The Problem With Franchising Kickers: They’re Wildly Inconsistent

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make many mistakes when it comes to personnel moves, so I typically try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When they placed the franchise tag on Jeff Reed this past summer, for example, I didn’t throw papers in the air and scream about how horrible it was because, well, for all of his faults (and there are a few) he’s managed to make a lot of big kicks throughout his career.

That, of course, was the justification for keeping him and paying him the average salary of the five highest paid kickers in the NFL. And as I’ve pointed out on many a Steelers Lounge podcast this season, you can’t use that as a justification for signing him to that contract, and then look the other way when he misses those very kicks. And so far in 2010, that’s what he’s been doing. A lot.

The problem is Jeff Reed, like every other kicker in the NFL, is wildly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis.

Reed nailed a 53-yard field goal just before the half on Monday night to give the Steelers a 20-7 lead heading into the break. It was a big kick, and the type of kick you want — and expect — your multi-million dollar kicker to hit. The problem, however, is that it’s only the second kick Reed has successfully converted beyond 40-yards this season, as he’s currently 2-for-8 in that range. And that, simply, is not good enough. It’s not just the fact he’s missing the kicks, but when he’s missing them: Potential game-winners (Atlanta) or kicks that could have helped to put a team away (Cincinnati) late in the game. The reason you pay him what you pay him is to make those kicks in big situations. There’s nothing special about a kicker that nails 35-yarders all day and then shanks the 45-yarders with the game on the line.

Nobody is going to sit here and pretend that the Steelers are a flawless team without warts. Because they’re not. Just like every other team in the NFL, they have flaws and weaknesses.  Show me a Super Bowl contender in the NFL right now, and I’ll show you a team with at least one weakness somewhere on its roster (Jets: Quarterback. Patriots: Defense. Colts: Injuries/Running Game. Any NFC team: They’re all terrible).

Right now, one of the weaknesses for the Steelers is Jeff Reed. And he is the only weakness that might have a better alternative floating around the waiver wire or free agency pool, which is why he will be the player called out the most, and why he will be the player everybody looks to replace. Good luck finding a new right tackle in free agency in Week 9; but you might find a capable kicker (that is, after all, how they found Reed in the first place. Todd Peterson was terrible, so they brought a bunch of guys in off the street for an open tryout, and one of them was good enough to stick). As JJ pointed out during SL Podcast #15, the only reason you bring in another kicker, even for a look, is if you think Reed has completely lost it and is done. I’m not sure we’re at that point yet, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for a once-successful kicker to just lose it out of nowhere. It happens. It happens because kickers are completely nuts.

I looked at every current kicker in the NFL and compared their year-to-year success rates, and, not surprisingly, they fluctuate on a yearly basis. Up one year. Down the next. Almost no consistency from anybody. See for yourself. The names of the individual kickers on the chart aren’t important. What’s important is that almost none of them can be counted on to repeat their previous seasons results — whether they be good or bad — while they all vary between 70 percent and 85 percent from one year to the next.

That’s a mess. Let’s drill it down a little further. Here’s Jeff Reed’s chart, year-by-year. Not surprisingly, it looks like a roller coaster.

Just for laughs, here’s the player that is regarded — justified or not — as one of the best, most consistent, and most clutch kickers to ever play in the NFL: Adam Vinatieri. The only thing consistent about him is his inconsistency, especially once he hit year six of his career.

I understand why team’s value a good kicker as highly as they do. When you’re lining up for a 45-yard field goal with three seconds to play, trailing by one point, you want a person out there you can count on to drill it in a pressure situation.

But the reality is, investing heavily in a kicker is a risky proposition because you never really know what you’re going to get in a given season, while there’s usually cheaper options floating around the league looking for work. Look, all players have bad seasons — or good seasons — that stand out from their career norms, but you would be hard pressed to find another position that has so many players vary too such a degree as what you see with kickers.

In short: Franchising a kicker may not be the best use of that asset (or that salary cap space, assuming the cap is in place. Fortunately, there’s no salary cap in the NFL this season so it’s not really hurting the Steelers in a financial sense. Well, outside of the Rooney family checking account.)

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  • Anonymous

    It’s not the only one beyond 40 yards. the first FG of the year was fifty-two yards against Atlanta.

    • Gretz

      You’re correct. Good catch. I was looking at the numbers before they were updated for Monday’s game. He’s currently 0-for-4 40-49, and 2-for-4 50+. 2-for-8 beyond 40. Post has been updated.

  • GlennW

    Reed looks grossly out of shape to me. More than usual, I mean. Of course if he were making his kicks I wouldn’t mind if he looked like Toni Fritsch. All of Reed’s bulk does nothing for his kickoff distances though, apparently.

    • Randy Steele

      Reed looks gross, period. Those thighs of his are big enough to be in their third tri-mester.

  • Warriorblitz

    Isn’t some of this the nature of the position? I mean when a QB has an 80% completion pecentage he is considered a god but a kicker is considered a douche bag. It’s just that when the boy only has 4 plays a game that count the % get kind of skewed and I’m not sure they really tell us all that much. Maybe I just have lower expectations…I don’t think anything over 40 yards is an expected FG…what is the avg success rate for 40+ yard attempts?

    I’m not defending Skippy here I just don’t want to trash him too bad because if you look around the league there are not many “great” kickers out there and I would think that if bunches of them were bagging groceries we’d hear about it.

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  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I’m not a stats guru (I’ll leave that to Football Outsiders’ most credentialed stats guy, Ryan Wilson). but eyeballing the data, it looks like most kickers are 80%, +/- 5%. Given the small sample size of so few kicks a year, this seems more consistent than I would have guessed. Put into whole numbers, if you attempt 35 kicks, most guys will make 28, +/- 2.