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The NFL Evaluates Kickers Incorrectly

Aaron Schatz – of Football Outsiders fame – has penned an interesting Keeping Score column in today’s New York Times. The column makes a simple, yet bold assertion in the title: “NFL Kickers are Judged on the Wrong Criteria.”

Schatz argues there are two aspects to a kicker’s performance – accuracy on field goal attempts and distance on kick-0ffs. Of these two characteristics, field goal accuracy gets you paid in the NFL. To bolster this argument he notes the $5.4 million the Dallas Cowboys are scheduled to pay Mike Vanderjagt over three seasons. Vanderjagt is the NFL career leader in field goal accuracy. He is also, according to Schatz, one of the NFL’s worst kickers in distance on kick-offs. Given the money paid Vanderjagt, it appears accuracy on field goals is what drove the Cowboy’s decision. Yet Schatz says that focus is misplaced.

“There is effectively no correlation between a kicker’s field-goal percentage one season and his field-goal percentage the next. But average kickoff distance shows more consistency from season to season than almost any other individual statistic in the N.F.L.”

At Football Outsiders Schatz expands on this observation.

“Measuring every kicker from 1999-2005 who had at least 10 field goal attempts in two consecutive years, the year-to-year correlation of field goal percentage is .03. ... On the other hand, the year-to-year correlation of average kickoff distance — same time period, same minimum of 10 kickoffs — is .60. That makes average kickoff distance one of the most predictable individual stats in the entire NFL, at any position.”

Still, teams appear to be paying for accuracy. In essence, Schatz argues that the NFL is Fooled by Randomness. Field goal accuracy defies prediction, so noting past accuracy is not useful in determining wages. Yet NFL teams appear to be incorporating this information in negotiating salaries.

Although this story is interesting by itself, one could argue that this is just one more example of the Moneyball phenomenon in sports. Is anyone compiling a list of such examples?