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09 Mar 2015

The Best Clutch Kicker Ever

by Aaron Schatz

A few years ago, in one of the early Pro Football Prospectus books, we had a piece about clutch field goals, including a list of the greatest clutch field-goal kickers of the previous dozen years. The main point of the essay was twofold. First, that reputation as a clutch field-goal kicker often comes from having opportunities, not necessarily from the best rate of making clutch field goals. Second, that past "clutchiness" for field-goal kickers seems to have no predictive power for future ability to hit clutch field goals.

Jim Armstrong, who wrote that original piece, updates the numbers on clutch field goals every year as we get more data both forwards (recent seasons) and backwards (older seasons we've broken down to do DVOA, back to 1989 at this point). And when he sent me the numbers through 2014, I noticed something surprising. As you probably know, Adam Vinatieri has hit more clutch field goals than any kicker in NFL history. However, one current player really stood out among the names just below Vinatieri, and it isn't anyone you would expect. In fact, this player was set to be a free agent. In the back of my mind, I've been planning to write a quick piece about how "the greatest clutch field-goal kicker in NFL history is a free agent this offseason and nobody is talking about it."

Except, I'm not exactly staying on top of all the latest kicker contract news either. In fact, the greatest clutch field-goal kicker in NFL history went and re-signed with his team two weeks ago without me even noticing. So, hey, there's nothing to wait for here. Why keep you all in suspense?

The greatest clutch field-goal kicker in NFL history is Matt Bryant of the Atlanta Falcons, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants and a few other teams from his early days bouncing around the league as kickers often do.

The definition of "clutch field goals" we are using here is any field goal in the final two minutes or overtime that either ties the game or gives a team the lead.

Vinatieri is generally considered the greatest clutch field-goal kicker in NFL history because of the field goals he hit to win two Super Bowls for the New England Patriots, plus field goals in the snow to both tie and then win the "Tuck Rule" game against Oakland in the 2001 Divisional round of the playoffs. However, as we pointed out in the essay a few years back, Vinatieri did not at the time (and does not now) have the best record when it comes to clutch field goals. He simply has the most opportunities.

Vinatieri has gone 5-for-5 on clutch attempts in the postseason, with the fifth attempt coming when he hit a 50-yarder to give the Colts a 16-14 lead over the New York Jets in the 2010 wild card round. (The Jets actually won the game, marching downfield with Nick Folk hitting a 32-yarder with three seconds left to win 17-16.) Going back to 1989, only four other kickers have had more than two clutch attempts in the postseason -- although, to underline the fact that Vinatieri's postseason record is pretty remarkable, only one of those kickers hit all three of his attempts. David Akers is 3-for-3. Lawrence Tynes is 2-for-3. Nate Kaeding and Nick Lowery are 1-for-3. (These numbers don't include the first decade of Lowery's career, which began in 1978.)

Combine both the regular season and the postseason, and Vinatieri has had 34 clutch field-goal opportunities. He's the only other kicker since 1989 with at least 30. Vinatieri also leads all kickers with 28 clutch field-goals made. That 82 percent conversion rate is impressive, and higher than the total of 73 percent on all clutch attempts since 1989, but it is not the best among all recent kickers.

Bryant has converted 22 of 23 clutch field-goal attempts over the course of his career, a 96 percent rate. His one miss was a 27-yarder in overtime when he was kicking for Tampa Bay against his current team, the Falcons, back in Week 16 of 2005. Bryant ended up coming back to win the game with another attempt, this time for 41 yards, that came with 16 seconds left in overtime. Since then, Bryant has hit every clutch opportunity, with at least one in every season except 2009. Out of 47 kickers with at least a dozen clutch attempts in our data set, Bryant is one of only two who have just one miss. The other was Gary Anderson, who was 15-for-16. Only one other kicker with at least a dozen attempts has a 90 percent conversion rate, although that requires rounding: Jason Elam is 26-for-29, or 90 percent.

