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Playing with the most coaches on one team

This man knows a coach when he sees one.

This man knows a coach when he sees one.

During the season, Mike Tanier noted that Shane Lechler has played for eight different coaches while being a member of the Raiders. When I read it, I thought that sounded like the start of a really good trivia question, and I put figuring out the answer to that question on my offseason to-do list. Sadly, the offseason is here.

Lechler and his special teams brother Sebastian Janikowski are two of only four players since 1960 to play for eight different coaches for the same franchise. Both Lechler and Janikowski were selected in the 2000 draft, and they each played under Jon Gruden, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, and Dennis Allen.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Jason Hanson, the Lions placekicker since 1874, has seen his share of head coaches come and go, too. The fourth player is Ernie McMillan, a four-time Pro Bowl tackle for the Cardinals in the ’60s and ’70s (and the father of Jets safety Erik McMillan), although he makes the list with an asterisk. McMillan played for Don Coryell in ’73 and ’74, Bob Hollway in ’71 and ’72, Charley Winner from ’66 to ’70 and Wally Lemm for four years before that. But in his rookie season of 1961, the Cardinals had four different head coaches, if you take a liberal definition of the word. St. Louis was coached by Pop Ivy for most of the season, but Chuck Drulis, Ray Prochaska, and Ray Willsey all served as the interim head coaches at the end of the year. In any event, I will include all co-coaches as separate coaches.

The table below shows all players to play under at least five different coaches for the same franchise since 1960. The first year with the team and the last year with a new coach for that team is indicated for each player, and I have taken the inclusive approach when it comes to co-coaches.
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Rankings the kickers, from Tucker to Crosby

Mack Brown knows kicker.

Mack Brown knows kickers.

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a three-part series analyzing every kicker of the last half-century (here are the links to Part I, Part II, Part III). What I did there was analyzed field goal attempts by distance, and then credited a kicker for how many field goals he made over the expected number of successful field goals from each distance.

For example, field goal kickers this year have made 15 of 23 attempts from exactly 50 yards.1 If we assume that 50-yard kicks are successful 65% of the time, then a made 50-yarder will be worth +0.35 field goals and a missed 50-yarder will be worth -0.65 field goals.

To smooth the data, I used kicks from 2005 to 2011, and I also grouped field goals into four-yard increments. In the off-season, I plan to incorporate stadium, temperature, and other weather effects, but for now, I’ve ignored the (often large) role such elements can play.

The table below shows how many field goals over expectation each kicker made through week 15. I also included a column for extra points, and the final column shows how many points over average each kicker provided, giving them 3 points for each field goal and one point for each extra point over average:

1Justin TuckerBAL252792.6%20.74.337370.213.1
2Sebastian JanikowskiOAK293290.6%24.74.322220.112.9
3Blair WalshMIN293290.6%25.13.930300.211.8
4Shaun SuishamPIT262796.3%22.43.630300.210.8
5Phil DawsonCLE262796.3%22.53.528280.210.6
6Kai ForbathWAS1515100%11.53.52627-0.89.6
7Dan BaileyDAL272993.1%24332320.29.3
8Jason HansonDET283287.5%25.12.934340.28.8
9Connor BarthTAM232882.1%20.52.537370.27.7
10Greg ZuerleinSTL212972.4%18.72.321210.17.1
11Jay FeelyARI212487.5%18.82.223230.16.8
12Josh ScobeeJAX222491.7%19.62.41516-0.96.2
13Matt BryantATL313686.1%29.31.738380.25.4
14Rian LindellBUF202195.2%18.31.734340.25.2
15Nick NovakSDG151788.2%13.61.427270.24.2
16Alex HeneryPHI252889.3%23.51.52223-0.93.7
17Dan CarpenterMIA222781.5%21.20.826260.12.6
18Ryan SuccopKAN252986.2%24.20.816160.12.4
19Nate KaedingSDG77100%6.20.86602.4
20Josh BrownCIN66100%5.30.75502.2
21Robbie GouldCHI212584%20.50.533330.21.8
22Steven HauschkaSEA222588%20.91.13840-1.81.4
23Mike NugentCIN192382.6%18.60.435350.21.3
24Olindo MareCHI22100%1.80.21100.5
25Graham GanoCAR55100%4.60.41314-0.90.3
26Garrett HartleyNOR151883.3%15.1-0.148480.30.1
27Lawrence TynesNYG333984.6%33.1-0.138380.2-0.2
28Stephen GostkowskiNWE263281.3%26.2-0.260600.3-0.3
29Shayne GrahamHOU263281.3%26.2-0.244440.2-0.5
30Adam VinatieriIND243177.4%24.2-0.231310.2-0.5
31Matt PraterDEN232979.3%23.8-0.846460.3-2.2
32Nick FolkNYJ172277.3%17.8-0.828280.2-2.3
33Rob BironasTEN243080%24.9-0.929290.2-2.4
34Justin MedlockCAR71070%8.3-1.323230.1-3.9
35Billy CundiffWAS71258.3%9.3-2.317170.1-6.7
36David AkersSFO253571.4%28.2-3.240400.2-9.5
37Mason CrosbyGNB172958.6%21.3-4.339390.2-12.8

