Statistically speaking, most place kickers are indistinguishable in terms of field goal accuracy. Most differences are simply attributable to varying attempt distances and small sample sizes. Over the long run even the kickers considered the best are not significantly different from league average. For the most part, place kickers are interchangeable.
It’s not fair to blame Graham Gano’s two missed long field goals for the heartbreaking loss Sunday. There were a dozens of plays on both sides of the ball that could have been executed better. But it is an opportunity to take a closer look at his career numbers.
If we segment the field into 5-yard increments, Gano is below average in every segment except two. He’s has a purely average 80 percent accuracy in the 38-42 yard line bin and he’s one kick above average in the 43-47 yard bin. But that’s more than outweighed by his accuracy beyond 47 yards. Gano’s accuracy from that range is 42 percent where the league average is 63 percent. Statistical analysis tells us that with only 12 attempts from that distance, there’s an 8 percent chance that he’s actually at least an average kicker but just unlucky — perhaps a victim of sample error, some bad holds, or a couple unfortunate gusts of wind. Considering his franchise record 59-yarder the other week, that’s plausible. Unfortunately, his numbers are consistently below average from 23 to 37 yards out.
Plotting a graph of Gano’s accuracy by distance shows that the best estimate of his true ability is that he’s 10 percent less accurate than league average throughout the spectrum of range. That’s significant, both in statistical terms and in football terms. Teams average 30 field goal attempts per season, and 10 percent would cost a team 9 points, often in critical situations as we saw against the Cowboys.
Field goals aren’t the only job of a place kicker. Gano has been above average so far this season with a 60 percent touchback rate. That’s not as important this season as it had been in recent years because non-touchbacks don’t tend to be returned much further than the 20-yard line. Kickoff distance isn’t the consideration it once was.
Gano is a below average kicker, but there are lot of below-average players on the current squad. Firing the kicker midseason is like rearranging the deck chairs, and it smacks of self-defeating spite because it’s rare that there is a better kicker available in midseason. But place kicker is one part of the team that could certainly use an upgrade in the offseason.
Brian Burke is former Navy pilot who has given up his F/A-18 for the less dangerous hobby of football analysis. He is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a website about football, statistics, and and game theory.