In addition, Bryant's average clutch kick has come from 41.1 yards, significantly longer than many of the other kickers with the most opportunities over the last 25 years. That average is skewed because of the remarkable 62-yard kick Bryant made against the Eagles back in 2006, but even without that one, Bryant's average on clutch field-goal attempts is still 40.1 yards.

This worst clutch field-goal kicker among recent kickers seems to be John Kasay, who was only 15-for-26 over the course of his career. (And this doesn't even consider his clutch kicking-off-out-of-bounds problems.) A couple of these Kasay attempts were really difficult -- a 60-yard attempt to tie a game in 2004, a 57-yard attempt to win a game in 1998 -- but a lot of the misses were from reasonable distances.

The only kickers with 100 percent conversion rates on clutch kicks are in the single digits, and there are only three of them since 1989 who are better than 4-for-4. Justin Tucker of the Ravens is 9-for-9 over the course of his career. So was former Bears and Vikings kicker Paul Edinger. Former Colts and Rams kicker Dean Biasucci was 8-for-8.

Clutch FG Attempts, 1989-2014
Kicker Made Att Pct Avg Yds x Kicker Made Att Pct Avg Yds x Kicker Made Att Pct Avg Yds
A.Vinatieri 28 34 82% 35.6 x C.Jacke 14 18 78% 37.1 x J.Tucker 9 9 100% 39.3
J.Elam 26 29 90% 38.2 x J.Wilkins 14 19 74% 36.1 x D.Carpenter 9 11 82% 40.4
S.Christie 24 28 86% 35.9 x R.Gould 13 17 76% 38.9 x S.Suisham 9 11 82% 41.2
M.Bryant 22 23 96% 41.1 x J.Brown 12 14 86% 41.3 x J.Hall 9 14 64% 38.6
J.Carney 21 25 84% 35.0 x M.Nugent 12 14 86% 38.9 x G.Davis 9 15 60% 41.9
R.Longwell 19 23 83% 35.1 x N.Folk 12 14 86% 43.6 x S.Graham 9 15 60% 36.3
J.Hanson 19 27 70% 40.6 x B.Cundiff 12 17 71% 38.3 x K.Brown 9 16 56% 42.8
R.Lindell 18 22 82% 38.8 x M.Vanderjagt 12 18 67% 42.3 x S.Gostkowski 8 9 89% 37.0
M.Stover 18 25 72% 40.8 x M.Husted 11 13 85% 39.3 x M.Bahr 8 13 62% 38.1
J.Feely 18 26 69% 42.1 x J.Scobee 11 14 79% 42.4 x M.Gramatica 8 13 62% 43.6
M.Andersen 18 26 69% 37.9 x D.Bailey 11 15 73% 39.3 x B.Walsh 7 10 70% 44.0
P.Dawson 17 23 74% 41.4 x N.Rackers 11 16 69% 35.4 x G.Gano 7 12 58% 44.3
J.Nedney 16 20 80% 38.8 x N.Johnson 11 17 65% 37.2 x M.Crosby 6 10 60% 38.1
S.Janikowski 16 22 73% 39.3 x M.Prater 10 11 91% 41.1 x E.Murray 6 12 50% 37.0
P.Stoyanovich 16 23 70% 39.9 x F.Reveiz 10 12 83% 32.8 x G.Zuerlein 5 7 71% 51.9
G.Anderson 15 16 94% 35.4 x D.Pelfrey 10 14 71% 39.1 x R.Succop 5 8 63% 38.1
O.Mare 15 19 79% 37.7 x D.Brien 10 15 67% 40.9 x
D.Akers 15 21 71% 40.1 x K.Butler 10 18 56% 37.9 x
A.DelGreco 15 24 63% 40.0 x T.Peterson 10 19 53% 37.2 x
J.Kasay 15 26 58% 42.0 x (Note: Regular and Postseason; retired kickers min. 12 attempts, active min. 7 attempts

