Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

23 Aug 2006

FO on BSMW: The Case For -- And Against -- Adam Vinatieri

How good is Adam Vinatieri, and did the Patriots make a mistake letting him go? Bill Barnwell investigates in a two-part article on Boston Sports Media Watch's Patriots Game Day page. FO readers won't be surprised to learn that kickers are inherently inconsistent, but it's still surprising to see just how small the correlation is between kicker salary and kicker performance. Link goes to Part II; click the link at the beginning of that article to read Part I as well.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 23 Aug 2006

48 comments, Last at 25 Aug 2006, 2:30pm by CA

Comments

1
by kma10a (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 2:44pm

Oh Boy, here we go again....

2
by JMR (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 3:45pm

Interesting analysis. For the purposes of comparison, does anyone know what the correlation between salary and DPAR is for other positions? Is an R of .147 unremarkable compared to other positions, or is it a uniquely poor correlation?

3
by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 4:17pm

How meaningful is the corr coefficient for wins and salary? Hypothetically, if team A had 8 wins and paid their kicker $1,000,000 and team B had 10 wins and paid their kicker $1,050,000 I would say that's a small difference in salary and a big difference in wins. I fear that corr coefficient would say the opposite (diff in wins only 2, diff in salary $50,000). Don't we need to take the log of the salary or something to make this meaningful? (Basically, my concern is that wins is a variable that doesn't have a whole lot of variation. The correlation of anything with a variable that doesn't vary much is always going to be low)

4
by Ferg (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 4:28pm

3: It's been a while since I took statistics, and I didn't, technically, attend the class. But I think the correlation coefficient is calculated in terms of standard deviations. In other words, first you calculate what a "big" or "small" difference in salary is, then what a "big" or "small" difference in wins is, then you find the relation relative to those amounts.

Not 100% sure though.

5
by karl (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 4:37pm

I would have preferred that he take the tack of analyzing actual kicker performance, relative to replacement level. Also, it'd be nice if we could get a comparison between Vanderjagt and Vinatieri in relation to kickers in general (how osciallatory was each kicker's annual stats, etc.) because I keep having this nagging feeling that Vanderjagt's uncluchness was overrated, and Vinatieri's clutchness was overrated - basically, I'm not convinced that Vinatieri was better than Vanderjagt despite what the Boston/New York media wants to force down my throat.

Free Bryant Gumbel!!

5
by karl (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 4:37pm

I would have preferred that he take the tack of analyzing actual kicker performance, relative to replacement level. Also, it'd be nice if we could get a comparison between Vanderjagt and Vinatieri in relation to kickers in general (how osciallatory was each kicker's annual stats, etc.) because I keep having this nagging feeling that Vanderjagt's uncluchness was overrated, and Vinatieri's clutchness was overrated - basically, I'm not convinced that Vinatieri was better than Vanderjagt despite what the Boston/New York media wants to force down my throat.

Free Bryant Gumbel!!

7
by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 4:43pm

There is a good article on clutch kicking in the 2006 Prospectus.

8
by B (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 5:05pm

For the Colts, I think getting rid of Vanderjet was worth the increase in salary, even if they replaced him with a leage-average kicker. For the patriots, saving money by going with a cheaper kicker is only worht it if they spend the cap money on something useful, like a Branch extension, or a linebacker who's under the age of 30.

9
by Ferg's Statistics Professor (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 5:28pm

RE: #4, I am appalled!

10
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 5:36pm

My belief about kickers is that it's best to have one who's average or better than average. Joe Nedney is the poster boy. He's consistently really good, but he doesn't command any hype.

But far worse than having one who's too expensive, like Vinatieri, is having a terrible kicker. If Gostkowski is a bust, then the Patriots are in really bad shape. In any given year there are three or four teams with absolutely awful kicking games, and I think it's most important to try not to be one of those teams.

I think it's important to bring up the fact that Vanderjagt can't kick off. I think Vinatieri was worth it for that reason, but I think getting Longwell would have been just as effective, if not more so.

11
by RCH (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 5:45pm

I haven't done the research, but I did see every Pats game for the last several years and I'd be surprised if Vinatieri is better than average at kickoffs, and maybe worse. (Though he may be better than Vanderjagt.)

