Give kickers the boot

Benjamin Morris notes that the consistent improvement in NFL placekicker accuracy across the years means we need to update our fourth down strategy cards.

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated.


But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8:

My problem with field goal kicking is that it's boring. It's nothing at all like the rest of football. I dislike any sport which suddenly morphs into something else entirely, something worse, near the end of the contest, when things should be at their most tense and dramatic.

In basketball, a fluid, fast-paced game often ends with one foul after the other, forcing 9 world-class athletes to stand around while one guy shoots free throws. In football, if teams aren't just running the clock out or kneeling down at the end of the game, they're often lining up for a field goal, a specialized craft that has nothing to do with running, throwing, or catching the football. It's as if a tennis match that went to a tiebreak were settled by having the two players go to the sideline, replaced by two random people coming in to settle matters by playing Cornhole. I'd just as soon do away with field goal kicking in football and have teams go for it on fourth down all the time.

This is one advantage for baseball. To finish off the game, you have to get batters out just like you had to for the previous innings in the game.