by Dean Jens
One of the things I often wondered before discovering The Football Project was how the probability of a kicker making a field goal varied as a function of distance. After eyeballing the distributions for a few kickers for the 2005 season, I figured I could try raising a logistic function to some power. For the first several kickers I tried, I found that that power was statistically indistinguishable from 1, so I set about fitting the probabilities to a simple logistic function, i.e. (1/2)(1+tanh((m-x)/w)).†
I had imagined, in the absence of data, that w might be independent of the kicker, and that kickers could be characterized by m, i.e. how far away they are when their percentages drop. This is not the case; w depends on the kicker, with larger values to kickers who tend to miss easy ones and make longer ones, with lower values to more consistent kickers. Olindo Mare missed a few short ones, so his percentages didn't drop off very quickly. Matt Bryant actually had a slight improvement as distances got longer; this would surely change if more statistics were taken at a normal range of distances. On the other hand, John Kasay had a much higher tendency to hit field goals shorter than 50 than if they were longer than 50; of the 8 he missed, the shortest was 42 (he made 24 shorter than that). Jeff Reed had an even sharper drop around 45 yards, missing nothing shorter than 41 and making nothing longer than 47. While I was unable to fairly characterize the best kicker in terms of a drop-off length, I was able to generate a different metric that adjusts for length. By using my logistic fits, I predicted the percentage of field goals a kicker would make if they kicked from a given distance; I then took the 1006 field goal attempts for the season and calculated the percentage of those 1006 field goals that each kicker would have made. I've only included those kickers who attempted more than 4 kicks; the kickers who were dropped were all notably worse than the ones listed.
|kicker||normalized score||percentage||number of kicks|
This obviously does not adjust for wind, and the linemen on both the kicking and defending sides will have some influence on these statistics, but this at least tells which unit is doing better than which other with the confounding variable of distance removed. The average length for a field goal attempt was 36.3 yards; the average for Nick Novak was 33.7, while for Josh Brown it was 41.2. Accordingly the "scores" for these kickers find themselves lower and higher, respectively, than the raw percentage. The scores and the actual percentages have a corelation of 0.8. The means and variances are very similar, though the variance of the raw percentages is a little bit smaller; while the difference isn't statistically significant*, it is what would be expected from coaches deciding to attempt longer field goals with better kickers, and punting or going for the first down with worse kickers. Perhaps looking at all fourth down plays from around the thirty yard line would be a good step for further research.
† This isn't a least-squares fit; I try to maximize the sum of the logarithm of the fitted probability of the actual outcome: for kicks that the kicker makes, P is the fitted probability that the kicker would make the kick, while for those the kicker missed (or were blocked or whatever), it is the fitted probability that the kicker would miss the kick.
* It would be significant at the 25% confidence level on a two-tailed test; arguably a one-tailed test could be used here, but even that isn't going to pass a common significance test. When a team prepares to punt, the punter's statistics are often cited, typically the average length of his punts and the number of times he has left teams behind their own 20 yard line. These seem like kind of strange statistics to me; if I were to take the line of scrimmage and the end position of the ball and plot one against the other, what I would likely expect to see, as a first approximation, would be a 45 degree line† up to a point, and then a horizontal line from there on out. Behind a certain point on the field, a punter would be expected to net a certain length; ahead of that, he would be expected to average a certain level of field position. Grabbing every punt the Packers made that year, I found that the break-point from a least squares fit was very near midfield. Accordingly, it seems to me we ought to characterize the net length of punts from one's own half of the field, and the average final field position for punts from the fifty yard line and beyond.
Taking the data from The Football Project for 2005, I calculated these statistics for each player who punted. Every player who punted more than twice had at least one punt from each half of the field, so the figures for them are well defined. Remember, the "length" is only calculated for those punts from the punter's own end of the field; the "depth", the name of which is probably more poetically than logically motivated, is the average ensuing field position of the receiving team after punts from the fifty and beyond. I use results net of the return, though using results before the return leaves a lot of what follows more or less unchanged. The players are ordered by length-depth/4, due to the fact that about 4/5 of punts originated from the punting team's side of the fifty.
|punter||length||depth||number of punts|
Number one is Brian Moorman, of the Buffalo Bills; second is Donnie Jones. They are the only two punters to average more than 40 net yards from their own end of the field; of punters who punted more than twice, the two who left the ball inside the ten yard line when they punted from midfield or closer were Ben Graham, who had pretty good length as well, and Nick Harris, whose length was more mediocre.
Adding the length and depth for each player with more than two punts, I get a surprisingly narrow distribution. It is centered around 51.4 or 51.5 — 50.5 would be ideal for the use of these statistics — and has a standard deviation of only 3.5 yards. Most punters, then, seem to punt for distance behind their own 49 or so, and for field position beyond there. If I exclude Ryan Flinn, who had six punts (the fewest among those with more than two) for the worst result in both statistics (among those with more than two punts), the correlation between length and depth is 0 to two decimals.* Accordingly, a punter with better length will tend to be affected by the endzone further into his own territory, while a punter who is particularly good at pinning the opposing team against its goal line is more likely to still be punting for length a bit beyond the fifty; there is no unambiguous connection, independent of one's measure of "skill", between a punter's "breakpoint" and the skill of the punter.
It won't come as a great surprise that the length as I measure it and the average length of all punts has a correlation greater than 0.9. It might not be a big surprise either that the percentage of punts to end up inside the twenty has a correlation of -0.4 with "depth", but, interestingly, either length measurement has a correlation of 0.4 with the inside-the-twenty statistic. From a linear regression standpoint, it looks as though the inside-the-twenty statistic is including some length information; 1/3 of the variance can be explained from the two numbers in my table. The median punt to end up inside the 20 starts from 2 yards behind midfield, but 20% come from behind the punter's own 40; some of what is being recorded in that figure is not any deftness in terms of avoiding the touchback or letting one's teammates get downfield, but is simply the ability to kick to the red zone from farther away. This is a nice skill, of course, but it is fully incorporated into the length statistic; the frequency of leaving a punt inside the twenty is a hybrid of skills, and is not the best measure for any of them.
† There is some attempt here to keep the statistics simple. In fact, this line is slightly flatter than 45 degrees because the endpoint is bounded both above and below; punts from behind midfield give a slope of 0.95 that is statistically distinct from 1 at the 5% confidence level.
* This actually is less true without the return; punters who punt the ball farther before the return also tend to punt it closer to the endzone, but not dramatically so. The distribution of punters' depth+length is similar to the results with the return, with several yards simply moved from depth to length.