12
by PatsFan (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 6:15pm

Pats released Grammatica today. So they'll live or die with Gostkowski.

13
by CA (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 6:31pm

Re: 10

But far worse than having one who’s too expensive, like Vinatieri, is having a terrible kicker.

According to part I of Bill's article, in 2003 Vinatieri was a terrible kicker. Part of the point of the article is that kicking performance varies so wildly from year to year that you don't know what you're getting when you sign a kicker.

14
by GlennW (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 6:39pm

> But far worse than having one who’s too expensive, like Vinatieri, is having a terrible kicker.

This is the key to me-- that bad kicker who will cost you games outright, no maybes about it. In Pittsburgh, his name was Kris Brown. Yeah, the stadium and the weather likely had something to do with that, but that's all the more reason to stick with proven reliability in those conditions.

The other thing I don't quite understand is the cost aspect. From average salary to "too expensive", we're talking maybe $1m/year. Yes, I know there can be use for even an extra million, but we don't seem to hold this same debate over the justifiable cost range for platoon defensive linemen. Maybe we should though. Overall though these aren't high-risk, cap-busting decisions.

15
by James C (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 7:32pm

Ferg, let yourself off. As long as I visit this website you will never be the most statistically inept person commenting. I once got 8 out of 70 on a stats exam. I only knew one method to answer the questions and there were about six questions all needing different methods to answer them. I just used the only one I knew for all of them. Not a good idea.

16
by Larry (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 8:58pm

Re: 3

Correlation Coefficient is completely relative. Not in the way Ferg described it, but the fact there's a big difference in scale between salary and wins does not confuse the correlation coefficient. You could divide all the salary numbers by 1,000,000 if it makes you feel better. You'll get the same answer, though.

And what about salary v. Kickoff performance?

17
by Subrata Sircar (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 9:24pm

Re: 16

That last sentence is what I want to know. If field position is the hidden game within a game, and kickoff performance is part of that, then why isn't this article looking at salary-kickoff correlations?

In particular, how much (if any) would Vinateri likely have improved the Colts field position last year, versus their actual kickers? (This presumes that the numbers exist to rate Vinateri's hang time and kickoff distance versus other kickers in similar stadiums at similar times, and that the adjustment to the dome can be applied.) How many points is that worth? Can it justify his increased salary on that basis (not to mention the savings for a roster spot)?

18
by Bill Barnwell :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 10:43pm

I didn't analyze salary vs kickoff performance because, realistically, the Colts weren't signing Vinatieri for his kickoff performance, and the second part of my piece was analyzing whether paying a kicker a lot of money, like the Colts did, was an effective move. If there's a huge clamor for that I can certainly run those numbers and put it in a Scramble or something.

19
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 10:53pm

The Colts didn't sign Vinatieri for his kickoff performance, but they did get rid of Vanderjagt for his kickoff performance.

20
by Purds (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 11:10pm

Colts fan here. Not sure how much AV will help (other than to have fun needling Pats fans), but Vanderjagt really has failed once too often in the big spot:

2001 Playoffs versus Miami in overtime:

On the game-winning drive, which came after the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt was wide right on a 49-yard field goal attempt...

Opening day at NE 2004 (big because it determined home field for playoffs):

Mike Vanderjagt attempted a potential game-tying field goal from 48 yards. It went wide right, the first miss by Vanderjagt after 42 successes.

2005 Playoffs:

Two passes got the ball to the Pittsburgh 27, and Mike Vanderjagt lined up for a 46-yard field goal to send it to overtime.
Wide right.

Vanderjagt slammed his helmet to the turf, obviously forgetting how fortunate he was to have had the chance.

And, if any Colt has thrown a teammate under the bus in the last decade, it's Vanderjagt in comments about Manning.

I am glad to be done with him. He made all those FG's, but name one he made when the Colts really needed brilliance from him.

I don't believe much in the clutch/choke idea -- I don't believe a player is always clutch or choke prone, but Vanderjagt didn't ever seem to be clutch.

