Clutch Field Goals: Are the Chargers Cursed?
by Scott Kacsmar
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers did it again on Sunday. Needing a 44-yard field goal from Younghoe Koo in the closing seconds against Miami, the Chargers missed another clutch kick to fall to 0-2. This was only six days after a similar ending happened in Denver when Koo's 44-yard field goal was blocked, denying an overtime session.
For any other franchise, this would just look like an improbable, snake-bitten start to the season. For the Chargers, this is old hat. Last season, San Diego gave the Browns their only win of 2016 after Josh Lambo's 45-yard field goal was wide right in a 20-17 loss. In Oakland, the Chargers also botched a hold on a field goal with 2:07 left in a 34-31 loss.
The Chargers changed their city, their venue, their head coach, and their kicker, but the results look no different so far. Meanwhile, Koo's miss wasn't the only noteworthy kick in Sunday's loss. That whole predicament started after Cody Parkey made a 54-yard field goal to put Miami ahead in his team debut. It was just a season ago when Parkey also helped Miami win a game by missing three field goals for the Browns, including a game-winning attempt at the end of regulation. Line him up against the Chargers in crunch time, and sure enough Parkey delivered. That means all three clutch field goal attempts involving the Chargers this season have gone in the opponent's favor.
With a shout out to Nate Kaeding, one has to wonder, given all the memorable missed kicks by the Chargers over the years, is this team the unluckiest in the league when it comes to clutch field goals?
When I looked at this data in the past, it was clear that they were. In updating the data for recent seasons, another team has taken over the bottom spot. That team's failures have not been quite as memorable as those of the Chargers, but isn't memorability a huge part of the whole clutch mystique anyway? Screwing up a kick in the deep early-afternoon slate in a game called by FOX's C-team will never get the same recognition as shanking a crucial playoff kick or the final play on Monday Night Football when everyone is watching.
This is why we collect and present the data. You know there is also a team at the other end of the spectrum that has come out smelling like roses more often than any other on clutch field goals. If you have paid much attention to the NFL in the 21st century, then you probably know that team is the New England Patriots. With a shout-out to Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the only thing more memorable than some of New England's clutch makes are the mind-numbing misses by their opponents in big games.
If you were hoping to see a list of the NFL's most successful kickers in the clutch, then you'll have to wait for a future post. Today, we are only interested in net team success on clutch field goals. Whether it was Nate Kaeding or Josh Lambo or Younghoe Koo at kicker, the Chargers usually came out on the wrong side of things. But where does the rest of the league stand? We looked at the data (playoffs included) since 2002, which was the start of the 32-team era.
Clutch Field Goal Totals
For the purposes of this study, a clutch field goal is any attempt in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or at any point in overtime when a team is tied or down by 1 to 3 points. These are all game-winning or game-tying field goal attempts. The play had to start at the two-minute warning or later, so that botched play by the Chargers in Oakland last year is excluded, since there was 2:07 left at the snap. Extra points were not included, even though we have seen some devastating misses of those in the clutch over the years. Aborted snaps or botched holds were included, because we are interested in the overall success of a field goal's execution rather than just the kicking aspect. So yes, a certain Tony Romo play is listed as going against Dallas and in favor of Seattle. There actually hasn't been another play like that in a clutch situation since Jets punter/holder Steve Weatherford did it in overtime against the Bills in 2009. He threw an interception to boot.
We would also like to quickly acknowledge that it would be beneficial to view this from an expected points added or probability standpoint to adjust for things like distance and weather, but we just did not have the time to make that happen this week. Success in the kicking game has also improved a good deal since 2002, especially when it comes to kicks of 50-plus yards. In 2002, kickers were 44-of-84 (52.4 percent) on 50-plus-yard field goals. Since 2011, kickers have made at least 85 field goals from that distance in every season, converting 62.8 percent of their opportunities. So not only is efficiency up, but the volume of longer kicks is greater than ever before. It would not be fair to compare the expectations of a 52-yard field goal in 2017 to one in 2002.
|NFL Clutch Field Goals by Season|
Out of 798 field goals, 74.9 percent were successful. That is noticeably lower than the league-average percentage since 2002 (82.6 percent), but clutch kicks also tend to be (and are trending) longer. Teams will attempt some out of pure desperation due to the clock. The average make was 37.7 yards, compared to 46.9 yards on a miss. For reference, on all field goals in 2016, the average make was 36.1 yards compared to 46.1 yards on a miss. Still, that may suggest some performance decline in the clutch. As far as postseason field goals go, kickers are 28-of-42 (66.7 percent) since 2002, with an average make of 38.9 yards and an average miss of 40.4 yards. Well, that is not a good look. Also, leave it up to the Chargers and Giants to be the only teams with multiple postseason failures.
