We have known for a long time that changes in individual kicker performance more likely come from statistical variance than from poor skills. As researchers Donald Morrison and Manohar Kalwani wrote in a 1992 analysis of NFL kicking results from 1989-1992, "Data suggest that decisions to hire and fire kickers are often based on overreaction to random events”. (The authors also produced this killer line: “Remember, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”) In general, kickers have only gotten better and more consistent in the 25 years since, and so has our understanding of probability theory as it applies to football.
The Seattle Seahawks were able to buy low on kicker Blair Walsh (Walsh’s base salary and signing bonus on a one-year deal is about a quarter what Walsh’s average annual salary was when the Minnesota Vikings extended him in 2015 for $13 million over four years) after Walsh was perceived to struggle 2016: In nine games he missed four field goals and four extra points, putting him in the top 10 of both unhappy categories even though he played barely half the season.
Supposedly, Walsh was psychologically fragile following his ugly and costly short miss against the Seahawks in the Wild Card round the previous postseason. Football Outsiders’ Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter wrote in November, “Poor Blair Walsh has yet to recover from his miss in last year's playoffs, and his shaky play this year has Vikings fans gnashing their teeth.” A week later Minnesota released Walsh, and Knowles and Potter wrote his epitaph in their item on their fantasy league that rewards bad results: “He will be missed by Loser League general managers.” In February they named him to the league’s All-“Keep Chopping Wood” team for players “who did the most to help their teams lose games”, adding, “He also was terrible on kickoffs, managing only 19 touchbacks in 41 attempts, kicking another out of bounds, and setting up opposing returners for 26.1 yards per return.” Yikes.
While I find it strange for writers at an analytics site to be so hung up on the mental/momentum side of the Walsh discussion, it was always shrewd to imagine Walsh doing better in Seattle. Even if you subscribe to the popular psychiatric explanations for his downfall with the Vikings, the same mind-over-matter framework could allow you to imagine that the proverbial “change of scenery” could reboot Walsh’s confidence or his concentration or whatever, or perhaps it was specifically by joining the team that “broke” him that he could cancel the bad juju.
More sensibly, there is the lengthy statistical evidence that Walsh’s slump was never anything but noise in the kicker’s extended body of work. As recently as 2014, Benjamin Morris, probably the best sports data analyst in the game right now, declared Walsh, with Dan Bailey and Justin Tucker, part of “this generation’s golden triad of kickers, and their infiltration of the record books has likely just begun.” That was only the third or fourth season for these young placekickers, but since then Bailey led the NFL in field goal percentage in 2015 and Tucker was first team All-Pro in 2016; neither has ever missed an extra point in a combined 416 attempts. Likewise, Walsh was having a splendid enough 2015—he led the league in total field goals made and was 6 for 8 beyond 50 yards—before his ruinous final try against the Seahawks. For anyone frustrations can compound and true decline of athletes is always in play, but NFL history and principles of probability suggest his nine games (16 field goal attempts) in 2016 is not as good a sample for projecting a kicker’s future performance as Walsh’s full 73-game career (158 attempts). Especially at age 27.
Still more meaningfully, Morris was examining Walsh’s and the others’ points produced compared to expectation for their kicks, not just the raw percentages. This distinction is critical for recognizing Walsh’s real value in the league. Walsh’s career field goal rate (84.2 percent) remains 14th all-time in pro football, which sounds more impressive until you realize that 10 of the kickers ahead of him are still active—such is the fact of steady historical improvement in overall kicking as I mentioned above. But where Walsh stands out, and should be the differentiator for all kicking analysis, is what he can do from distance.
Here are Walsh’s career numbers, broken down by range, compared to NFL average at the same distances since his rookie season (in parentheses):
0-19 yards 3-3 100% (100)
20-29 yards 31-32 96.8% (97.2)
30-39 yards 46-52 88.5% (90.9)
40-49 yards 29-37 78.4% (79.2)
50+ yards 24-34 70.5% (62.1)
As you can see, there’s not too much to get excited about at the shorter ranges—Walsh essentially meets expectation for an average pro kicker, but that’s at least superior to the headcase version of Walsh many fans probably assume given his tarnished reputation from last year. However, where Seattle makes more than its money back in the bargain for Walsh is in long-range tries. Now consider what Justis Mosqueda calculated when evaluating the troubles that cut short Roberto Aguayo’s career for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
“The standard deviation of the efficiency of teams on kicks of under 40 yards is 2.91 points. The standard deviation of the efficiency of teams on kicks of 40 yards or more is 6.33 points. Kicks of 40 yards or longer have 218% of the variance of kicks of under 40 yards. What makes or breaks NFL kicking games is their ability to connect on long kicks, not short kicks. For the most part, it’s the sole factor in deciding if a team has a good or bad year in that unit. It makes or breaks careers.”
