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Field Goal Rates Throughout NFL History

Yesterday, I wrote about Nick Lowery and why I think he was the greatest field goal kicker in NFL history.  That post was pretty long — I probably should have broken it into two parts — but I’d welcome any more discussion on the topic here or there.

So today I’ll keep it short and sweet: a reminder on how necessary era adjustments are when discussing field goal kickers. The graph below shows the field goal success rate throughout history. From 1960 to 1964, the average success rate was 50 percent. Over the last five years, the average rate was 85 percent.

Even more remarkable is that kicks are being attempted from farther away now, too. In 1960, the average kick was from 30.9 yards away; the average successful kick was from 26.2 yards out, while the average miss was from 36.0 yards away. Well, in 2016, the average kick was from 37.7 yards away; the average successful kick was from 36.2 yards out — farther than the average miss in 1960! — while the average miss was from 46.2 yards away.

The graph below shows the average length of each field goal attempt, in blue, each field goal made, in orange, and each field goal miss, in gray.

Enjoy!

  • evo34

    I think your data shows the exact opposite: Nick Lowery was great for his era, but would be a marginal starter in today’s NFL. The equipment hasn’t changed at all. So calling Lowery the best ever would be akin to calling a dominant sprinter/swimmer in the 70s the best ever. For things we can measure on an absolute level, we should do so.

    • One thing that has change though dramatically is playing surface. The turf in today’s NFL is optimal. In the past, half the teams were playing on green dirt by November. Many teams also had multipurpose stadiums that in the early part of the season either had baseball dirt on part of the field or viably tucked underneath the turf. Combine that with only having 5 teams playing indoors, I think you could say that it was much more challenging to kick in Lowery’s day than today. Also, Chase’s claim was that Lowery was the most VALUABLE kicker in league history because he outperformed his peers so much. Even if today’s kickers convert FGs much more often than Lowery, if nearly everyone in the league is doing that, they are significantly less valuable to their team than a guy like Lowery is to his team.

      • evo34

        Actually, his claim was the “greatest.” It’s in the very first sentence.

    • Richie

      We have no way of knowing how a player would adapt to current conditions (in any sport), and vice-versa. So the best we can do is compare to their contemporaries.

      However, considering all kickers are better now than pretty much all kickers 30 years ago, I think it’s safe to assume that playing conditions and training techniques have improved over the last 30 years, and Lowery most likely would have been able to improve along with them, had he been born 30 years later.

      • evo34

        That makes no sense.

        As I said, for things we can measure on an absolute level, we should do so.

        • Richie

          It doesn’t make sense to compare to contemporaries? Why not?

  • LightsOut85

    Would any of the older, or more historically versed, readers be able to enlighten me on any changes in the NFL that caused the huge leap in average made-FG from 1973 to 1974? I’m not aware of some well-known rule change (or the like) that could influence this. (While we’re at it, was there something between 1989 & 1991 that would have caused WR YPC to drastically drop? According to my numbers it went from 15.3 to 14, when it was more of a steady decline before & after that range).

    • Anders

      The NFL moved the goal posts from goal line to end of end zone in 1974

      The funny is the also moved up the crossbar in 1974 and tighting the width of the hashmark in 1972.

      One would think moving the goal post back and raising the crossbar would decrease the FG%

      • Deacon Drake

        Moving the posts back didn’t have much effect on kickers ability, but gave the average FG made 10 extra yards of difference based on field position of which field goals are attempted.

        In the 70s, there were few dynamic passing teams, so coaches regularly punted in opponents territory because the likeliness of going 90+ yards on a drive was lower. Therefore most coaches would wait until they got inside the 30 to attempt a FG, where the success rate would be higher. Those attempts were all immediately 10 yards longer in 1974 with no change in strategy. It looks that the % made took a short term hit while teams adjusted and either changed strategy or found better kickers.

      • LightsOut85

        Ahhh, thanks. I had never known when that took place.

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