Clutch Field Goals For
First, let's look at how teams have done when kicking a clutch field goal since 2002. In the following tables, average distance is ranked from shortest (first) to longest (32nd) field goal attempts, and the table is sorted by descending field goal percentage. We have separated makes from misses.
|Clutch Field Goals For, 2002-2017|
As you should have expected, the best clutch kicking in the NFL belongs to the Patriots, who made 17 of 19 kicks. Adam Vinatieri is likely to go to the Hall of Fame one day for his contributions to the early days of New England's dynasty. This timeframe just misses some of Vinatieri's finest work in the 2001 season, but he only had one miss from 2002 to 2005. That was a blocked 37-yard kick in Houston in 2003, but the Patriots still won in overtime on a second attempt by Vinatieri. New England has only one loss in Tom Brady's career after a clutch field goal was missed, and that was done by Stephen Gostkowski against the 2012 Cardinals in a 20-18 defeat. Otherwise, Gostkowski has been perfect, and he has the only clutch field goal attempt of more than 48 yards by the Patriots since 2002 (54 yards to beat the 2015 Giants). New England's makes were pretty average (38.0 yards) as far as distance goes. Gostkowski just doesn't have the same big-moment kicks (read: playoffs) as Vinatieri had before him.
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The Ravens (31) and Broncos (28) had more makes than any team, while the Eagles (13) and Texans (12) had the fewest makes. Carolina actually had the longest average make (43.9 yards), but the worst overall percentage (14 of 23 for 60.9 percent). Carolina kicker Graham Gano famously missed a 50-yard field goal in Denver to kick off the 2016 season in a rematch of Super Bowl 50, a 21-20 loss for the Panthers. The Panthers join the Raiders and Buccaneers as the only teams to attempt two 60-plus-yard field goals in the clutch since 2002. The only success in that group was when Matt Bryant, then for Tampa Bay, hit a 62-yard field goal to beat the 2006 Eagles. Speaking of Bryant, the Falcons have the second-longest makes (42.5 yards), and Bryant is 11-of-12 on clutch field goals for Atlanta.
Arizona (11) and the Rams (10) are the only teams with double-digit misses. Arizona's Phil Dawson just missed a game-winning kick to end regulation in Indianapolis on Sunday, but got his second chance in overtime to win the game. Dawson of course took over for Chandler Catanzaro, who in 2016 missed a game-winning kick in Week 1 against the Patriots, and missed a 24-yard kick that would have beat the Seahawks instead of getting a tie. For the Rams, their general irrelevancy since 2007 makes very few of their misses memorable. Five of the misses belong to Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein since 2012, so for the small subset of Jeff Fisher fans out there, you're welcome for that little nugget. The big miss for the Rams was Jeff Wilkins on a 53-yard field goal in overtime against the 2003 Panthers in the playoffs. Of course, that came after John Kasay missed a 45-yard field goal for Carolina, so both teams missed in overtime. Steve Smith finished off the game in double overtime with a 69-yard touchdown from Jake Delhomme. (We had to make sure Carolina fans got all of the feels in this one.)
Eight teams had an average miss of 50-plus yards, led by Oakland (52.5 yards). New England (39.5 yards) was the only team to have an average miss come under 40.0 yards, but again, that's only two plays. The Colts also have employed Vinatieri since 2006, and have just three misses in this period, but fans will remember all of them very well. Mike Vanderjagt missed in New England to open the 2004 season and shanked a terrible kick from 46 yards away against the Steelers in the 2005 divisional round, and Vinatieri somehow missed a 29-yard kick in San Diego in 2007 on a night where Peyton Manning threw six interceptions. Hey, at least one clutch kick went in the Chargers' favor in this era.
