Kickers and punters are often the subjects of ridicule among football fans.
While 300-pound linemen bash into each other on every play, receivers put themselves at risk of getting hammered by safeties, running backs get pounded by linebackers, and quarterbacks get plowed under by a blitz they didn’t see coming, the kicking specialists are protected by the officials as if they are an endangered species.
In fact, according to the NFL rulebook, kickers and punters are considered “defenseless players at all times.” No wonder they were among the last to rock the one-bar facemasks.
Watching Patriots-Browns 2007.
Scott Player is a LEGEND pic.twitter.com/ci2w0fD9pY
— '03 Kliff Kingsbury (@fearthe_beard11) February 16, 2017
Seriously, though, the guys who strictly kick the ball and never get hit are absolutely critical to a team’s success. Especially field goal kickers, since so many games, get decided by whether or not the least-athletic guy on the team can successfully boot the ball between a set of posts that are 18 feet and 6 inches apart.
Allow me to expand more on why the kicking game is so vital in football and why you should be paying more attention to kickers than you probably are when handicapping both the professional and college gridiron.
Why Are Kickers So Important in Football?
Here are three key things about field goal kickers that go unappreciated or even unnoticed by a lot of football bettors and fans.
1. Kickers Always Lead the NFL in Scoring
Touchdowns are worth the most points of any scoring play in football, and they’re also usually the most glamorous plays in a game.
In the 2017 NFL season, kickers accounted for the top 14 scorers and 21 of the top 22. In fact, Todd Gurley (19 touchdowns), Alvin Kamara (14 TDs, one 2-point convert), and DeAndre Hopkins (13 majors) were the only non-special-teamers to rank in the top 30. The previous year, 27 of the top 30 scorers were also kickers. And in 2015, field goal kickers accounted for the top 26 point-getters in the NFL.
The kicking game isn’t as dominant in college football as it is in the pros, partly because there aren’t that many quality kickers and also partly because there are so many more touchdowns in a lot of lopsided matchups. But kickers still accounted for 7 of the top 12 scorers in NCAA football in 2017, and 27 of the top 40.
2. Kickers Affect How a Coach Calls a Game
Although we’re starting to see more aggressive play-calling from guys like Eagles coach Doug Pederson, Saints sideline general Sean Payton, and Panthers boss “Riverboat Ron” Rivera, football head coaches are a notoriously conservative bunch.
So when they’re on the fringes of field-goal range (inside the opposition’s 40-yard line) and find themselves facing fourth down, a lot of coaches fear the possibility of a missed field goal giving their opponent the ball near midfield. Instead, they pass up the chance at scoring points and are content to simply take a delay-of-game penalty, back up 5 yards, and send out the punter to try to pin the opposition deep.
When you’ve got a trusty field goal kicker with a big leg, however, it opens up a lot more possibilities. Coaches can actually try to score points in this situation, as they are not as worried about the potential of giving the opponent excellent field position if the field goal is missed. It also creates the opportunity for a fake field goal, since the defense is expecting a kick and might even be selling out to block a low-trajectory boot.
The knowledge that you only need to get across the other team’s 40-yard line to have a chance at points can make a coach more aggressive in other situations as well. When points are not as hard to come by, they don’t mind rolling the dice a little bit more often.
3. So Many Games Are Decided by Late Field Goals
As I mentioned in the introduction, a ton of football games come down to the field goal kickers. Approximately 1 of every 7 NFL contests are decided by exactly 3 points (which is why 3 is considered the most “key” number in football handicapping), and that’s not even counting the games in which a late field goal gives the team a lead.
The opposing defense will have to play a lot tighter, knowing that just allowing you to cross their 40-yard line puts them in jeopardy of getting scored on, and that may open up big-play opportunities down the field that can lead to touchdowns instead.
Teams with an advantage in the kicking game can also utilize a different strategy in overtime, especially in college when each team begins a possession at the opponent’s 25-yard line. NCAA teams in this situation still want to score touchdowns, but they don’t need to take as many chances if they know that a legit field goal attempt is probably their worst-case scenario. If their kicker isn’t very good, however, they’ll feel pressure to gain at least one first down to make it an easier field goal opportunity or won’t even want to send out their kicker at all.