That’s not to say short kicks aren’t important: Any miss here or there can mean the difference between wins and losses (or ties) and those results can decide seeding and homefield advantage in playoff games, as the Seahawks learned in 2016. Indeed, if there’s a good cause to challenge Walsh’s performance the last few years, it’s been on extra points (and as the FO guys noted, maybe kickoffs). After going 108 for 109 his first three years, Walsh missed nine out of 56 points after touchdowns since the league went to PATs from the 15 instead of from the two at the beginning of 2015, or 16 percent of his tries, which is abysmal considering an expectation of fewer than 5 percent misses at that range. When it comes to field goals, the fact short kicks have such higher expected point value makes missing them more costly, not less. But icy playoff miss aside Walsh was fine on short field goals in that same stretch when the new extra point apparently gave him fits, so it doesn’t seem like the mental thing it was propped up to be—maybe the problem last year was the Vikings tried only two kicks inside 30 yards, robbing him of this fattest, lowest fruit. He made them both (and was seven of eight inside 40 in 2016), but on his career Walsh had averaged between seven and 11 sub-30 yard attempts per season so you can see how subtracting these gimmes might screw up his 2016 percentages. And anyway those lost PATs still add up to just six points Walsh cost the Vikings across a 25-game stretch, or only 0.24 points per game—the exact same amount Walsh exceeds expectation with each beyond-50 yard try.
That added scoring value becomes a yet greater bonus when accounting for extra kicks the team attempts knowing Walsh’s strength and accuracy at that distance. If you’re worried about the significance of Walsh’s 34-kick sample longer than 50 yards, only five kickers during his career have a higher success rate with even as many as 20 such attempts at distance. Steven Hauschka had a slightly better rate (72 percent), but his leg didn’t prompt coaches to try nearly as often (only 18 attempts). Only Greg Zuerlein, Sebastian Janikowski and Tucker tried more 50-plus kicks since 2012, and all did worse (only Tucker even came close). Notably, Walsh maintained this long-range rate and frequency also during his point-after “slump”. Clearly, Walsh’s ability to kick well from farther out extends a team’s field goal range by adding expected points to the edge of that territory.
Over a sizeable enough sample to truly predict value over expectation, longer kicks are the denominator that generates value for kickers and separates talent in the league. Unlike Aguayo, Walsh passes that test.
So far in the preseason, Walsh has been exactly what his career numbers would indicate: four for five on field goals, with a make from 52 yards and a miss by inches from 53, plus eight for eight on points after. Not that Walsh’s numbers in the first two exhibitions last year (two for three, with a miss from 47 and a make from 51, and flawless on extra points; he also didn’t miss any kicks the rest of the preseason) necessarily hinted at his failings in the regular season. But for so many reasons those failings don’t seem predictive of anything either. Like Kenneth Arthur wrote before last week’s game, “As long as he keeps making his extra points, is perfect inside of 40, mostly perfect from 41-49, and average beyond 50, Walsh will do just fine.” That’s exactly what he did against his old team, and Walsh’s overall profile suggests he can continue it.
The kickoff thing is another story, and we will have to considered it as we observe Walsh’s total contribution to Seattle’s special teams. It would be quite strange if a fellow whose specialty is accuracy at distance subsequently also has a hard time kicking deep off the tee. I don’t have a lot of figures on Walsh’s career kickoff performance, but even if he was shabbier than usual in 2016 it doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of a guy who was shattered because of his Vaudeville hook in the playoffs.
As long as we’re getting esoteric in the kicking game, though, I did think of one other coefficient that might filter Walsh’s placekicking stats.
In 2012, when Walsh was first team All-Pro as a rookie, he made his career-high with 92 percent overall, hit 10 for 10 on field goals longer than 50 yards and also was flawless on 36 extra points. If I’m going to ask you to remember Walsh’s whole career arc, and pay attention to the special value of his distance kicking, then it seems salient to note how this first season supplies almost 30 percent of his 50-plus yard attempts and more than 40 percent of those makes. Since that extraordinary early success, Walsh has been below average in the longest segment of kicks too.
So what changed following 2012? If you remember, Minnesota Kaepernicked punter Chris Kluwe for his outspokenness about gay rights and discrimination, replacing him with Jeff Locke, the same one who held Walsh’s ball laces-in on the fateful kick from January 2016. Walsh has always been graceful about that matter, claiming sole responsibility for the decisive miss while specifically absolving both Locke and the long snapper: “It’s on me,” Walsh said.
I don’t have any data other than the kick results to speculate whether Kluwe was really a better holder than Locke, who held on all of Walsh’s kicks for the past four years before Walsh joined the Seahawks, or whether that was a factor at all. Who knows? We do know Jon Ryan has been a steady holder in Seattle, and perhaps a holder is the most mood-stabilizing ingredient in the field goal kicking recipe.
But we know for sure if changes in who holds the ball could alter a player’s career, then holder would be its own specialized position treated almost like a long snapper. There is no standard deviation in the expected efficiency of certain holders that anyone has measured, and kicking follows probabilistic patterns much more sensitive to variables like distance than any unit of time like one year or another. It makes almost as little sense to isolate Walsh’s career after 2012 as it does to throw out anything before 2016, so let’s look at Blair Walsh’s career in its entirety when we model his expectations for 2017. And from here, that outlook looks pretty good.