Disclaimer: Of course we could do more intricate analysis here by adjusting for the gradual improvement of field-goal kickers around the league over the last 25 years, not to mention the degree of difficulty on each kick due to distance, weather, and altitude. Maybe we'll do that someday. I didn't do that today.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 09 Mar 2015

46 comments, Last at 24 Mar 2015, 1:52am by LionInAZ


by RickD :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 6:06pm

"Of course we could do more intricate analysis here by adjusting for the gradual improvement of field-goal kickers around the league over the last 25 years"

Why would you do that? That's like adjusting your comparison of sprinters to the fact that they've gotten faster over the decades. Faster is faster and better is better. Kickers are working harder and training harder. There's no need to make any kind of historical adjustment. It's not like the conditions have changed.

BTW, nice job by Bryant there.

by Temo :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 10:03am

I suppose it depends on what you attribute the increased FG accuracy.

A late 90's baseball player who OPS'd 900 in the clutch is less impressive than a baseball player who does the same in today's game.

by Independent George :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 1:44pm

I'm also curious about how much domes/Mile High affects clutchicity.

by RickD :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 2:21pm

Batters have to face pitchers, and the population of pitchers has changed since the late 90s. Also, I think it's obvious by now that hitting stats were inflated by the widespread usage of PEDs.

I'm not seeing any similar changes in football. Balls are the same, the uprights are the same, kicking is just as hard now as it was then. It's just that kickers are better at it.

I attribute the increased FG accuracy to better kickers. Is there an alternative theory?

by duh :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 3:02pm

The NFL switched to 'dedicated' kicking balls for each team in 1999. This likely had some influence on the results. Additional thoughts that come to mind are better turf / less grass, more domes perhaps? None of which will change that the major factor is as you indicate kickers are better.

by dbostedo :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 7:21pm

Didn't they do that to standardize the ball and keep kickers from tailoring the balls to what they liked? If so, then it would likely have made it a bit harder on kickers.

by tuluse :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 7:00pm

One thing Robbie Gould has mentioned is how much of an impact holding has. Maybe it's holders that got better.

by Sixknots :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 6:14pm

Steven Hauschka does not have seven clutch kick attempts in 8 years???

by Aaron Schatz :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:54pm

Nope. 2-for-4. Misses in 2009 and 2011, two hits in 2013 which won overtime games against Houston and Tampa Bay. How the hell were the 2013 Seahawks stuck in overtime games against those teams? Holy playing-down-to-your-opponent, Batman.

by jonnyblazin :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 10:33pm

I remember when Hauschka was on the Ravens and missed a clutch FG vs. the Vikings that would have won the game, he was cut shortly thereafter.

by Will Allen :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 8:26pm

Eh, I wouldn't bother to explore this much further, for obvious reasons.

by nojo :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:32am

Ugh, Gary Anderson - 15/16 on clutch attempts. That miss couldn't have been significant, could it have?

by Travis :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 6:35pm

I imagine the result changes somewhat if you change the definition of "clutch" - Bryant's rookie season ended partially because he missed a field goal that would have put the Giants up 8 with 3 minutes to play. (Trey Junkin didn't help.)

by Travis :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 6:49pm

Going back to 1989, only four other kickers have had more than two clutch attempts in the postseason

Doug Brien's just 1 of 2, but another kick that would meet most people's definition of "clutch" missed the criteria by two seconds.

by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:06pm

Small note, in the Colts-Jets 2010 playoff game, Vinatieri's field goal put the Colts up 16-14, the Jets then won 17-16 on Folk's kick.

by Aaron Schatz :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:49pm

Oops. Did I type the scores wrong? I'll go fix that.

by Dennis :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:29pm

I find it ironic that you talk about how the perception of clutch kickers is skewed based on how many attempts they get, then you rank them based on the number of kicks made instead of the percentage.

by dryheat :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:36pm

Exactly like rain on one's wedding day

by LionInAZ :: Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:52am

You're mistaking 'sorting' for 'ranking'.

by Duff Soviet Union :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:31pm

"Since then, Bryant has hit every clutch opportunity, with at least one in every season except 2009. Out of 47 kickers with at least a dozen clutch attempts in our data set, Bryant is one of only two who have just one miss. The other was Gary Anderson, who was 15-for-16."

