At FiveThirtyEight, sports data analyst Benjamin Morris comprehensively quantifies my obsession with the steady improvement in field goal kicking in the NFL. It’s hard to tell how much better offenses have gotten at executing because, presumably, defenses have gotten better too. Since placekickers, however, are mostly competing against nature rather than the defense, their steady improvement is clear. Lately, they’ve been making about 65% of their attempts from 50+ yards. That’s really far — stand on a the 40 yard line of a high school football field and look at width of the goal posts at the back of the end zone, then reflect that NFL goal posts are narrower.
For all the talk of West Coast offenses, the invention of the pro formation, the wildcat, 5-wide sets, the rise of the pass-catching tight-end, Bill Walsh, the Greatest Show On Turf, and the general recognition that passing, passing and more passing is the best way to score in football, half the improvement in scoring in the past 50-plus years of NFL history has come solely from field-goal kickers kicking more accurately.
One interesting aspect that Morris discovered was that kickers have been getting better at a very steady rate, especially after adjustments for obvious factors such as changing distance of attempts and so forth. Strikingly, the radical change in kicking style from straight-ahead to soccer-style that began in the mid-60s and was over by the 80s doesn’t show up as a distinct event. Instead, it’s just one of the many improvements (e.g., having the punter become the specialist holder for the kicker, placekicking summer camps for youths, etc.) that contribute to steady improvement.
When I showed this chart to a friend of mine who’s a philosophy Ph.D., he said: “It’s like the Hacker Gods got lazy and just set a constant Kicker Improvement parameter throughout the universe.” The great thing about this is that since the improvement in kicking has been almost perfectly linear, we can treat “year” as just another continuous variable, allowing us to generalize the model to any kick in any situation at any point in NFL history. …
So how accurate is this thing? To be honest, in all my years of building models, I’ve never seen anything like it.
This is reminiscent of the concept of the “learning curve” that, according to my MBA classes in the early 1980s, was first noticed for the steadily falling cost of Henry Ford’s Model Ts:
With Model T’s, the crucial factor wasn’t time, but cumulative numbers built. Every doubling cut costs 15%. The second Model T cost 85% as much as the first, the 4th cost 85% as much as the 2nd, and so on over many year. The famous Moore’s Law for Intel computer chips is similar.
(It’s not clear, by the way, if this is still happening for Intel CPU chips. I have a 3 year old Macbook Air laptop, and it seems about 95% as good as the current MacBook Airs, largely due to Intel not really improving their CPUs much lately. Intel has run into similar hitches in the past and gotten around them, although they had more competition from AMD then.)
Neither famous learning curve depended upon any single breakthrough, even the introduction of the moving assembly line at Ford around 1914. Or another way to look at is that big changes like the moving assembly line and soccer style kicking opened up higher levels of productivity that allowed the process of improvement to continue for years longer.
For example, early soccer style kickers in American pro football weren’t obvious improvements over straight-ahead kickers. Indeed, straight-ahead kicking George Blanda was MVP in 1970 (he was also a relief QB) and straight-ahead kicking Mark Moseley was MVP in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Here’s an interesting 1967 Sports Illustrated article in which they took two NFL placekickers to England to compete at field goal kicking against soccer legend Bobby Charlton and a pro rugby player. The straight-ahead kicking rugby player was almost as good as the NFL kickers, while Charlton wasn’t competitive at the very long kicks, probably because he was smaller and was used to kicking under the crossbar, not over.
But Norwegian ski-jumper Jan Stenerud, in a pro football career from 1967-1979, demonstrated that soccer-style was superior and everybody in the NFL has been a soccer style kicker for maybe three decades now.
(Here’s a good history of the evolution of placekicking on Reddit by the grandson of Don Chandler, who kicked in six Super Bowls or NFL championship games, including the famous 1958 overtime game.)
Side note, I’ve also looked at whether kicking improvement has been a result of kickers who are new to the league being better than older kickers, or of older kickers getting better themselves. The answer is both.
A lot of improvements in sports techniques are picked up on quickly by professionals. After all they’ve got the time, money, and motivation to stay on top. For example, in golf, the sand wedge, a specialty club for escaping from sand traps, was invented by top golf pro Gene Sarazen in his home workshop in 1931. He used it to win the U.S. and British Opens in 1932 and it quickly spread to other pros and then to amateurs.
Soccer-style kicking, however, was a radical change in technique in that I don’t believe any straight ahead kicker converted to soccer style during his NFL career. (I could be wrong about this, though.) But soccer-style was apparently too big of a change for somebody who was pretty good already to risk changing to.
Clearly, it’s time for rule changes to make kicking a field goal more of a big deal and missing a field goal less of big deal.