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|
|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.