— Purds

21
by Ruben (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 11:17pm

Free Bryant Gumbel!!

Seems like a fair price...

(sorry, couldn't resist)

22
by GlennW (not verified) :: Wed, 08/23/2006 - 11:39pm

FWIW, according to FO/PFP, Vinatieri has been better and more consistent overall the past three seasons at weather-adjusted kickoff performance than FG kicking, ranking 31-1-19 in FG, and 11-9-7 in kickoffs from 2003-05. So if anything, it would appear that AV's kickoff performance is a bonus.

23
by Kuato (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 12:15am

Purds,

Also a Colts fan, and I do agree with you 100%. His big misses are really more memorable than his big hits.

Your comment just made me think of that sweet game against Denver in the middle of a blizzard where he nailed 2 FG over 50. Those kicks helped the Colts get into the post season so they could get Waxed 41-0 by the Jets.

Have a nice Day.

24
by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:19am

Those kicks helped the Colts get into the post season so they could get Waxed 41-0 by the Jets.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching that game. It was also the game where I determined that Tony Dungy would never win a Super Bowl. I've never seen such a complete lack of emotion from a coach whose team is getting its ass kicked up and down the field.

Not saying he needs to go psycho or anything, but a little emotion might have been in order. Some sign, however small, that showed that he cared that his team was getting embarassed.

25
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:37am

I think you are incorrect. As I understand it, a big part of the Vinateri signing WAS his kickoff performance. He had more touchbacks last year than the Colts have had in the last 3 years or 5 years or something like that. And that's with a kickoff specialist. Only carrying 1 place kicker allows them to carry 3 QBs, which they felt would be a really good idea after some catastrophes elsewhere last year.

26
by Bill Barnwell :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 1:28pm

I can assure you all that me being wrong is entirely possible.

This might be a case of me just watching national/Patriots media covering the signing as opposed to actually seeing/reading Indianapolis media.

27
by GlennW (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 1:51pm

Bill, I think that you are essentially correct, and that kickoff performance was only a small bonus factor for the Colts. They're concerned with improving kickoff performance but certainly not as a primary factor at that price.

28
by CA (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 2:47pm

I'll chalk up the Colts' signing of Vinatieri as chiefly a PR move. They get to scapegoat Vanderjagt and pretend that they're doing something about their "clutch kicking problem," simultaneously deflecting criticism for letting James go. I can't imagine that the Colts brass is dumb enough to believe that Vinatieri's magic foot is going to carry them to last-second playoff victory after last-second playoff victory. They are smart enough to realize that signing Vinatieri results in glowing media coverage and optimism among the many unfortunate souls who believe in clutch kicking.

29
by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 2:49pm

I've been on the record as thinking Vanderjagt is crap, but it's worth mentioning that the whole "clutch/not clutch" argument is a load of hookum. If I recall, there was some research regarding "clutch" kicks in PFP2006 to a similar effect, showing that not only is it hard to define, Vinatieri had a ridiculously high number of opportunities and not a particularly good success rate.

Good players that play well in whatever bizzare situation commentators describe as "clutch" will get the designation. Bad players who play poorly in the same situation (especially if they have an ill-deserved reputation for quality play) are given the opposite.

That's mostly what bothers me about Purds's comment. For one, it's a good example of terrible "what have you done for me (extremely) recently" analysis. Would his have been in a position to even attempt those kicks were he not at least somewhat reliable during the season? It's like blaming the kicker for a close loss after a missed 45-yarder; if the team had played better, the attempt would have been easier, if not unneccissary.

If we follow that mentality, we will always be disappointed, because whenever a player we rely on has a bad game in an important contest, it will be a tragedy of non-clutchness. Look at, say, Neil O'Donnel. Played like crap in the superbowl. Was he not clutch enough to come through in the big game? No, he was an essentially average QB who was outplaying his talent in the regular season, and had the bad game he was so very probably going to have, albeit at an inconvenient time. Vanderjagt is a better kicker than O'Donnel was a quarterback, but he's not that great. Call him that, but dear god, stop dressing the rest of his performance up and blaming every pitfall in Indianapolis's path on the freaking kicker.

