[Ed. Note: Promoted from the FanPosts.]
During this offseason, my first since starting to watch football, I have been delving more into different aspects of the game. One thing I have become fascinated with is kicking, and kicking statistics. I have rewatched almost the entire Eagles season -- the Vikings game was a little too painful -- and a common mantra became "Alex Henery is terrible at everything." Even when he's surprising me by pulling off plays that I didn't think he was capable of.
But Chip Kelly seems content with Alex Henery, despite the general perception of him among fans. While he did bring in competition in Carey Spear, the consensus seems to be that Spear does not represent a serious level of competition for Henery. This appears to be confirmed by early reports from OTAs. If so, why would Chip Kelly, who strives for excellence in all things, be content with Alex Henery - who does a reasonable impression of being terrible at everything?
I will attempt to breakdown Henery's play this season to quantify his skillset and examine how good or bad he was for the Eagles in 2013. A kicker is responsible for three basic things: field goals, kickoffs, and PATs. I'll look at each.
Alex Henery misses field goals. He missed 5 this season, plus 1 more in the playoff game against the Saints. But where does this put him in the ranks of NFL kickers, and how much does it matter for the team as a whole?
This chart above shows the amount of "point attempts" a team had - field goal attempts plus PAT attempts, regardless of whether they were made or not, vs their FGA to PAT ratio for the past five years. For instance, a hypothetical team that had 100 opportunities to score and kicked 25 field goals and 75 touchdowns would be (100, 33%).
Not only do teams that score more often have a negatively correlated percentage of field goal attempts, but it appears to be more of a hyperbolic regression than a linear one. The average percentage of FGA to PAT over the past five years was 80.53%. It was 78.88% in 2013. The Eagles had the fifth lowest percentage, at 62.22%. The only team to make the playoffs with a percentage of over 100% in 2013 -- that is, attempt more field goals than the number of touchdowns they scored -- was the Colts. The worst team in the league is invariably near the very bottom of this list, with the Houston Texans having a percentage of 134%. The only team lower was the Baltimore Ravens, with 157.6%
What conclusions do I draw from this? The more your team scores, the less important field goals become. The only obvious outlier on this graph is the 2011 49ers, with David Akers. They had a FGA to PAT ratio of 152.9%. Akers was ranked 14th in accuracy, making 84.6% of attempts, 44 of 52 attempts. The 49ers ranked 2nd in the league, with a 13-3 record.
That being said, why would it not be important to have an elite kicker? One theory I have is that it could serve as a type of moral hazard, a dilemma in economics which states that if a party is insured against risk, it will engage in unnecessarily risky behavior. Having an exceptional player at any position can lead to "cheating," relying on that player as a crutch while other aspects of the team suffer. This can work if the player is truly elite, but elite players are rare, even amongst kickers.
I've heard it commonly cited that kicker play is inconsistent from year to year. But how true is this? From 2009-2013, at least 21 kickers, and no more than 26, were over 80% in any given year. But over an entire career, the maximum percentage is 86.5%. A season with no misses has been achieved only twice.
Here are Alex Henery's field goal stats over his NFL career:
These numbers show that his ranking and accuracy percentage have dropped each year. But field goal kicking can be variable. His rookie year completion percentage of 88.9% was good for 5th in 2011, but in 2013 it would have had him tied for 14th with three other kickers. Conversely, 82.1% would have placed him at 20 in 2011. His career percentage is still 86%, which could mean one of two things. One, that he's an exceptional kicker, or two, that he's bound to have even worse seasons in his future.
More worrying is that he's missed one more attempt each year. But should the attempts being made be considered equal? Something I have commonly heard is that Chip Kelly did not trust Henery to make long field goals, therefore limiting his attempts and inflating his percentages.
Here are Alex Henery's field goal attempts broken down by distance, along with the 2013 league averages. This constitutes 998 field goal attempts by 35 different kickers.
|Field Goal Attempts|
|Alex Henery - Career||0.00%||31.40%||31.40%||30.23%||5.81%|
|Alex Henery - 2013||0.00%||28.57%||28.57%||35.71%||7.14%|
|League Avg - 2013||1.20%||24.25%||29.56%||30.66%||14.33%|
As you can see, Henery attempted a larger part of his kicks from 40+ than his career average, and a greater percentage of his kicks from 40-49 yards than the NFL in general.
Here are Henery's accuracy numbers as compared with league wide numbers:
|Field Goal Accuracy|
|AH Acc - 2013||100.00%||87.50%||70.00%||50.00%|
|AH Acc - Career||96.30%||88.89%||84.62%||40.00%|
|League Acc - 2013||100.00%||97.52%||89.83%||83.01%||67.13%|
Of course, the one year percentages for Henery represent a small sample size and could swing wildly with just one additional attempt, and I did not take the time to calculate the spread or accuracy from different distances for years prior to 2012 due to the amount of time involved, but Henery's career numbers are in line with the 2013 averages, except for 50+ kicks. Ideally, I would also like to break the 40-49 and 50+ yard ranges down even farther to see how each additional yard affects accuracy, as most of Henery's misses come from beyond the 45 yard line.
