Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The End Of The 50-Yard Field Goal

Stephen Gostkowski, the kicker for the New England Patriots, has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. Most of his kickoffs go into the opponent's end zone -- many of them for touchbacks.

But he doesn't have any 50-yard field goals this year. That's because Coach Belichick hasn't asked him to try any. Gostkowski has a 93% success rate on kicks less than 50 yards. But no attempts beyond that distance.

This stat is part of a larger trend in the NFL.

In 1994, the NFL changed the rules for missed field goals, so that the team taking possession got the ball at the point of the kick -- not at the previous line of scrimmage. This is only a 7-yard difference. But it's enough to shift the odds away from the decision to try long field goals.

This rule helped create a "no man's land" near the opponent's 35-yard line. On 4th down, it doesn't make sense to punt from within 40 yards of the end zone -- there's a good chance you'll kick too far and end up with a touchback, and a net gain of only 15-20 yards.

But a field goal attempt doesn't make much sense either. Let's assume the average kicker has a 50% success rate on 52-yard field goal attempt (this is a kick from the opponent's 35-yard line). Half the time, you get 3 points. The other half of the time, the other team gets the ball with good field position -- at their own 42-yard line. Getting the ball at your 42-yard line is worth, on average, about 1.8 points.

So, half the time you get 3 points; but the rest of the time you lose 1.8 points. This means that a field goal attempt from the opponent's 35-yard line is worth less than a point (0.6 to be more exact).

By contrast, having the ball at your opponent's 30-yard line is worth about 4 points. So even if you have less than a 50% chance of getting the 1st down, it frequently makes sense to go for it instead of trying to kick the field goal.

Although kickers continue to get stronger and more accurate, we'll see fewer and fewer long field goals as more coaches continue to realize that 50-yard field goal attempts are bad bets.

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