Scramble for the Ball: The Value of Field Goals

Scramble for the Ball: The Value of Field Goals
Scramble for the Ball: The Value of Field Goals
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Mike: One thing that has really stuck out at me this year, for no particular reason, has been the commentators' insistence that teams must be adept at turning drives into touchdowns rather than field goals to be successful. Granted, I believe every team would rather have seven points than three (we can ask the AT&T kindergarten panel for confirmation of that one), but this seems to be downplaying the positive value of scoring some non-zero number of points on a drive. While drives are a scarce commodity, it does seem that there are a number of non-awful teams this year –- the Ravens spring to mind -– that at first blush seem to have relied an inordinate amount on their kicker to score. While the Ravens backed out of the playoffs in rather spectacular fashion, they were a contender, and they were a contender largely on the strength of All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker.

This set me to wondering; are there any legitimately good teams that relied on field goals more heavily than other, more conventionally good offenses? What do those teams look like? How do we measure this? My first thought was a sort of tally for the kicker's share of a team's non-try points. This would give us a reasonable estimate of the kicker's value to the offense to start with, and whittle away from there.

Tom: (FG points)/(Team Points - XP). Ravens 38.8 percent, Jets 37.6 percent. Broncos 14.1 percent, Bengals 14.3 percent. Those are the extremes at both ends.

Mike: Unsurprisingly, the Broncos and the Bengals are in the top three red-zone offenses this year. Baltimore, however, merely has the 28th-ranked red zone offense, and the Jets have a nearly league-average red zone offense.

Tom: After looking over the data, this calculation is basically touchdowns divided by field goals, which is on our drive stats page. We also have points per red-zone trip on the drive stats page.

Mike: It is quite close to TD/FG, although that measure does not include safeties. In that sense, we are presented with an incomplete picture of the team's total points, and therefore the kicker's share of those points. In a much more pragmatic sense, safeties are pretty rare and over the season are basically noise, and we already have TD/FG on a table on our site. So TD/FG wins. Now that we have a measure of a team's reliance on their kicker, the sensible thing to do is see how this measure matches up with offense efficiency. In other words, our old friend offensive DVOA.

Tom: And?

Mike: The relationship between high TD/FG ratios and offensive success seem to be real but overstated.

DEN 2.84 1 33.7% 1
CIN 2.61 2 0.5% 17
DET 2.32 3 -1.9% 19
PHI 2.22 4 22.9% 2
NO 2.04 5 15.9% 5
KC 1.86 6 2.8% 15
CHI 1.73 7 13.8% 6
WAS 1.62 8 -10.0% 23
DAL 1.61 9 7.5% 11
MIN 1.58 10 -4.7% 21
CAR 1.58 11 8.1% 10
OAK 1.57 12 -16.8% 28
ATL 1.54 13 3.2% 14
TEN 1.52 14 1.3% 16
CLE 1.43 15 -14.4% 26
GB 1.30 16 8.6% 9
NYG 1.26 17 -22.2% 31
SEA 1.24 18 9.4% 7
STL 1.23 19 -9.6% 22
MIA 1.23 20 -1.8% 18
PIT 1.23 21 4.4% 12
TB 1.22 22 -10.5% 24
SF 1.22 23 9.1% 8
SD 1.21 24 22.5% 3
ARI 1.20 25 -2.6% 20
NE 1.16 26 16.4% 4
IND 1.09 27 4.2% 13
JAC 1.00 29 -29.8% 32
HOU 1.00 28 -18.9% 29
BUF 0.94 30 -11.4% 25
NYJ 0.76 31 -15.2% 27
BAL 0.68 32 -21.3% 30

Mike: In retrospect, this table is somewhat more boring than I had hoped.

Tom: Aren't they all? I think there are real, actual skills related to good red zone performance, but some good red zone teams are not actually good offenses.

Mike: New England has an offensive DVOA of 16.4%, fourth-best in the league, but scores a mere 1.16 touchdowns per field goal, 26th in the league. Conversely, Detroit is fantastic at scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, at a rate of 2.32 TD/FG. The Lions are, however, a below-average offense at -1.9% DVOA, 19th in the league.

Tom: Interesting. The Patriots aren't stalling out on the edge of the red zone, because they're eighth in front zone (21-40) DVOA. Instead, over the course of the season, they've struggled to run the ball inside the 20, coming out 19th in red-zone rushing DVOA.