That sucks for Anderson that his one miss was one of the most famous in history.

by dkravitz78 :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:41pm

Duff - I said the same thing but it turns out that Gary Anderson miss was not in this definition of clutch. Remember they were up by 7 at the time (and would have been up by 10 and ended the game).

Obvoiusly the definition of "clutch" needs to change slightly to really make this complete but I'm not sure to what.

by Travis :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:53pm

Plus, that miss happened outside the two-minute warning.

Anderson's clutch miss came the next year against the Bears when he missed a 20 yarder on the last play of regulation.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Mon, 03/09/2015 - 7:45pm

Nick Lowery is a guy I'd expect to disappoint here. I have him back to 1981, but I know he has 6 clutch misses in games his team lost and two more in this tie: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198911190cle.htm Throw in the playoff miss in the Pittsburgh win and that's at least nine misses.

by Paul R :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 12:44am

Vinatieri is generally considered the greatest clutch field-goal kicker in NFL history because of the field goals he hit to win two Super Bowls for the New England Patriots

Can we assume then that deflated balls are easier to kick?

by RickD :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 9:17am

Only if you're trolling. And you want to ignore the existence of 'K' balls.

by jonnyblazin :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 3:06pm

Right, it's not like the Pats were caught trying to insert unauthorized K-balls into any game recently.

by Theo :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 5:06am

Were extra points missed taken into account? 2003, Saints - Jaguars, John Carney and a few laterals come to mind...

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 7:14am

Personally I disagree with "The definition of "clutch field goals" we are using here is any field goal in the final two minutes or overtime that either ties the game or gives a team the lead."

I know from when I played sport that there is a huge difference between "missing a score that loses the game" and "go-ahead/game-winning score".

It's the difference between Vinatieri's kick at the end of regulation in the Tuck Game and his OT-winning kick. The first is a has-to-make, the latter his team remains in the game. Mentally the first is huge pressure, the latter can be negligible.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 9:22am

Can anyone pinpoint the 6 missed field goals by Adam Vinatieiri?

I can only think of one off the top of my head, which was his 20-odd yard shank at the end of the Chargers game in 2007, a game the Colts could have won had Vinatieri made the kick, despite 5 Peyton Manning interceptions and two return TDs by the Chargers.

by Travis :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 9:40am

From oldest to most recent:

Patriots-Chiefs, 1999: Patriots down 2 with 9 seconds left, Vinatieri hits the right upright from 32.
Patriots-Bills, 1999: Patriots tied with 6 seconds left, Vinatieri wide from 33.
Patriots-Bills, 1999 (same game): Patriots tied in overtime, Vinatieri short from 44.
Patriots-Bills, 2000: Patriots tied with 1 second left, Vinatieri short from 27 (bad hold).
Patriots-Texans, 2003: Patriots tied in overtime, Vinatieri blocked from 37.
Colts-Chargers, 2007: Colts down 2 with 1:34 left, Vinatieri wide right from 29.

by duh :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:22am

That is really interesting. If Vinateri makes 2 of those 3 back in 1999 the Patriots finish 10-6 on the year and tied for a WC spot (I think they lose the tiebreaker though)

I wonder if Carroll still gets fired if they go 10-6 and not 8-8? What a difference that might have made in so many different things.

by MJK :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:42am

VERY interesting point.

Yet another way Vinateri helped the Pats. :-)

Seriously, though, it just shows how strange random chance in life can be. Let's assume Vinateri makes those and the Pats finish 10-6, and Kraft holds on to Carroll for at least another year.