Even less so than other sports, though, football isn't a game of percentages. It's made up of individual plays. Here are the actual field goals that Henery missed, with distance, his record on the day, the result of the game, the score, and the scoring margin.
|Field Goal Misses|
As you can see, only two of these misses came in a game lost by three points or less. Would making that field goal have changed the outcome of the game? Impossible to say. Obviously it's better to make that field goal than miss it, but in the end, sometimes the misses don't matter.
I also notice that three of the misses are in consecutive weeks, weeks 2-4. This article makes me want to consider the role the hold has in field goal accuracy.
Another thing that sticks out - one of the misses was from 60 yards. There have only been 14 field goals from 60+ yards in the history of the NFL. They were kicked by 13 different kickers, and three of them were kicked in Denver. Why attempt it at all? I remember reading, although I can't find it now, a quote from Chip that said he'd seen Henery make the kick in practice. And having looked up footage of the attempt, it wasn't short, but it was wide by a large margin.
But field goals aren't really the real issue, you might say. The problem is that he can't kick touchbacks.
Before examining Henery's relative ability to perform that function, I'd like to consider the idea of a touchback, and whether or not it is the optimal outcome. Clearly, a touchback minimizes risk. On the other hand, it does not minimize field position. Clearly, it would be more ideal if you could manage to pin your opponent inside the 20 yard line.
Even if a touchback is desired on the play, is it the sole result of performance by the kicker? Not entirely. A touchback is a result of two things: the length of the kick, and the decision making process of the kick returner. The better the kick coverage, the more likely the return man is to stay in the end zone.
First of all, how strongly does average kickoff length affect touchback percentage? Below, I have charted kickoffs from 2011, when the kickoff position was moved to the 35 yard line, to 2013 vs. touchback percentage. I've removed kickers with less than five kicks to make the chart more presentable.
Clearly, there is some correlation between kick length and touchback percentage, but it doesn't seem strong. This is partly because of the way that kickoff yardage is recorded. All touchbacks are recorded as 65 yards, whether the kick is caught in the end zone or kicked of the end zone. A kicker that kicked nothing but touchbacks would have an average of 65 yards, but a kicker that allowed returns - of whatever length - might have a higher one.
But looking at the data itself, you have Tim Masthay of the Packers with a 65.8 yard kick average and 47% touchback percentage and Nick Novak of the Chargers with a 65.6 yard average and a 20% touchback average. Clearly, in those cases, a large percentage of determining whether a kick is a touchback falls on the return team.
But just where does Alex Henery fall on the spectrum of kickers? First, here are some league averages since 2011.
Here are Henery's numbers:
|2013 - w/o Vikings||84||5368||63.9||71||37||0||46||1184||0||44.05%||25.7|
I have presented the 2013 numbers both with and without the Vikings game, because that represented a very particular strategy - which I will get into - to more accurately represent his true physical ability. He also had two onside kicks, one of which was in the Vikings game. If you eliminate his other one, his kickoff average becomes 64.5 yards.
I said above that kicking touchbacks eliminates risk. But the kicker is only one aspect of whether a kick becomes a touchback -- so what happens when the risk of a return outweighs the probability that the kickoff coverage team will be able to prevent it?
Something like that Vikings game, I'd imagine.
The first, and only, time I "saw" this game was on a feed that was both low quality and had the tendency to freeze exactly at the point something interesting was happening. So, I will be looking at this purely from a numerical perspective with few impressions from the game itself.
The strategy was clear: kick the ball short to avoid a return attempt by Cordarrelle Patterson. Was this effective? Here are the Eagles' kickoffs from that game:
|Vikings Game Kickoffs|
Without the onside kick, Henery kicked on average 40.4 yards, and allowed 9 yards. This leads to an average kick being caught at the 25 yard line, yielding a 34 yard line starting position. Patterson did not return a single one of these kicks.
But just how bad could he have been, really? Patterson's return average was 32.4 yards, including 105 and 109 kick return touchdowns.
Was this a good kickoff strategy? According to the numbers, the Eagles did only 2 yards worse than average, while eliminating the high end risk completely.
But surely if Henery could consistently kick the ball out of the end zone, this strategy would not have been necessary. But how many kickers are there who do not kick in Denver who could fit that bill? I couldn't find a statistic that would provide that information, but the ones I do have suggest the ability is rare and limited to a handful of kickers. That's a kick of 75+ yards every single time, with 100% certainty.
Alex Henery made all of his PAT attempts this year. This seems like a standard function that all kickers should perform well. But perhaps Chip has something else in mind?
To be honest, I'm not really sure anymore. Alex Henery might not be elite. By some standards, he might not even be good. But the bottom line is, Alex Henery isn't terrible at everything, as much as it makes me happy to think that he is. And we're not likely to do better, not anytime soon.