Mike: Looking at our other odd duck, the Lions stall in the mid (22nd) and front (25th) zones, but are excellent everywhere else.

Tom: The weird thing is, the Lions aren't the opposite of the Patriots here. The Patriots aren't good running in the red zone, the Lions are really bad at it. They're 29th, -20.3% in red-zone rushing DVOA.

Mike: Quite bad, although they are quite good (40.7% DVOA, third) at red-zone passing. So they simply have an unbalanced attack, one that seems to result in many touchdowns regardless.

Tom: Well, the other thing was that they liked to fumble at the goal line. That will kill their DVOA and not affect their TD/FG ratio.

Mike: I had a brief theory that teams with low TD/FG ratios, like the Patriots and Chargers, had offensive success because their offenses were consistent and consistently had drives that at least reached the 40. San Diego fits this theory with, 3.8% offensive variance. New England ... not so much. 8.8% variance, 24th.

Tom: The tempting explanation is turnovers, but the Patriots were not a high-turnover team. The better explanation is probably the boring one, that their variance was a function of them turning over much of their receiving corps from last season. And the effect of that meant they stumbled around on offense the first six weeks of the year before figuring out what works. For this little project, the effect of that far outweighs red zone performance, important though that is.

Mike: It does seem that my pet theory is valid, however; field goals appear to be undervalued, at least by the commentariat.

Tom: It's weird, because obviously red-zone performance is incredibly important for an offense in terms of winning games. Part of what we think about a good offense is that they're able to turn possessions into more points. Yet, as I noted earlier, there are some offenses that are much better in the red zone than they are overall, and vice versa. Some bad offenses struggle in the red zone and some good offenses are good in the red zone.

Going back to Baltimore, Justin Tucker is one of the big reasons the Ravens drew such a high percentage of their points from field goals. He was 16-of-18 from 40 yards and beyond. We shouldn't think less of the Ravens because he's so good. The Jets finished fourth in FG/XP value, so it's not a big surprise they're 31st in TD/FG, especially given the overall caliber of their offensive talent.

[ad placeholder 3]

This is also of course more evidence of how great the Broncos were this year. The Bengals were below-average in terms of FG/XP value. The Lions were well below average.

Mike: Yes, it's one thing to say your kicking game consistently contributes points, but your offense consistently contributing touchdowns is even better.

Tom: The Broncos ranked third in FG/XP value. Their kicking game struggles did not artificially inflate their TD/FG ratio the way it did for the Lions. All Hail Peyton the Magnificent.

Mike: That might be the origin of this distaste for the kicking game, actually. We are obsessed with teams like this year's Broncos and the 2010 Patriots' ability to move up and down the field and into the end zone seemingly at will, so anything less is considered a steep disappointment, even if it does add significant value to the team.

Tom: Well, this is the postseason. As I like to harp on, you generally need to be able to play at a high level on both sides of the ball to win a couple games in a row against good teams. An offense that can turn possessions into points is part of that, and especially important in short games (in terms of number of possessions) like both 49ers-Panthers and Broncos-Chargers this past weekend.

Mike: I'm not sure San Diego-Denver is really a poster child for playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. But your point is taken.

Tom: Denver scored 24 offensive points in eight possessions, with a tipped ball interception, a fumble, a missed field goal, and a drive that ended the game. San Diego never once stopped them out of scoring position in a conventional way. Yes, Chargers defense, granted, and you got my point.

Mike: Yeah, that is also kind of my point. In any case, the question was whether settling for field goals made an offense bad. I think the answer is that, while generally it's not a good idea, if you have a ponderous, ball control offense like New England, San Diego or San Francisco, kicking a lot of field goals is A-OK.

Tom: The other point is that kicking field goals is okay if you're still scoring points. Even kicking an above-average number of field goals, the Chargers finished second in points per drive, the Patriots sixth, and the 49ers twelfth. In the immortal words of Chip Kelly, "!#$!ing score points."

FO Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge Update

Rivers still holds the lead, but with only 30 points in Week 2 and just a kicker and defense remaining, his lead seems unlikely to last. The new favorite is Aaron thanks in part to 40 points from LeGarrette Blount. He is the only staffer with two running backs remaining. He is one of two staffers with two wide receivers remaining. And he still has his quarterback. Sean and Mike Kurtz are rooting for points in the AFC Championship Game so their quarterbacks can power them into contention.