Think how different the fates of the Patriots, Bill Belichick, Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, the Jets, USC, the rest of the teams in the Pac 10, and the Seattle Seahawks might have been... All from a random event of two missed kicks by a kicker.

by justanothersteve :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 1:04pm

We can also factor in the two made clutch field goals in the Tuck Rule game and how that influenced future events. No Oakland SB appearance, possible QB controversy in New England, Vinatieri's own career with the Pats. We should call the Butterfly Effect as it relates to football as the Vinatieri Effect.

by Travis :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:48am

That is really interesting. If Vinateri makes 2 of those 3 back in 1999 the Patriots finish 10-6 on the year and tied for a WC spot (I think they lose the tiebreaker though)

If the Patriots finished 10-6 and nothing else changed, they would have been the third wild card (behind the 13-3 Titans and the now 10-6 Bills). However, they would have lost a tiebreaker to a 10-6 Dolphins team, and the 9-6 Dolphins would have tried Week 17 against a Redskins team that had nothing to play for, so who knows.

by SandyRiver :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:27am

I remember that first one only because it was set up by a 25-yard scramble by Bledsoe, easily the longest run of his career.

by ChrisS :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:32am

the only extra work I might want to see is the player's career FG% so you can see if they are "clutch"ish or not. For example Stoyanovich made 70% of his clutch kicks but I don't know off hand how this compares to his career accuracy. Maybe a better comparison than the players FG% would be league average % over the players career.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 5:55pm

I was thinking that earlier ... Matt Stover is ranked 5th best all time at something like 83.5% FGs, his clutch is only 74%. Vinatieri on the other hand is pretty much even 82% clutch, 83.5% career. Then there's Bryant who is 96% clutch, 85% career.

(Of course small sample sizes affect the clutch percentage a lot more - but I'm sure there's some statistical measure one could apply to see if it's significant).

by Hurt Bones :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 6:44pm

I think kicking distance has a lot to do with it. Stover's has a 5 yd per kick higher average than Vinatieri.

by MJK :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:38am

Now that we've talked about good FG kickers, next can we have an article about bad ones? I have (the opposite of) fond memories of Scott "Missin" Sisson...be curious to know if there are other teams that have equally heartbreaking bad kicker stories...

by MJK :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:49am

And by "heartbreaking bad kicker", I mean a season like going 5-11 and losing 5 games by 3 points or less when your kicker misses at least one short (less than 40 yards) FG. (Plus two other games lost by less than a TD when your kicker misses two FG's).

Then firing said kicker and going 3-0 in your last three games.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 5:59pm

I'm sure you'll enjoy this Tanier classical historical ...


by dryheat :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 12:35pm

Let's not forget that he was drafted!

IIRC, Sisson went on to have an average career for a few years....I want to say with the Vikings.

by Shattenjager :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 12:57pm
by jonnyblazin :: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 3:02pm

Justin Tucker is a clutch god, only kicker on the list with 100% accuracy, albeit on only 9 attempts. One of them was a 61-yarder vs. Detroit though.

by BDAABAT :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 3:00pm

In the spirit of understanding conflicts of interest, Baltimore homer here.

Justin Tucker is clearly and objectively the "clutchiest" kicker! He's 9 for 9 in the above definition of clutch kicks.


Acquired sig: Never let your mind remain so open that your brain falls out.

by Peregrine :: Sun, 03/15/2015 - 10:45am

Thanks for posting this item, Aaron.

As a Falcons fan, I can attest to Matt Bryant having brass balls. I could not think of a clutch kick that he's missed, and there's a reason for it. (Although I do recall him missing a kick in Miami that would have extended a lead; the Dolphins took over and drove for a game-winning touchdown.) But he's been immense in clutch moments - no more so than the 48-yard game winner in the playoff win over Seattle - and yes, I think there's something to it. Pressure can get to you, and some guys handle it better than others.