Clutch Field Goals Against
Our next table looks at how a team's opponents did on their clutch field goals. The first section was primarily all about a team's skill at pulling off a clutch field goal. When you're on the other side, this is more about elements out of your control. You're hoping to get lucky. Sure, the coach can stalk a referee to call a sneaky timeout a millisecond before the snap to ice the kicker, but that's just playing a mind game. The opposing kicking unit still ultimately decides things. Outside of blocking the kick, which only happens on roughly 2.0 percent of field goals, there's not much a team can do at that point. The defense had its chance to make the attempt as difficult as possible, but now you must wait to see your fate decided by a skinny guy's leg.
|Clutch Field Goals Against, 2002-2017|
We already mentioned a couple of missed kicks against the Patriots, but this really puts things into perspective. New England is the only team since 2002 where opponents have more clutch misses (nine) than they have clutch makes (eight). It's not like distance was a big factor here, as New England's misses were the 11th shortest in the league (46.3 yards). The Patriots are not one of the nine teams who saw an average miss from 50-plus yards away, led by Detroit's 57.6 yards. Only two of the makes against the Patriots happened in New England, but home-field advantage really does not explain the results either. Of the nine misses, four occurred in New England compared to five by a team playing at home, and most often in nice weather conditions too.
The impact of these misses paid some big dividends in the success of the Patriots, especially in earlier years. New England won an NFL-record 21 consecutive games in 2003 and 2004. The third game in that streak was at Miami. With the score tied at 13, Miami's Olindo Mare had a 35-yard field goal blocked at the two-minute warning by Richard Seymour. Fair enough, the Patriots made a huge play there. But in overtime, Miami decided under head coach Dave Wannstedt to kick another 35-yard field goal on third-and-7 instead of getting even closer with one more run by Ricky Williams. Of course, icing the kicker worked for Bill Belichick, and Mare missed the kick wide right. The Patriots won the game with an 82-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Troy Brown. In the 16th game of the winning streak, the Patriots opened 2004 against chief AFC rival Indianapolis. The Colts trailed 27-24 late, and Mike Vanderjagt was wide right on a 48-yard field goal with 19 seconds left. New England finished 14-2, Indianapolis finished 12-4, and that head-to-head tie-breaker essentially led to another snowy playoff game for the Colts in Foxborough, also won by the Patriots.
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It is fitting that we have been highlighting the Patriots and Chargers, because their paths have crossed twice on clutch field goals. In the crazy 2006 AFC divisional game in San Diego, rookie Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots ahead 24-21 on a 31-yard field goal. Philip Rivers had 65 seconds and no timeouts to answer, and he set up Nate Kaeding for a 54-yard field goal. The kick was short, securing another improbable New England playoff win. In the 2010 regular season, New England returned to San Diego and only led 23-20 late. Rivers set up new kicker Kris Brown for a 50-yard field goal, which would have been 45 yards if not for a false start. Brown hit the right upright with 22 seconds left in another loss. It is also worth noting that Brown's most notorious career moment came in the 2001 AFC Championship Game in the third quarter when his 34-yard field goal was blocked by the Patriots and returned for a huge touchdown on a controversial lateral from Troy Brown to Antwan Harris.
Perhaps the most famous field goal to go New England's way was when Baltimore's Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal wide left at the end of the 2011 AFC Championship Game. That would have forced overtime. Cundiff couldn't extract some revenge with the Browns in 2013 either when he missed a 58-yard field goal that would have beaten the Patriots in a huge upset. We can give Cundiff a pass for that one, but his AFC Championship Game miss is only the second do-or-die field goal ever missed in a championship game in NFL history. The other is the most famous field goal miss in this game's history: Buffalo's Scott Norwood at the end of Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants in a 20-19 loss. Who was the defensive coordinator for the Giants who had his game plan go into Canton after that kick was missed? Bill Belichick.
When FO recently interviewed Belichick, we were only allowed to ask questions about the 1980s Giants. If we could have asked anything, I would have tried to get his thoughts on if he's ever considered just how crucial field goals have been to his career success. It is more than fair to say that no coach in the history of the NFL has had greater success with field goals going his way than Belichick. If he had the misfortunes of Marty Schottenheimer, then their legacies would be vastly different. Schottenheimer was San Diego's coach when Nate Kaeding missed clutch playoff field goals in 2004 (Jets) and 2006 (Patriots), as well as huge misses (1995 Lin Elliott, anyone?) when he coached the Chiefs in the 1990s, After Blair Walsh missed the shortest do-or-die playoff field goal (27 yards) in the Super Bowl era for the Vikings against Seattle in 2015, we looked at a table of the 10 most crushing misses since 1966. Three of the misses benefitted Belichick, while three of them gave Schottenheimer a playoff loss.
