I’m offering is pretty much analogous to this situation. This is what checking the analytics means, Tim. What do you think?

Tim Ryan:

I think two missed opportunities to give Cam Newton the ball there on second and third down, and it looks like they’re going to be out there and they’re gonna go for it here on fourth down. I would just take the points and go up by a touchdown.

Chris Myers:

Ron Rivera chooses otherwise, if you were going to do that, maybe leave a little more time in case you stop ’em, but let’s see.

Before the play, the Bucs call timeout. Chris Myers:

So how about this call?

Tim Ryan:

I don’t ever want to chase points, especially in the first half of games, you’ve got an opportunity to kick a field goal, Ron knows way more about it than I do, he’s got obviously great trust in his football team, I would not give an opportunity for Tampa to change the momentum, if they can get a stop here.

The Panthers go for it, and Cam Newton dives over the line for a touchdown.

Eventually Ryan says:

I guess if I had that guy and I was Ron Rivera I’d be going for it too. … I don’t care what your cards say, you’re always holding a royal flush when Cam’s out there.

Way to go Tim! Way to go. Next time, maybe have an intern check the analytics for you, and you won’t have to use poker vernacular to distract your audience that you just used the phrase “chasing points” several times like it actually means something, but really you don’t know what you’re talking about.

At home against the Bears in Week 13, the Vikings get a first down at the Bears 21 with 9:03 left in overtime.

Thom Brennaman:

Well they’re going to continue to run plays here, for the time being anyway, after the penalty the ball all the way down to the 21. …

On first down, Peterson loses three yards, setting up 2nd&13 from the Bear 24.

Thom Brennaman:

Right now it would be a 43 yard field goal attempt, maybe 42 yards, and we mentioned earlier Walsh, has been lights out in his career, short albeit it. But a Pro Bowler as a rookie a season ago, and only two misses all of this year.

Brian Billick:

Can Blair Walsh make it from here? Then center it up and kick the ball. There are too many things that can go wrong.

The “Can Blair Walsh make it from here?” question is, well, disturbing coming from a former Super Bowl winning head coach, who presumably took the same logic in his own decisions. As we saw in Week 14, Matt Prater can hit a 64 yard field goal in Denver. Should the Broncos kick every time they get to their opponents’ 47 yard line? Probably not, right? You’ll notice the Broncos only kicked that field goal because there was no time left in the first half. If there was, they would have kept running plays to get closer. And that’s the thing about field goals: closer is always better. Always. Brian Burke’s research suggests that every yard closer increases field goal percentage by 1.6% (between the 10 and 35 yard lines). But anyway, Peterson gained three yards, setting up 3rd&10 from the 21. The Vikings put out their field goal unit.

Brian Billick:

And this is a good call, why do it on fourth down, do it on third down, than god forbid if there’s a bad snap, something happens, then you can fall on the ball and re- and take another kick, so this is a good move by Minnesota, by doing this on third down.

How likely is a bad snap, or a “something happens”, that lets the Vikings get another shot? (Note: a missed field goal ends the offense’s position, even if it’s not on fourth down.) Burke guesses it’s around 0.5%, or one in every two hundred. That seems fair given that of the last 500 extra point attempts, where the process for snapping and holding is exactly the same, only seven have been missed. If all seven are the result of bad snaps or holds (which they probably aren’t), that’s a bad snap/hold rate of 1.4%. But even if you really go crazy and think it’s 2%, the Vikings can increase their chances of winning by 3.2% just by gaining two yards! Adrian Peterson averaged 6 yards per carry in that game, and is around five yards per carry in his career.

As it turned out, Walsh hit the field goal, but a 15 yard penalty on the Vikings set up 3rd&25 from the Bear 36. The Vikings put their offense back out on the field.

Brian Billick:

They feel like they need to grind out a couple more yards, rather than- rather than give Blair Walsh the shot from here.

Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier decided to make the field goal easier here… only for Peterson to actually lose three yards, and see Walsh miss the ensuing 57 yarder. The Bears got the ball and got to a 2nd&7 from the Vikings 29, and sent their field goal unit out to attempt a 47 yard field goal.