FO Playoff Fantasy Update
Pos. Sean Mike R. Mike K. Rivers Tom Aaron
QB Peyton Manning Aaron Rodgers Tom Brady Nick Foles Drew Brees Russell Wilson
  17 13 9 17 32 6
RB Stevan Ridley Jamaal Charles Marshawn Lynch LeSean McCoy Frank Gore Knowshon Moreno
  17 1 26 14 21 15
RB Donald Brown Danny Woodhead Eddie Lacy Gio Bernard DeAngelo Williams LeGarrette Blount
  27 15 8 11 1 40
WR Eric Decker Wes Welker Demaryius Thomas DeSean Jackson Julian Edelman Anquan Boldin
  3 9 11 5 8 19
WR A.J. Green Marvin Jones Randall Cobb Jordy Nelson Steve Smith Golden Tate
  3 13 5 12 13 1
WR Riley Cooper James Jones Doug Baldwin T.Y. Hilton Michael Crabtree Keenan Allen
  12 2 3 44 14 28
TE Vernon Davis Jimmy Graham Brent Celek Coby Fleener Julius Thomas Gregg Olsen
  15 4 1 17 5 5
K Alex Henery Phil Dawson Stephen Gostkowski Steven Hauschka Graham Gano Matt Prater
  6 23 5 12 4 7
D 49ers Chiefs Broncos Seahawks Bengals Panthers
  2 3 2 1 -2 -2
Total 102 83 70 133 96 119

Best of the Rest Update

[ad placeholder 4]

After two weeks, bledderag is in the lead with 117 points. Only six points behind him is BlueStarDude, who is probably the favorite thanks to having all of bledderag's remaining players, plus Shane Vereen and Patriots defense. Full Best of the Rest results can be viewed here.


KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Even if the lateral was planned and he should not just have stepped out of bounds as the common sense of most viewers seemed to recommend, Marques Colston had sufficient time to set his feet and ensure that he did not throw the ball forward, ending his team's last chance at advancing in the playoffs. Colston receives bonus points for not only committing a bone-headed penalty, but doing so in a situation that included a runoff. Not only did he completely misapprehend the situation, misthrow the ball, and demonstrate a slavish devotion to the instructions of his coach at the expense of common sense, his penalty cost his team even a last-ditch attempt at victory by ending the game on a penalty runoff!

MIKE MARTZ AWARD: The Panthers did well on offense in the first half of Sunday's game ... except when they got close to the goal line. Then, they struggled. They were stuffed in short yardage. Outside of a long sneak, they failed to use seemingly their most dangerous runner, Cam Newton. Why, Mike Shula, why? At least Ron Rivera was smart once, going for it on fourth-and-goal from the one. That aforementioned sneak failed, but the Panthers converted the ensuing short field after a defensive stop into a score. Naturally, Riverboat Ron could not stand this prosperity and kicked on fourth-and-goal the next time around.


18 comments, Last at 05 Mar 2018, 11:46pm

#1 by PerlStalker // Jan 15, 2014 - 3:35pm

Perhaps there would be more information if you looked at FGs from within the red zone separate from long FGs. (You could split the TD distances as well.) Obviously, red zone offense doesn't come into play if you never make into the red zone in the fist place.

Points: 0

#2 by justanothersteve // Jan 15, 2014 - 3:44pm

The KCW award should go to Travaris Cadet and not Colston. Payton admitted the lateral was a called play. It is Cadet's responsibility to make sure he stays behind Colston to keep the play legal. It probably wouldn't have worked regardless but I can't blame Colston for an illegal forward pass when he's just trying to get it across the field to where he sees his teammate. I doubt the play was even practiced more than once, so keeping track of exactly where a teammate is at game speed would be tough for anyone.

Points: 0

#8 by dryheat // Jan 15, 2014 - 10:55pm

Hard to agree with that. It's hard to accidentally throw the ball forward, so even if Cadet was ahead of Colston the whole time, it's on Colston to throw a legal lateral.

Points: 0

#10 by Mother Shebubu (not verified) // Jan 16, 2014 - 11:04am

Disagree completely. Ask any rugby player. You will naturally throw the ball to the player. If they step ahead of you, it can be vvery difficult not to follow their movement and throw the ball forwards. He should have tucked the ball and gone out of bounds, with the lateral not being on, but it can be difficult for a player to do that having little experience with the decision.

