Does Pressure Matter for NFL Kickers?

This project had me explore large amounts of data to find an interesting point. I had to be able to easily explain and show the data after coming with a main point.

WEB SUM: In fourth quarter or overtime with the chance to tie or take the lead (Clutch) what happens to NFL kickers?

By: Matthew Cunha

As seen on:

NFL fans often see field goal kickers as “soft” and lacking the bulldog mentality of the players in the trenches. Fans complain that kickers too often miss crucial kicks. Is there truth to that? Does “soft” equal “not clutch”? Is there any context to NFL fans poking fun at kickers?

For this story, we define “clutch” as any kick in the fourth quarter or overtime when a field goal can tie the game or put a losing team in front. The data shows that the answer  is hard to find.

Around 77 percent of clutch kicks between 1994 and week 12 of the 2018 NFL season have found the uprights. Around 81 percent of all field goals (regular season or playoffs) have been successful. The four percent difference on over 24 thousand field goal attempts raises several questions. Over time, the clutch percentage had a few years where it was higher than the overall percentage. The largest differences between the two all favored total kicks. 1995 saw around a 12 percent difference between regular field goal percentage and clutch field goal percentage. Why?

Chart 1 click to interact – data source: Pro Football Reference

FiveThirtyEight writer Benjamin Morris did a great job lamenting the upward trend of field goal and extra point percentages since 1961. Morris points out the improvement of not just the overall field goal percentage, but the increases at kicks from farther away.

From FiveThirtyEight

Kickers are more accurate. And can kick from farther, but does improved kicking performance ultimately lead to more success in the biggest situations?

Only 2004, 2009, 2013 and 2017 see clutch field goals outweigh regular field goals by a noticeable difference. The biggest was in 2009, where clutch kicks were made 0.09 percent more than regular kicks. In addition to 1995’s 12 percent difference, 2012, 2014 and 2015 all saw around eight percent fewer field goals made in clutch situations.

Chart 2 click to interact – data source: Pro Football Reference

The peak and valleys of the clutch field percentage compared to regular field goal percentage are to be expected in a smaller data sample. When the clutch percentage was smaller, it was drastically smaller. When bigger it was by a very small margin.

When a kicker faces a field goal attempt with a lead of between 3 to 6 points in the fourth quarter or overtime (Lead) in less clutch situations, there is a drastically different result.

Chart 3 click to interact – data source: Pro Football Reference

The same peak and valleys exist, but a majority on the other side. In 1996 all the lead attempts were converted compared to 80 percent of regular attempts. In 2012, 97 percent of the lead attempts went through the uprights compared to 64 percent of all the kicks. The green line falls on the other side of the blue line 16 of the 23 years. Four years saw a drastic difference below the blue line, while two years saw a minor difference.

Around 84 percent, three percent more than the average of all field goals, of lead attempts from 1994 to 2018 have been successful.

Do individual kickers have the same peaks and valleys? Not all of them do

Chart 4 click to interact – data source: Pro Football Reference

Two of three long-tenured kickers in the NFL have total, clutch and lead percentages that are close to the same. Just like in the clutch data over time there is a significant outlier.

Current Seattle Seahawks kicker and former Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski has a clutch percentage around 10 percent less than his overall percentage and around 11 percent less than all of his attempts with a 3-to 6-point lead.

Janikowski is known for his long attempts. Of his 46 clutch attempts, four of them were beyond 57 yards. Renowned clutch kicker and current Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri saw slight differences between clutch situations and his regular field goal attempts. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant also saw a slight difference, yielding around a two percent higher clutch percentage.

The Janikowski example raises questions of distance. Are clutch kicks missed more because they are being attempted from a long distance? In do or die situations, NFL coaches undoubtedly attempt long kicks rather than attempt a Hail Mary into the end zone.

Just over one percent of the kicks in all field goal situations are 55-60 yards or from the 38-43 yard line (NFL kicks add in general 17 yards from the line of scrimmage – goal post is 10 yards into the end zone and in general kicker kicks from 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage). More than 2.5 percent of all kicks were in clutch situations. 55 yard or more attempts accounted for over 1.2 percent of all attempts and 3.2 percent of clutch kicks. In clutch situations, there are more long attempts.

Chart 5 REDO Click to interact – date source: Pro Football Reference

However, longer attempts are also being missed more in clutch situations. From 55-60 yards clutch kicks are being made almost nine percent less. From 55 yards or more clutch kicks are being made over seven percent less. Closer attempts from 40-45 yards account for about 17 percent of all and clutch situation kicks. Clutch kicks from 40-45 yards are only being missed one percent less. The longer the kick, the more the pressure build on kickers.

This season (through week 11), the clutch situation factor is rearing its ugly head on par with the 12 percent difference of 1995.

click to interact – data source: Pro Football Reference

73 percent of clutch kicks have been successful compared to 85 percent of all field goals. The 85 percent clip is four percent above the average. The 73 percent successful attempts is four percent lower than the clutch average of 77 percent.

At the simplest form of statistics and analysis clutch kicks are missed more than other kicks.  Above 81 percent of total field goals were converted from 1994 through week 12 of the 2018 NFL season. Above 84 percent of kicks in the fourth quarter or overtime with a three to six-point lead were successful. Just under 82 percent of field goals in all quarters with a three to 3-6-point lead cracked the uprights. Above 81 percent of kicks in the first thru third quarters were good. Even under 82 percent of all kicks in the fourth quarter or OT were converted.

But in clutch situations, the number drops to just above 77 percent.

Are NFL fans right in calling kickers “soft” even as kickers rates improve and they kick from longer distances? That is up to you, but when the pressure is on, the game is close, and the clock nears zeros, NFL kickers conversion rates are worse. But is that enough to call them soft, that is up to you.

Science is improving, but it cannot cure a bad head.

That you cannot argue.


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