Brian Billick:

You know same mentality, why risk the turnover, you’ve got a great deal of faith in your field goal kicker. You know I had a great one in Baltimore Thom in Matt Stover, and by quarter, Matt would tell me exactly where I needed to be in order to attempt these field goals. … There’s no question it’s within his range. Once you cross that 30 as a I said, you set that mark, once you get past it then that’s when you make your decision as a coach. … This is clearly his range.

Again, being incredibly generous to this thinking, we’re looking at a 2% chance of bumbling the snap/hold process, and a 1.6% improvement of making the kick for every yard the Bears continue to advance down the field. A kicker’s “range” is not static: every bit closer the odds go up, every bit farther away the odds go down. Plus, it was only second down! Even if you want to go on third down in the very unlikely event your field goal unit botches it, at least use second down! Yeah, the Bears could turn the ball over, but have the odds of that changed in the last couple plays? If you’re worried about a turnover why not just punt as soon as you get the ball? Anyway, Gould missed wide right; the Vikings eventually won on the next possession.

In Tennessee down 10-7, the Cardinals kick a field goal on 4th&2 from the Titan 7 with 7:25 left in the second quarter.

FOX color commentator Charles Davis:

I think it’s the right call this early in the game, Arizona plenty more opportunities on offense, and moving and clicking pretty well now, you don’t turn down points here, not anywhere close to a desperation move. Munchak, we saw him, head coach of the Titans, happy with his defense coming up with that third down stop and forcing a field goal attempt.

Blegh. Forget the hyperbole of momentum, turning down points, etc. Going for it gave the Cardinals a 50% chance of winning; kicking the field goal, 48%. Oh yeah, and also the Cardinals ended up with a big lead before a Titans comeback led to an eventual Cardinals’ win in overtime. Arizona could have avoided that by actually putting them away and taking the most points, instead of just taking (some of) the points.

A.J. Hawk breaks up a Tony Romo pass on 1st&10 from the Cowboy 23 with 13:23 to go in the second quarter.

Fox color guy Troy Aikman:

Hawk makes a nice play on that ball, and, and A.J. Hawk, I think he’s one of the more under appreciated guys around the league, and, I think a lot of expectations when he came into the league from Ohio State because where he was drafted, but you know he’s probably been their most consistent player defensively, he shows up every week, he used to be a first and second down guy and now he even stays in nickel situations.

Also be wary when “experts”, including former players like Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, make praising statements for being underrated and showing up. Pro Football Focus has A.J. Hawk as the sixth worst inside linebacker on the season. In my mid-season evaluation of inside linebacker contracts, I found his contract quality to be the third worst in the league. He’s been overrated, not underrated, Troy.

While no means a comprehensive list, that’s sans-49ers announcer material I had for the last three weeks. I’ll probably next return to announcers when their playoff assignments are locked down. In fact, after New Year’s Eve I may even pursue a fan suggestion for “The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Sports Television: NFL Announcers”. Stay tuned.


  1. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David probably make the Bucs an above-average short-yardage defense, but Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams probably make the Panthers an above-average short-yardage offense, so 68% is probably pretty close to the Panthers true 4th&1 success rate against the Bucs. 

It’s Tuesday, Week 11 is in the books, I lost fantasy football 107.22-105.52 (within the margin of a 17 yard Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Matt Prater field goal, or the Seahawks not getting a return touchdown, etc.), and my 49ers lost two games in a row for the second time under Jim Harbaugh, and the second time this season, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But a couple things Harbaugh did are bothering challenging me quite a bit. A couple challenges, as it were.

With two timeouts and 3:33 remaining in the first quarter of a 0-0 game, Harbaugh challenged that Drew Brees had crossed the line of scrimmage before completing an 8 yard pass to Darren Sproles on a 1st&10 from the 49er 25. Many people, including 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco, have pointed out that the challenge was terrible, as replays clearly indicated Drew Brees wasn’t close to crossing the line of scrimmage. After the game, Harbaugh confessed “We didn’t have a video review [on that challenge].” Challenging a ruling that was obviously correct is, uh, obviously bad, and revealing that you challenged it without any evidence to the contrary, um, also obviously bad, but I wondered: why challenge this play in the first place? 2nd&10 is harder than 2nd&2, sure, but worth one of your two (or three) challenges and the risk of losing a time out? This isn’t the Jacksonville Jaguars of Week 8, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints of Week 11. Over the course of the game the Saints averaged 5.8 yards per offensive play. Even if Harbaugh had challenged on firmer ground, and the call was reversed… so what? The Saints were already looking at a 42 yard field goal (in a dome), and there were still a few yards between them and the end zone. To save the touchdown, the defense would need a stop either way, and it could come on a new set of downs. To shut them out, the defense would need to create a turnover. Both of these situations are quite possible whether the Saints have 2nd&10 or 2nd&2, so why risk it?

