Don't Overlook Kickers When Handicapping
by Trevor Whenham - 09/11/2008
Like a lot of curious football fans, I tuned into Brett Favre's debut with the Jets last weekend. It was more or less what I expected - decent, but not worth the three months of my life that were consumed by Favre talk. There was one particularly interesting aspect of the game, though. If you watched, or if you have been near a TV since to see the endlessly looping replays, you saw Favre heroically convert a 4th-and-13 into a touchdown. The fact that it was a very low percentage pass that he got very lucky on isn't the point. The point is that he was making the play at all. It wasn't late in the game, and it wasn't a gamble made necessary because the team was far behind and needed to take a shot at the touchdown. The Jets took the strange gamble because they didn't have a healthy kicker. In a strange twist neither their punter nor their kicker was ready to go. It turned out okay for them, but it could easily have gone south. That touchdown was pretty important - the Jets only won by six.
That strange turn of events led me to think about the role of kickers. In the locker rooms and out among the public, kickers are rarely thought of at all. Sure, we all remember Scott Norwood, and we know that one of those crazy little Gramatica brothers hurt himself celebrating, but we can't remember which one it was any more. We only think about kickers when things really go badly. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but this whole thing got me wondering if we as handicappers and bettors give too little consideration to kickers.
The obvious and simple answer is that kickers are very important. In the first week of the NFL season eight games had a spread of three points or less. There are seven in Week 2. In any of those games, then, a field goal could be the difference between winning and losing. Of course, it would be silly to base your handicapping entirely around the kickers on a team. Still, it probably wouldn't hurt any of use to pay a bit more attention to a team's kicking situation than we currently do given how pivotal kicking can be. Here are three quick and easy steps we could take to assess kickers without having to quit our day jobs to do so:
1. Average field goal attempts per game - It would take you only a couple minutes to take a spin through the box scores for a team to see how often they have kicked in each of their last several games. Some teams need to rely on field goals because they can't get in the endzone, while other kickers are used only rarely. The purpose here, then, is simple but valuable - by determining how often teams have to kick we can determine how much effort we need to put into determining whether they are any good at it.
2. Kicker's accuracy in last three games - Kicking is a game of confidence, and that confidence can be fickle. That's why looking at the kicker's accuracy over the whole season isn't particularly helpful. Poor recent results can be hidden if the kicker was strong earlier in the year. By looking at just the last three games the sample size is smaller, and failures are more magnified and apparent. If a team tends to kick a lot and their kicker is suddenly slumping then they either may not score as much as they normally would, or they may change their behavior like the Jets did. Either situation could be helpful for a handicapper.
3. Average field goals made per game - This one doesn't seem much different than the first one at first glance, but there is an important difference. The teams that kicked the most field goals in the games of the first week of this NFL season were 6-3 ATS. That's not an uncommon trend, either. The teams that made more field goals were 7-3 ATS in the last week of last season. Seeing if one team consistently kicks more field goals per game than their opponent could give you a means of making a decision.
So what does this all mean? Frankly, not that much. It certainly doesn't hurt to spend time looking at kickers and their stats, and in a close game it might be what tips you one way or the other. If you have limited time to make your betting decisions, though, then there are a lot of things you probably want to focus on before you look at kickers. Still, it's an important and useful process ever once in a while to remind yourself that this game is about more than throwing passes and running up the middle.