Speaking of Walsh and the Seahawks, Seattle has had three of the 14 clutch field goal failures in the playoffs since 2002 go its way. The Tony Romo hold in 2006 was about the only thing as improbable as Walsh missing from 27 yards out, but Ryan Longwell and the Packers also missed a 47-yard field goal at the end of regulation in the 2003 NFC wild-card game. (Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck might wish that kick had been good to spare him the embarrassment of throwing a pick-six in overtime after he wanted the ball.) Still, thanks to some of those crazy misses, the Seahawks have the shortest average miss (37.1 yards) against them since 2002.
Seattle and New England fans have enjoyed nine clutch misses, but Vikings fans can rejoice with 10 kicks that have gone awry for their opponents since 2002. The only team with more is Pittsburgh with 12. We mentioned the Vanderjagt special in 2005, but that total only includes one missed field goal by the Jets' Doug Brien, who missed two field goals in the final minutes of a 2004 AFC wild-card loss in Pittsburgh. Brien's first miss came with 2:02 left, so it just missed the cut. His second kick should have won the game, but Heinz Field can be an unforgiving kicking setting. However, only four of the 12 misses against Pittsburgh came in Heinz Field. The Bengals missed the playoffs in 2006 after Shayne Graham missed a 39-yard field goal in the fourth quarter in Week 17. Pittsburgh won in overtime. Only two of the 12 misses against the Steelers have happened in the Mike Tomlin era (since 2007), and none since 2009.
Not everything is rosy here for the Steelers. They join the Chargers and Saints as the three teams with the most clutch field goals against with 24 each. Still, this is one area where the Chargers don't look so bad. Opponents made 24-of-32 (75.0 percent) clutch field goals, which ranks 16th in the league, or pretty average. The Chargers even caught a huge break in 2013 when Kansas City's Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field goal that would have won the Week 17 game and put the Steelers in the playoffs. Instead, the Chargers won in overtime and claimed the final wild-card spot over Pittsburgh.
The Eagles watched 16-of-18 clutch field goals (88.9 percent) go against them, the highest rate of any team. Perhaps the play that stands out most is one of the two misses: Cincinnati's Shayne Graham (him again) from 47 yards out in 2008. That was in overtime with 13 seconds left, causing the Bengals and Eagles to end in a tie, much to the surprise of quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Fans may not be surprised to see that the Colts allowed the longest average make (43.4 yards) in the clutch. The AFC South is mostly responsible for that. The late Rob Bironas hit a 60-yard field goal for the Titans to beat the Colts in 2006. Four years later, the Jaguars knocked off the Colts with a 59-yard field goal by Josh Scobee, who also beat the Colts with a 53-yard field goal in 2003 and a 51-yard field goal in 2008.
Net Clutch Field Goal Success
We'll conclude with combining the two tables together for net clutch field goal success. The table is sorted by descending favorable field goal percentage (FAVFG%). "Kicks For" include the team's makes plus opponent's misses. "Kicks Against" include the team's misses plus opponent's makes.
|Net Clutch Field Goal Success, 2002-2017|
|Rk||Team||Kicks For||Kicks Against||TOT||FAVFG%|
|Rk||Team||Kicks For||Kicks Against||TOT||FAVFG%|
The Patriots are more than three standard deviations above the average here at 72.2 percent. Denver, known for its home-field advantage at Mile High, is a reasonable runner-up at 63.0 percent. The Chargers come in at 30th at 40.7 percent, but they are only a few more Younghoe Koo tricks away from the bottom at this rate. Carolina does in fact bring up the rear at 36.7 percent, or almost two standard deviations below average.
Now the sample sizes aren't big (ranges from 34 to 65 field goals), but the impact these plays had on the success and perception for these teams over the last 16 seasons is undoubtedly huge. If you're watching a Chargers game and a clutch field goal comes up, you've been conditioned to expect some misfortune. If Belichick's Patriots are facing one, you just expect things to work out for them.
When the data matches the perception, that's a bingo.
Note: portions of this article, including data in the tables, have been edited since the original posting. There was a late discovery of some missing data from the 2015 season that has now been accounted for. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.