30
by GlennW (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 6:16pm

As opposed to something like baseball's late-inning pressure situations (where "clutch" performance is still hard to quantify), there are just far too few opportunities to identify clutch FG-kicking ability by any accepted statistical methods. That still doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Unless the kicker is bad overall (which neither Vinatieri or Vanderjagt is), I'll still give credit and the presumptive preference to the kicker who *was* demonstrably clutch (well above-average in his limited opportunities) even if there's no proven statistical significance to it.
My kicker is Jeff Reed. Sure, he's by all appearances and performance metrics just an average kicker. But in the past two years the guy is 5-for-5 on end-of-game, game-winning FGs. Until I see otherwise, I ain't messing with that by replacing him with Joe Nedney or Olindo Mare or whatever warm-weather kicker topped the FO performance charts last year (no offense). When you get down to it, there's precious little data on FG kickers, period. Maybe as opposed to other positions there is more reason to go with more subjective observational scouting.

31
by Bill Barnwell :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 7:13pm

Glenn, FO performance charts do account for weather.

32
by GlennW (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:17pm

> Glenn, FO performance charts do account for weather.

Yeah, I know. I just meant that those guys are good-weather kickers (who performed better than average even given the favorable conditions) but that I still wouldn't want to take a chance on them in a change of scenery to a bad weather venue, as opposed to the proven performer under the bad-weather conditions. Not a bold earth-shattering statement, I know.

33
by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:21pm

but that I still wouldn’t want to take a chance on them in a change of scenery to a bad weather venue

Um. Good weather kickers do kick in bad weather. When they go on the road.

34
by Bill Barnwell :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:40pm

Glenn,

Fair enough. I think there's an interesting study waiting to be done on kickers moving to different locations and how it affects them.

That being said - the majority of my work for the book was kicker comments and after writing 3000 words on kickers for this piece...I've had enough of the kicking game.

35
by GlennW (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:43pm

> Um. Good weather kickers do kick in bad weather. When they go on the road.

Um, maybe a couple bad-weather games per season, maybe not, depending on schedule. I'm not automatically transferring some assumed performance to Heinz Field (for example Todd Peterson was also terrible there but since seems to have been strong overall elsewhere). In any case, there appears to be violent agreement that these FG stats are often up one year, down the next, and that's over 16 games, much less 2 or 3 in bad-weather sites. All other factors equal, I'd prefer to stick with the guy who I've seen kick reliably until he's shown he no longer can.

36
by GlennW (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:49pm

Thanks Bill. It's good work on your part-- and I tend to agree with your conclusion that Vinatieri isn't THAT important to the Colts and moreso it is the Patriots who are venturing into the unknown (and that's somewhat consistent with my opinion on the value of a proven performer in bad weather conditions).

37
by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 08/24/2006 - 11:55pm

You could divide all the salary numbers by 1,000,000 if it makes you feel better. You’ll get the same answer, though.

That's not actually his point (1.05 is still a small deviation from 1.00) - what you want to say is you could compute salaries by normalized deviations from the mean salary, and you'd get the same answer.

What will flatten a correlation, though, is measurement error, and I'd say that all NFL salaries are probably plus or minus at least 50% in terms of actual value versus the value reported on the USA Today site, and if I had to guess, that's probably what's killing it.

That is, when it reports a value for David Akers's salary as $3.374M for 2005, that's a load of crap, unless Akers is supposed to drop in performance by about 1/2 this year (his real money paid out in 2006 will be $1.8M).

Bill:

Why didn't you use cap value, which is in the USA Today database as well, rather than salary? Cap value is actually what you're talking about - that the money has to go elsewhere.

Might even want a three-year average of the cap value just to smooth it out even more.

38
by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 12:08am

Wait a second, though: Bill, did you correct for salary inflation of the league? i.e., a $1.1M kicker in 2005 is middle of the road, a $1.1M kicker in 2000 is top in the league?

Can't tell from the article.

39
by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 2:08am

Pat - I did not. And the average salaries are actually pretty dramatically different:

00 -$658,554
01 -$850,248
02 -$868,750
03 -$972,218
04 -$1,152,203
05 -$1,304,345

I may need to revisit this at some point.

