Playing it Safe: Should Coaches Kick the Field Goal?


In the game against the Jets, Mike Tomlin’s team possessed the ball inside the redzone while facing a fourth-and-two. Tomlin opted to play it safe and kick the field goal. However, Shaun Suisham shanked his kick wide left to the surprise of everyone in the stadium. Whether or not Tomlin’s decision was the right call from an EPA perspective (which it was not), shanks like Suisham’s are becoming less and less common, regardless of the distance. Kicker accuracy has improved significantly over the past decade, which makes the decision to go for it more difficult for coaches.

Percentage Breakdown of Kicking By Year and Distance


Not surprisingly, kicks within 40 yards have changed very little in terms of accuracy and have fluctuated significantly over the years. Even so, there has been an upward trend in kicks made from within forty yards. In the case of Suisham’s kick, the probability for him to miss that kick was approximately 2%, if not lower. Most misses from close range come from blocked field goals, so the probability of Suisham shanking the kick was likely lower than 2%.

In the past two years, there has been a noticeable increase in the percentage of made attempts from the 40-49 yard range. The 11.03% increase in this range over the past decade leads to an EPA increase of over three-tenths of a point, a significant statistic that could lead coaches to play more conservative in fourth down situations. Advanced Football Analytics implements a 76% success rate for kicks of forty-one yards. With the recent increase in the percentage of made kicks, the rise of the success rate to 79% or 80% would alter the EPA and WPA of whether or not to go for it on fourth down. Through Week 9, kickers are hitting 83.56% of their attempts, which provides an argument for an even higher success rate on such kicks.

We also see a recent increase in attempts made over 50 yards. From 2004-2010, kickers converted 53.90% of attempts from this distance. Since 2011, that numbers has risen to an outstanding 64.06%, which does not include the rate of 63.16% through week 9 of the 2014 season. Advanced Football Analytics say that the success rate of converting a field goal from fifty-one yards is only 55%. That ten percent difference could be significant enough to convince aggressive coaches to go for it on a 4th and short when, in reality, the field goal attempt yields the higher EPA.

It is critical, however, to understand game situation and personnel. The Detroit Lions’  committee of kickers have lost them a couple games this year, and it probably makes more sense to trust Megatron on a fourth and short. Conversely, Dan Carpenter is one of the most reliable kickers, and  the Buffalo Bills do not exactly have an exhilarating offense. Overall, coaches may want to reexamine the EPA of kicking and give their million dollar legs a chance to score. It paid off for the Ravens when they did so on Monday Night against the Lions last year. Across the board, coaches should recognize the ever-increasing odds of converting that 45 or 50 yard field goal.

Data current as of Week 10 of the 2014 NFL season.
Image courtesy of

Nick Barton 
Georgetown University Class of 2017

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