In the NFL, scoring a touchdown on the first possession of overtime automatically gives you the win, so teams will play for the major in that situation. But if the first possession results in a punt or turnover, a field goal will win the game, giving teams with elite kickers a significant edge. If you only need to get to the other team’s 30-yard line to feel really good about your chances of winning the game, you can be more conservative on offense and minimize your chances of making mistakes.
How Can Watching the Kickers Help You Win More Bets?
Let’s start with the obvious and easy answer.
Look at the Stats
When you’re betting on a game, especially one with a low point spread that has a strong chance of coming down to a wire, you want to be backing teams whose kickers are reliable and have great range. The disparity between NFL kickers isn’t as big as it used to be (in the 1970s, field goal attempts of 50+ yards had about a 25% success rate, compared to around 65% in the modern era), but you will still see times when one team has a huge advantage over another in the kicking game.
Not convinced that field goal percentage matters? Consider that all 12 NFL teams who missed 20% or more of their attempts in 2017 ended up missing the playoffs, including the 9-7 Seahawks (3 losses by 3 points or less) and Chargers (4 losses by 3 points or less). Meanwhile, 4 of the top 5 teams in the NFL in field goal percentage made the playoffs, led by the 11-5 Panthers (4 wins by 3 points or less) and 13-3 Steelers (5 wins by 3 points or less).
You’ll find much greater disparities in field goal kickers in college. Nearly half (84) of the 200 kickers who made enough attempts to qualify for the field goal percentage title in 2017 missed at least 30% of their kicks.
Look at the Actual Kickers Themselves
When it comes to attempting a game-deciding kick, the stats don’t always tell the story. Sometimes you just need to look at the eyes of the kicker to get a sense of how likely he is to make his next attempt or at least try to imagine his mindset.
They say football is a team game, but being a kicker can be a pretty lonely and isolated feeling. Everyone leaves the kicker alone on the sidelines, not wanting to interrupt their focus, and all eyes are on the kicker when he goes out onto the field to attempt his kick. Make or miss, there’s no place to hide.
Just look at how missing a big field goal in the Super Bowl messed up Ray Finkle.
Seriously, though, all that pressure can make even the best kickers unravel. Before going on to enjoy a short career in the Arena Football League, Boise State’s Kyle Brotzman melted under the pressure of not one but two short field goal attempts to keep the Broncos’ perfect season alive in 2010.
Blair Walsh made more than 87% of his field goal attempts for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 but somehow shanked a 27-yard boot late in regulation to cost Minnesota a win over Seattle in an NFC wild-card game.
And if you’re a long-time NFL follower like me, you might even remember how Vikings veteran Gary Anderson (who hadn’t missed a field goal attempt in 2 years) was wide left on a kick that would have clinched a Minnesota win in the 1998 NFC Championship Game and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Take Advantage in Live Betting
Before a football game kicks off, it’s virtually impossible to know that the game will end up being decided by a kick in the dying seconds. You might think it’s a possibility, but basing a pre-game bet entirely on the strength of each team’s kickers isn’t exactly the best football handicapping strategy.
However, live betting will give you some great opportunities to cash in on the kicking game. If it’s a tie game late in the fourth quarter and you know that one team has a much more reliable kicker than the other, you might be able to take advantage on the live odds. And if a team marches out a kicker for an attempt at a game-winning field goal, you can catch some nice plus-money odds if you can accurately predict that kicker will miss and bet against his team.
Watch the kickers on the sidelines as much as you can. Analyze their demeanors. Try to get inside their heads to estimate how they’re feeling. Look back at their history of success or failure in clutch situations.
For example, I’d never bet against Adam Vinatieri when he goes out on the field for a clutch field goal or extra point, no matter how far away the kick is or what the field conditions are.
But sign me up for any chance to live bet against Nick Folk making a big kick (or anyone wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey, for that matter).
— BucsZone (@TheBucsZone) October 9, 2017
With so many other important stats to focus on, like yards per play, rankings against the pass and run, turnover ratio, and red-zone percentage, it may sound silly to spend any of your handicapping time looking at the kicking game.
But even though they only see the field on a handful of snaps and don’t need to take a shower after the game, kickers have a huge impact on wins, losses, and point spread covers in the NFL and in college.
By paying attention to the field goal kickers (including during the games, in order to cash in on live betting), you might be able to find an edge that hasn’t quite been factored into the betting lines by the oddsmakers.