Week 4 Proved It: The NFL Has a Kicker Problem

Josh Scobee is just one of a legion of kickers struggling in 2015. What's going on with the NFL's legs?

Everyone loves to push off blame and find scapegoats for their problems, and teams in the National Football League are no different. When the players have a bad day, they can blame the play calling or the coaching staff. When the coaches have a bad day, they can blame the weather or the players’ effort. When the team has a bad day, the fans and reporters blame everyone.

But who, then, do the kickers get to blame? No one but themselves, apparently.

The NFL is in a crisis, but it’s not the quarterback crisis that everyone thinks we’re in, nor the offensive line crisis that’s recently become vogue to discuss. We’re in a shortage for decent kickers. Just this offseason, two teams actually parted with real, valuable draft picks or players in order to get a new kicker. Both of those kickers, Josh Scobee and Kyle Brindza, have been cut.

The NFL has a kicker crisis. What can they do about it?

Kicking and Screaming

It’s no secret that kicking in the NFL is in a slump for the decades. Current struggles aside, just last year, the NFL Competition Committee heard more than one proposal that suggested abolishing the extra point altogether. They also discussed narrowing the goal posts, putting the power-leg kickers of current day at a disadvantage to shorter-range sharpshooters.

What the NFL decided to do for the 2015 season instead was to move the extra point kick from its original 2-yard line position to the 15-yard line. Now, this might not seem like a huge change in the rulebook, but it’s made a massive change in the action on the field.

The table below shows the effect the extra point change has had on kicking this year, compared to recent years in the NFL. It displays the league’s total extra point attempts (XPA), makes (XPM), misses, and the percentage (XP%). Since we are just through four weeks of 2015 action, we have projected out the data to figure out the pace the league is on this year.

How has kicking changed here?

Year XPA XPM Missed XP%
2010 1,214 1,203 8 99.1%
2011 1,207 1,200 2 99.4%
2012 1,235 1,229 2 99.5%
2013 1,267 1,262 1 99.6%
2014 1,230 1,222 2 99.4%
2015* 1,216 1,147 52 94.3%

This was the automatic nature of the extra point that the NFL was trying to address when it made the rule change. For the previous five years, the average success rate of an extra point attempt was 99.4%. Then, the kick was moved back 13 yards, and there was a drop in conversion by five percentage points. This doesn’t seem like a ton, but NFL teams are on pace to lose a combined 52 free points this year just to misses. This doesn’t even factor in blocked kicks, which are also at an all-time high.

In addition, two-point conversions are also pacing at an all-time high for attempts, makes, and conversion rate. It appears that teams are figuring out that the risk of attempting the two-point play is worth it, now that the risk of the extra point has raised.

It appears that the kicker in today’s NFL is somehow becoming both a less-valuable and scarcer commodity, but is this deserved? Should we be dinging the bootsmen for their crimes?

Kickstart My Heart

We’ve determined that the extra point is becoming more risky, but what about the field goal, which is the bread-and-butter of the kicker’s value in the NFL? This is where we have to comb through the data and find out the truth behind the shortcomings of the least-appreciated pigskin position. We can do this by assessing the production each has put up through our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

With kickers, we look at a very specific kind of NEP: Field Goal NEP, which assesses the expected points added or detracted due to a kicker’s performance on field goals.

The table below shows a comparison of an average NFL kicker by per-play Field Goal NEP, comparing 2015 to the last five years. Has kicking diminished that much this soon?

Year Field Goal NEP/P
2010 0.44
2011 0.54
2012 0.59
2013 0.69
2014 0.60
2015 0.25

It’s clear that the per-play value of a kicker has nosedived recently, but there’s not a lot of clarity about why this is the case. It’s possible that the added pressure of nailing long kicks is putting extra mental strain on kickers, but this isn’t quantifiable. Nor is the idea that the offseason trades of Scobee and Brindza, or the roster yo-yo that Connor Barth has endured has shaken the kicking community as a whole. Even the serious injuries that Randy Bullock, Cody Parkey, Shaun Suisham, and Barth have suffered in recent years cannot necessarily be credited for a league-wide decline in kicking value.

What’s quantifiably clear is that the NFL is becoming a kicker wasteland. In 2015, two of the top-10 kickers from last year -- Suisham and Parkey -- went down with season-ending injuries. The loss of these two prolific boots certainly drags the top-end value of the league down. Through Week 3, the top-10 kickers of 2015 were averaging a 1.04 per-play Field Goal NEP; the top-10 of 2014 averaged 1.17 through three weeks.

In addition, the bottom end of the kicking pool has also gotten worse. Of the 36 kickers who attempted a kick last year, 12 were not retained by their team going into 2015 due to poor performance. Of the 32 kickers who began the 2015 season with their teams, six are rookies -- four of whom rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of Field Goal NEP.

New rules can’t be helping anyone keep things straight, but kicker turnover is the likely cause of a lot of turmoil for team’s stat sheets. If the new blood at this position doesn’t shape up soon, they’ll be the reason the NFL’s oldest position finally goes extinct.