40
by sippican (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 9:06am

Fun read. Any discussion of this type goes right to: Team X is cheap and didn't want to pay player z.

There is a salary cap. Any team that comes close to spending to the cap is exempt from such criticism. Doesn't stop the "give Ty Law 10 mil" people but, hey, whaddya gonna do? There are over 50 men on a squad, aren't there? They all seem to play here and there. Who'd you rob the money from to pay Vinatieri?

Adam Vinatieri made $2.5mil last year. He was the 5th most expensive player on the team. He wanted a big raise. Indy gave him one.

Gostkowki makes $381k total to the cap.

Now, far be it from me to take issue that those lovely people in Indianapolis aren't cheap like the Pats and spend that dough on kickers. Also, I won't point out that Indy's first string running back is gone over money, their second string running back is crippled for the year, and they've got a rookie starting at a position so central to the scheme there the last guy was called one of three "triplets."

The folowing patriots players make less than the difference between gostkowski and vinatieri:

bruschi
warren
wilfork
koppen
graham
neal
watson
mankins
wilson...

I could go on. Those guys are all starters, more or less.

Oh yeah. Corey Dillon or Kevin Faulk or Lawrence Maroney, too.

And throw in the punter.

But you got a kicker. Pray that's all you need.

41
by GlennW (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 11:08am

> The folowing patriots players make less than the difference between gostkowski and vinatieri:

For now, that's the absolute best-case scenario of course (salary-wise only, I mean; we'll see what happens on the field). If the average kicker's salary is now approaching $1.5m, then the difference to the highest-paid kicker in football (Vinatieri) is about $1m. It's still a position with a relatively tight (and low) pay range. I don't know if that's optimal or not.

42
by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 11:51am

I may need to revisit this at some point.

Part of the reason that I mentioned this is because I think I remember reading somewhere that kickers have the highest correlation of money spent to wins of any position in the league. I wish I could remember where I read it, though.

43
by Jim A (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 12:38pm

Pat, you're thinking of Roland Beech's salary cap research articles (linked).

44
by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 1:10pm

Why yes, yes I am! Thanks for that!

I thought I saw it somewhere. I personally am not too confident on the kicker numbers there, given the number of rookie kickers typically. Averaging out a whole lot of rookie kickers would actually noticeably boost the correlation since bad rookie kickers would pull the mean value for the rookie price point down.

45
by GlennW (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 1:18pm

Well, unless I'm missing something, Beech's research contradicts Bill's here, right? Except maybe with Bill's Point 3:

"Replacing a poor kicker with a better one, even if he's more expensive, results in a better team."

I think maybe with kickers we again have an issue with limited performance data points, further confused by some bunching and randomness in salary. For one thing, I personally believe that at their current level, kicker salaries have very little impact on the salary-cap tradeoff equation (at an average of $1.5m out of almost $100m total available, we're talking background noise). If anything though that's consistent with Beech's conclusion, that for just a bit more money you might get considerably better performance at the position.

46
by GlennW (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 1:22pm

> Averaging out a whole lot of rookie kickers would actually noticeably boost the correlation since bad rookie kickers would pull the mean value for the rookie price point down.

This point also happens to coincide with the exact question facing the Patriots-- the rookie kicker could be a nice bargain or represent a nasty performance dropoff at the savings of only $2m.

47
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 1:53pm

I don't think I read anyone bring up this point here, but does anyone think that a major motivating factor in Indy signing Vinatieri had less to do with upgrading Vanderjagt and more to do with serverely downgrading New England's kicking game? Despite Pittsburgh last year, I'd think that Indy still considers NE their primary competition. And any chance you have to weaken your primary competition is a good thing for you (regardless of how minimally it directly improves you).

48
by CA (not verified) :: Fri, 08/25/2006 - 2:30pm

Re: 47

That presumes that if the Colts had not signed Vinatieri, the Patriots would have signed him at a good value. If the Patriots instead were to have overpaid Vinatieri, then by preventing the Patriots from wasting their cap space on Vinatieri, the Colts actually did the Patriots a favor and strengthened their opposition.