Are NFL Kickers Getting Better?

Monday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Detroit Lions came down to the kicker. NPR's Rachel Martin and sports reporter Mike Pesca discuss the role of the NFL kicker and whether that job is getting more respect from fans and players.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for sports.

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MARTIN: The NFL regular season is nearing an end and the stakes are getting higher - don't they always - as teams jockey for playoff spots. On Monday night, the game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Detroit Lions came down to one of the least-heralded players on the field - the kicker. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker kicked six - count them, six - field goals, including a 61-yard field goal to win the game. He was responsible for all of the Ravens points. So, that got us thinking. Are NFL kickers getting better? To find out, we called up NPR's Mike Pesca. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: More than called me up. I'm actually in the studio.

MARTIN: I know. Thank you. Going the extra mile. OK. So, I have long thought that there is no more difficult pressure-inducing job in the NFL than that of a kicker. And this season they seem to be bearing that pressure better than ever before. Am I making that up?

PESCA: Well, I mean, there is the guy who does the down marker; he tells you if it's first or second down. He's got to get that right. But, yeah, no, I would say kicker is a lot of pressure. It's a different skill set from the rest of football and therefore they get made fun of by ignorant fans and occasionally ignorant offensive linemen who know when dare say, shut up, you ignorant offensive linemen. But the question, you know, are kickers getting better? This has been analyzed. The answer seems to be yes. I cite three MIT statisticians who did a paper called "Going for Three: Predicting the Likelihood of Field Goal Success," Rachel, with logistic regression. Yeah, they say that kickers seem to be having bigger legs, they're more accurate. One of the reasons they say is they seem to be sticking around the NFL for longer. I'm going to throw global warming out there because it's actually easier and they prove it's easier to kick when it's warm. So, maybe lack of temperature somehow plays in.

MARTIN: But, I mean, Justin Tucker. This was phenomenal, and that's what we're kind of holding up is this example of how kickers seem to be getting better. But, I mean, how many chances does a kicker get to kick six field goals in one game anyway? That's serendipitous.

PESCA: It is serendipitous. It usually takes a weird set of circumstance. By the way, the answer's 180 - 180 times has anyone tried to kick six field goals.

MARTIN: Wow.

PESCA: Twenty-four kickers have ever gone six-for-six or better. Now, it's weird, just as you mentioned. So, the team, the offense, has to be good enough to get the kicker in position but not so good that they score touchdowns, right? So, usually an offense is either good or bad. It's not, like, halfway good. And so I went back to all these guys who made six-for-six or better, and it turns out that their defenses were excellent at turning the other team over. The kicker's teams averaged four turnovers or they induced four turnovers a game. It's more than, or it's about twice as much, as the NFL usually averages. And then you begin to see, ah. So, what happens is their offense is bad, their offense can't move the ball but then the kicker is in a position to make the kick because of what their defense did. And in fact in that game against the Lions, Matthew Stafford on the Lions turned it over three times. This was in keeping with the trend.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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