Kicker Questions - Mason Crosby vs. The NFL

Mason has brought out the sad face with alarming regularity. Kickers are a touchy subject in Wisconsin these days. Mason Crosby's struggles have been well documented, and sometimes it seems the only person who believes in him is Mike McCarthy. Even the usually even-keeled Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette is calling for a new kicker, and it's difficult to disagree with him at this point.

A quick recap: after a career year last season (the only season, by the way, where he's hit more than 80% of his kicks), Crosby began this year a perfect 5 for 5. Since then, though, the decline has been rapid. He missed two kicks in Green Bay's three point loss to Indianapolis, including one that would have tied the game late, and has missed at least one kick in every game since then, save for Week 6 against Houston, when he didn't kick at all.

The easy comparison is to line Crosby up against the rest of the kickers in the league this year and point out that he ranks 36th of 37 kickers in the league in terms of accuracy, barely beating out Billy Cundiff, who is currently unemployed. But, as this excellent piece by Bill Barnwell of Grantland observes, kicking statistics are based on a ridiculously small sample size, thus making it difficult to evaluate kickers comparatively.

To compare kickers across the league and to evaluate how Mason Crosby fits within that landscape, we need to increase the sample size. Therefore, instead of single season statistics, it may be helpful instead to examine first how kickers have performed across their careers and secondly how Mason Crosby's career numbers before and after the slump compare.

Currently (at least based on this cumulative roster on Wikipedia), there are 35 kickers employed by NFL teams, with three teams carrying two kickers due to injury. Here are their career statistics measuring how long they've played in the NFL, how many teams they've played for, their career kicking percentages, and their career long for a single made kick. All stats should be current as of this week.

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This data establishes for us what should be considered a "typical" NFL kicker. Based on what's presented here, we can see that a typical kicker on an NFL roster today will have attempted about 206 field goals, converting approximately 169, or about 82%. He will likely be in his seventh season and still be playing for his first team. (In fact, exactly 75% of kickers on NFL rosters today are playing with their original team.) This typical kicker will also have a career long of between 53 and 56 yards, although it's most likely he'll have topped out at 53.

Considering these interesting observations, we can see that Stephen Gostkowski is probably the most "typical" kicker in the league today, lining up almost perfectly with the established profile. He's in his seventh NFL season, but still playing for his first NFL team. He's attempted just under 200 field goals and has made 167, a career rate of 84%, slightly above the career league average. His career long even sits right at 53 yards.

Most importantly, though, the more than 7000 kicks contained in this spreadsheet establishes a pretty decent standard for measuring accuracy. Based on these numbers, it seems reasonable to expect that an NFL kicker should convert his field goal opportunities about 82% of the time. That, of course, brings us to Mr. Crosby.

Currently, Mason Crosby is one of the six least accurate kickers on an NFL roster. He, like Gostkowski, is close to the profile of a "typical" kicker, but converts his kicks at a significantly lower rate. The data doesn't take into account the average distance of a kick, and a more thorough analysis could show that Crosby misses most of his kicks from a tremendous distance, but that may not be relevant across this broad of a sample size. The point is this: for his career, Mason Crosby is a below average kicker.

Obviously, his stats are pushed downward by a poor year this year, but even before this season, Crosby was a career 79.4% on field goal attempts. Prior to last season, Crosby's career  best field goal rate was 79.5%, all the way back in 2007, his rookie season. Lambeau Field is notorious for its swirling winds, but even so, Crosby has performed consistently below what the data shows to be an average rate in the NFL.

So where does this leave the Packers? Mike McCarthy has repeatedly said Mason Crosby is his man, and Ted Thompson is notoriously loath to give up on his draft picks. That will likely be the end of the matter. But is there a better option? Well, yes and no. Here's another spreadsheet, this time detailing the career exploits of kickers recently employed by NFL teams.

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Much to the chagrin of Packer fans, the free agent cupboard is pretty bare. You have your choice: old or inexperienced. John Kasay and John Carney are both in their 40's, Ryan Longwell is 38, and Neil Rackers is 36. No long term solutions there, but Rackers has been good enough historically to possibly merit a look, although even he has been slightly below average for his career.

The less experienced kickers are almost uniformly bad, and barely deserve discussion. The best of the bunch is Dave Rayner, a former Packer and career journeyman (as evidenced by his eight teams in seven seasons) who has never been consistent enough to stick around anywhere. As bad as he's been, Crosby is probably a better choice than Rayner.

Perhaps the only truly intriguing option is Nate Kaeding. A two-time Pro Bowler, Kaeding is a sparkling career 87% kicker. There's just one problem: he has a history of playoff meltdowns. In the 2009 playoffs, he missed three field goals in a 17-14 loss to the Jets. Prior to that, he went 0-for-1 in a 24-21 loss to the Patriots in the 2006 playoffs. And in the 2004 playoffs, he missed one of his two field goal attempts in (you guessed it) another three point loss, this time a 20-17 beating at the hands of the Jets.

It may be unfair to Kaeding to reduce his entire career to just those six field goals. For instance, in the 2007 playoffs, he scored all of San Diego's points in their 21-12 loss to New England on a perfect 4-for-4 day from the field. You don't hear about that game very often, but it most definitely happened. The point, though, is that there's enough of a track record of bad kicks in the playoffs to give anyone looking to sign a kicker just a bit of pause, especially a team bound for the playoffs like the Packers.

Based on the available options, then, it seems like Mason Crosby just might be safe. If not for Kaeding, there likely isn't a kicker out there good enough to take Crosby's job, at least not one with any sort of established track record.

That said, should he miss again this week, it's very possible that the McCarthy/Thompson brain trust will be interested in kicking the tires of a free agent field goal specialist. While it's true that the available kickers each have their warts, be they age or playoff inconsistency, it's also true that none of them are mired in a historically awful slump. That factor alone may ultimately be enough for the Packers to bring in another kicker in their run for another Lombardi Trophy.