Changes to how NFL scoring plays work do not come around very often. Every 20 years or so seems to be the trend. The goalposts were moved from the goal line to the back of the end zone for the 1974 season. The possibility of the two-point conversion arrived for the 1994 season. The 2014 preseason saw the introduction of the 33-yard extra point, and it was made to apply to all games this offseason.
The NFL made this change for one big reason: NFL kickers of late have been so good the 20-yard extra point was basically automatic. Kickers in the 2014 regular season missed just eight extra points, and that was actually a down year. The NFL’s change seemed to pay immediate dividends, as kickers missed four of the new 33-yard extra points just this past weekend. (See Table 1.)
Table 1: Missed Extra Points, 2011-2015
Year Missed XP XP Pct.
2011 7 99.4%
2012 6 99.5%
2013 5 99.6%
2014 8 99.3%
2015* 4 94.7%
*Week 1 only
There are couple reasons to believe this Week 1 performance was a bit anomalous, and NFL kickers will likely do better on extra points going forward. Here is why:
- Week 1 is typically a below average week for NFL kickers, once you account for conditions. The start of the season typically features disappointing performances on place kicks. <a href=” http://www.footballoutsiders.com/”>Football Outsiders</a>’ metrics adjust for that it is easier to kick in good weather, in domes, and at altitude. With those adjustments, NFL kickers produced 1.8 points fewer than expected in Week 1 of 2013. In 2014, they produced 1.4 points fewer than expected in Week 1. We will learn more about the 2015 kicking environment as the season goes on, but based on historical trends, NFL kickers produced 1.3 points fewer than expected in the first weekend of 2015, right in line with past trends.
In fact, Football Outsiders numbers suggest kickers typically struggle the first couple weeks of the season. The past two years, Weeks 2 and 3 have featured even more missed kicks than Week 1, accounting for conditions. This likely comes from special teams units, which are filled with backups and players who do not make the team in preseason, taking a couple weeks to gel, plus some teams’ kicker situations taking a couple weeks to settle down.
- Kickers were just fine on other short kicks in Week 1. There were 31 field goals from inside 40 yards attempted in Week 1, and the only thing between kickers and perfection on those attempts was the Minnesota Vikings blocking Paul Dawson’s 28-yard attempt in the second Monday night game. That included a perfect 17-for-17 from 30 to 39 yards. Including extra points, kickers were 87 of 91 from that range. With the same pool of kickers attempting kicks from a similar distance, we would expect them to perform just as well on field goals as they do on extra points. Their true skill level on those kicks in Week 1 was therefore around the 95.6% combined rate for field goals and extra points, not the 94.4% rate on extra points only.
- Kickers are better from the new extra-point distance even late in the season. On the whole, field goals become more difficult over the course of the year. There are more cold weather games, more windy games, and more cold rain and snow to make kicking more difficult. It is easy to point to individual games, like the Lions-Eagles clash in 2013 played in a snowstorm or some December games in Buffalo, where strong weather conditions made even 20-yard extra points a chancy proposition. But by and large, bad weather has most of its negative effect on long kicks.
By Football Outsiders numbers, which add those crucial adjustments for dome and altitude, kickers are actually even better late in the season in that 30-39 yard range even before accounting for weather conditions. In Weeks 1-5 of 2013, kickers were -1.6 points worse than average. In Weeks 13-17, they were 2.1 points better than average. 2014 produced the same effect, from -1.4 points in Weeks 1-5 to +1.0 in Weeks 13-17. Adding in weather adjustments only makes the disparity even sharper. Extra points after a penalty, like the 48-yarder Browns kicker Travis Coons made this weekend, will be more risky later in the year, but there will only be a handful of those.
Kickers will probably struggle a bit from the new extra point distance for the next couple weeks. But after that, they should improve. We cannot be sure what the real rate on extra points will be. In making the change, the NFL pointed to a 91.6% rate on field goals of 32-33 yards over the past 10 years and a 94.3% rate on extra points during the 2014 preseason experiment. Those figures, especially the first one, are almost certainly too low. First, NFL kicking has improved a great deal the past 10 years. Second, the preseason kicks included a number of attempts by kickers who will never kick in a regular season game. A better estimate is 97.6%, the rate on kicks from 30-35 yards from the middle of the field the past two seasons <a href=”https://twitter.com/PFF_NateJahnke/status/600796562885890048″>per Pro Football Focus</a>. That rate will mean more misses than in the past, but not as many as Week 1 would indicate.