Surprise! The numbers from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL StatsWin Probability Calculator suggest there is good value in challenging.1 In the Saints’ resulting situation, 2nd&2 from the opponent’s 17 in a 0-0 game with 3:22 left in the first quarter, their probability of ultimately winning was 0.65.2 If Harbaugh had won the challenge, making it 2nd&10 from the 25, the Saints’ win probability would have been 0.61.3 Increasing your chances of winning by 4% isn’t a lot, only actually it kind of is. (You may remember, this game came down to the final play, when the Saints’ Garrett Hartley kicked a game-winning 31 yard field goal.) In an article last month on AdvancedNFLStats.com, Kevin Meers, Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, laid out some neat work he’s done on coaches’ challenges. Using the difference in win probability resulting from winning the challenge minus that resulting from losing the challenge, which he dubs “leverage”, Meers charts all challenges in the 2012 season.

2012 Challenges by Leverage

Neat huh? That first challenge’s leverage was 0.04, and probably worth going after, again forgetting, as Harbaugh did, the replay which guaranteed the original call would stand. But you know, if what Harbaugh thought had happened had actually happened, it would have been an okay move. And that’s actually more than many NFL coaches can say. 15% of all challenges last season had zero leverage– whether they were successful or not had no discernible impact on the outcome of the game. In that article Meers also attempts to value timeouts, gauging them to be worth around 0.03 in win probability. I won’t get into his methodology (though I may try to build on his foundation in the coming weeks), and you can read it for yourself, but just take that 0.03 number for a moment. In terms of the lost timeout, it’s worth challenging when you yield 0.04 in win probability if you win the challenge 42.9% of the time. While I wouldn’t take that 0.03 number as a universal truth, and it’s worth mentioning again that these win probabilities are averages not personally tailored to a team’s own defense or offense, it’s still interesting. Mostly, it’s suggestive of the cool things we can learn once these types of models are further refined and improved.

Harbaugh’s second challenge was a similar story. Down 7-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Harbaugh challenged that Kaepernick’s pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone on 1st and 10 from the Saints’ 11, ruled incomplete, was in fact a touchdown. This was the ole’ Calvin Johnson rule about securing the ball for 547 minutes after you make a catch and go out of bounds, and while stupid, is a rule that coaches and players (and fans) know about. Under the rule, it was clearly an incomplete pass, leaving the 49ers with 2nd and 10. This was a little more troubling than the first failed challenge. Harbaugh said of the decision to challenge the play “I was talking to Eric [Mangini, our challenge consultant up in the booth]”. Cleveland Browns fans surely won’t be surprised by Mangini’s involvement, as he, uh, never really panned out as their head coach. Unfortunately he seems to have brought some similar failings to his new post. But failings aside, how often would the 49ers need to win this challenge for it to be worthwhile? 30% of the time.4 Given the replay (and the fact the game was in New Orleans), I’d say the chances of an overturn were zero, maybe 10% being generous. Nonetheless, that wasn’t Harbaugh’s area. Hearing the false possibility from Mangini, and not knowing the 49ers would score on the next play, this Harbaugh challenge was much more defensible.


  1. Assuming the challenges themselves aren’t completely hopeless. That’s still on Harbaugh. Well, actually the truth may be more complicated. More on that later. 
  2. Also, their probability of gaining a first down was 0.75; a field goal 0.41; and a touchdown also 0.41. 
  3. First down probability 0.52, field goal 0.37, touchdown 0.34. 
  4. The 49ers had a 0.48 probability of winning if they won the challenge, and a 0.41 probability if they lost, for a challenge leverage of 0.07. 
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