Points: 0

#11 by CBPodge // Jan 16, 2014 - 11:57am

Nah, it's easy to accidentally throw the ball forward. It's hard to accidentally throw the ball 5 yards forward though. Technically if Colston had thrown a legal lateral so far behind Cadet that it would have been incomplete, it might still have worked out if it had then bounced out of bounds.

Points: 0

#14 by Travis // Jan 16, 2014 - 3:36pm

Technically if Colston had thrown a legal lateral so far behind Cadet that it would have been incomplete, it might still have worked out if it had then bounced out of bounds.

Like an illegal forward pass, a backward pass thrown out of bounds in the final 1:00 of a half results in a five yard penalty and a ten second runoff. The game would have ended.

Points: 0

#3 by RJ Bell's 2nd … (not verified) // Jan 15, 2014 - 5:24pm

This is top flight analysis! I often wonder if teams should just kick more field goals instead of trying for touchdowns because the ball is in the air real high during field goals.

Points: 0

#4 by aARON sCHATZ DOTER (not verified) // Jan 15, 2014 - 5:35pm

icine me please medicine medicine medicine please medicine give medicine please medicine please me me

Points: 0

#6 by MJK // Jan 15, 2014 - 9:50pm

I would do it with EPA. For each drive where a FG was scored, calculate the largest Expected Points the team had for that drive at any point. If they made it to long Dg range and stalled and had a max EP of say 2.5 before kicking the FG, then they added +.5 points with the FG. If they had 1st and goal at say the 2 and had an EP of say 6.5, and settled for a FG eventually, the FG was worth -3.5. Add it up over all FG drives and see what it says. Or maybe over all drives period...

Points: 0

#7 by LionInAZ // Jan 15, 2014 - 10:05pm

I wanted to see FG value vs defensive DVOA, because it seemed to me that FGs would be more valuable to a team with a great defense, given finite resources.

Points: 0

#15 by Mike Kurtz // Jan 16, 2014 - 8:26pm

For that we would have to use win expectancy. Theoretically, a field goal would give a good defensive team a higher boost in win probability than a team with a porous defense. My main concern is that our probability measures are too imprecise to get an accurate measure of the difference in value.

For what it's worth, I looked at TD/FG vs. defensive DVOA and there is basically no relationship, so we can at least rest assured no franchise is purposefully building a team to kick field goals and hold tiny leads.

Points: 0

#12 by ChrisS (not verified) // Jan 16, 2014 - 1:24pm

I have two suggested adjustments, remove special team and defensive TD's include missed FG's. Not sure if these are material but it seems like they would make the measure more indicative of FG dependence.

Points: 0

#16 by Mike Kurtz // Jan 16, 2014 - 8:28pm

The first two were removed when we settled on TD/FG (which are drive stats and ignore non-offensive touchdowns). Missed field goals might be useful to include. A better way would be to work in the relationship between TD/FG and one of the measures of placekicking value in similar fashion to what we did with offensive DVOA.

Points: 0

#13 by #teamMISANTHROPE (not verified) // Jan 16, 2014 - 2:04pm

My favorite parts (editing mine)

M - "I had a brief theory that teams with low TD/FG ratios, like the Patriots and Chargers, had offensive success because their offenses were consistent and consistently had drives that at least reached the 40. San Diego fits this theory with, 3.8% offensive variance. New England ... not so much. 8.8% variance, 24th"

M - "It does seem that my pet theory is valid"

WAY TO VALIDATE YOUR "THEORY" (quotes are mine)

M - "field goals appear to be undervalued, at least by the commentariat."

Jumping along in the discussion we see this

T - "but your offense consistently contributing touchdowns is even better."

Fascinating "analysis" (quotation marks belong to me here)

Points: 0

#17 by johnathanwelsh // Dec 20, 2016 - 9:51am

I doubt the success of any of them. I could share my pinion on on the game and the players, but I don't want even to make heads or tails of what happened then.
Let the critics decide. They know it better.

Points: 0

#18 by Jackson warmer // Mar 05, 2018 - 11:46pm

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support the Writers
Support Football Outsiders' independent media. Use promo code WRITERS to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip the team of writers.