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29 Sep 2004

Mike Vanderjagt: Flush with an Ace Kicker

by Aaron Schatz

Ask a few NFL experts to put together their All-Pro teams, and one position where you won't get much disagreement is place kicker. After going a perfect 39-for-39 on field goal tries in 2003, including the playoffs, Mike Vanderjagt of the Indianapolis Colts entered this season as the NFL's best kicker by acclamation. The irony is that not only is Vanderjagt not the best kicker in the NFL, he may not even be one of the ten best kickers in the NFL.

That sounds crazy, doesn't it? How can you go an entire season without missing a field goal and not be the best kicker in the NFL?

Well, field goal kicking is hugely important, and there's no doubt that Vanderjagt's perfect record was huge for the Colts last season. Nothing demoralizes a team like marching down the field to win the game, only to see the kicker honk a big field goal. But a kicker has two responsibilities, and for the most part NFL fans and commentators only talk about one of them.

Kickoffs are an important part of nearly every kicker's job, and Vanderjagt is terrible at them. His kicks averaged 60.2 yards last year, 23rd in the league. He had only four touchbacks; the league leader, Olindo Mare of Miami, had 24. This was not a one-year issue, either. In 2002, Vanderjagt averaged just 59.0 yards per kickoff, 28th in the NFL, and had only a single touchback.

Vanderjagt is one of the league's worst kickoff artists despite playing at least half his games in a dome each year. Plying their trade in 72-degree comfort, shielded from wind, rain, or snow, kickers in domes average 2.5 yards more per kickoff than kickers in outdoor stadiums (excluding Denver).

At Football Outsiders, we rank kickers by comparing their kickoffs and field goals to what an average NFL kicker would do in the same situations. Last year, Vanderjagt was worth about 18 points more than an average field goal kicker given the same opportunities. But his poor kicks cost the Colts roughly six points over the course of the season by leaving the defense in bad field position. When the difference between an average NFL team and the best NFL team is less than 100 points, six points of field position is significant.

The best kickers are among the best in the league at both kickoffs and field goals. Last year, that list was topped by Jeff Wilkins of the Rams, who was worth 15 points more than the average kicker on field goals, second behind Vanderjagt, and six points more than the average kicker on kickoffs, even after adjusting for the fact that he plays in a dome. Another well-rounded kicker, David Akers of the Eagles, was worth 7.5 points on field goals and seven points on kickoffs.

In fact, it is Akers, not Vanderjagt, who probably deserves the title of "NFL's best kicker." Not only is he equally talented at both parts of the kicking game, he also is far more consistent than the NFL's other kickers. Since there are only a handful of kickoffs and field goal attempts per game -- a kicker rarely attempts more than 40 goals in a single season -- kicker statistics can swing wildly from year to year. Martin Grammatica, for example, led the NFL with 32 field goals in 2002 (on 39 attempts) and then went only 16-for-26 in 2003. Even Vanderjagt missed eight field goals in 2002 and six in 2001.

Akers, however, has been among the NFL's best in both kickoffs and field goals for three years now. Wilkins had more total value in 2003, but was closer to average in 2002. Akers, on the other hand, was the best kicker in the league in 2002, worth more than 15 points to the Eagles when you combined his kickoffs and field goals. He was also the best kicker in the league in 2001, worth 11.5 points over an average kicker.

Top 10 Kickers, 02-03 Team 2002
Field Goals
Field Goals
Total Value
Akers, David PHI 9.5 7.5 5.5 7.2 29.6
Wilkins, Jeff STL -1.5 15.2 3.1 5.6 22.4
Hanson, Jason DET 2.6 10.5 5.3 3.9 22.2
Janikowski, Sebastian OAK 2.1 9.7 9.2 0.5 21.4
Stover, Matt BAL 5.2 10.3 0.3 0.0 15.8
Brown, Kris HOU 2.1 5.3 2.4 5.1 14.8
Mare, Olindo MIA -2.1 0.7 4.1 11.0 13.7
Richey, Wade SD/BAL 0.0 0.6 3.7 8.9 13.2
Graham, Shayne CAR/CIN -1.4 10.2 0.0 0.9 9.6
Longwell, Ryan GB 3.0 9.4 0.2 -3.9 8.7
Vanderjagt, Mike (21) IND -3.9 18.1 -5.7 -5.3 3.2
Numbers represent value of kicker 2002-2003 in points
compared to league average, adjusted for weather and altitude.

Teams that don't have a well-rounded kicker like Akers could significantly improve their special teams by carrying a second kicker who specializes in kickoffs. The Ravens have Matt Stover, third in our 2003 field goal rankings behind Vanderjagt and Wilkins, and Wade Richey, second in our 2003 kickoff rankings behind Mare. The Broncos have significantly improved on kickoffs since punter Micah Knorr took over and left Jason Elam to specialize in field goals.

The Colts are clearly aware of Vanderjagt's problems on kickoffs, because they spent a seventh-round draft pick on a kickoff specialist, David Kimball of Penn State. But Kimball struggled in the preseason and was cut, leaving Vanderjagt back on kickoff duties. The Colts don't have the best kicker in the league, but if they can find a good kickoff specialist they could feature the best kicking in the league.

This article originally appeared in Tuesday's edition of the New York Sun. If you are looking for a more in-depth discussion of our special teams analysis, including the adjustments for weather and altitude, I hope to have an article on the updated method by next week.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 29 Sep 2004

1 comment, Last at 29 Nov 2005, 12:33am by dan


by dan (not verified) :: Tue, 11/29/2005 - 12:33am

Yeah, I just want to say that that kick by Karlis in the 1986 championship game in Cleveland was WIDE LeFt!! What a bullshit call by the refs. They were just tired of freezing thier asses off down by the lake. Thanks a lot who ever you zebras are. That was a crazy game and maybe the Browns get it back and score? What a crock of you know what! The Cleveland fans always get screwed.
We are still the best fans in sports hands down. Go Browns! Go Tribe!