So Justin Tucker and Sebastian Janikowski have been the most valuable kickers this year — no surprise there, although Tucker is far from a household name. The worst two kickers won’t shock anyone who has watched much of the Packers or 49ers this year, as David Akers and especially Mason Crosby have been constant sources of frustration for their fans.

I’ll note that I am counting blocked field goals just like a regular miss. When I previewed the list to my brother, he was surprised to see Folk ranking 32nd, since he only missed five field goals. Well, two of them were blocked; if you removed those (and blamed them on the line instead of a low trajectory), he would be 17th (although in this one, I am only removing blocks for Folk). I’d also note that two of his other 3 misses hit the uprights, so I’m not surprised to see my brother (or any Jets fan) surprised to see Folk 32nd.

What if we look at expected field goals over average by distance?

RkNameTm19to2223to2627to3031to3435to3839to4243to4647to5051to5455to5859to6263to66FG Ov Avg
1Justin TuckerBAL00.
2Sebastian JanikowskiOAK0.
3Blair WalshMIN00.1-
4Shaun SuishamPIT0.
6Kai ForbathWAS00.100.2001.12.200003.5
5Phil DawsonCLE00.1-
7Dan BaileyDAL0.
8Jason HansonDET000.
9Connor BarthTAM000.10.1-
12Josh ScobeeJAX0.
10Greg ZuerleinSTL000.10.2-
11Jay FeelyARI000.20.2-0.3-
13Matt BryantATL-0.900.20.3-0.31-0.4-
14Rian LindellBUF0000.5-
16Alex HeneryPHI0.10.10-
15Nick NovakSDG0.10.100.300.20.50.7-0.1-0.4001.4
22Steven HauschkaSEA0.
17Dan CarpenterMIA000.
19Nate KaedingSDG00.10000.40.3000000.8
18Ryan SuccopKAN00-0.9-0.30.3-
20Josh BrownCIN00.100.200000.50000.7
21Robbie GouldCHI0.10.10-0.70.3-0.21.1-0.90.90000.5
25Graham GanoCAR00.100.200.20000000.4
23Mike NugentCIN0.
24Olindo MareCHI0000.2000000000.2
26Garrett HartleyNOR0.10.100.2-0.70.20-0.30.4000-0.1
27Lawrence TynesNYG00.2-0.70.3-0.10.4-0.21.1-1.1000-0.1
28Stephen GostkowskiNWE00.10.10.4-0.5-2.21.1-0.20.9000-0.2
30Adam VinatieriIND0.10.100.1-
29Shayne GrahamHOU0.
31Matt PraterDEN0.10.10.1-0.20.10-0.6-1.31.4-0.400-0.8
32Nick FolkNYJ0.1-0.900.3-0.60.2-0.600.8000-0.8
33Rob BironasTEN00.
34Justin MedlockCAR0000.30-0.8-0.2-0.60000-1.3
35Billy CundiffWAS000-1.80.4-0.40.300-0.4-0.30-2.3
36David AkersSFO000.3-0.60.7-1.8-0.9-0.3-1.1-0.400.8-3.2
37Mason CrosbyGNB00.10.1-0.7-0.7-0.2-1.51.2-1.7-0.800-4.3

Greg Zuerlein — or Greg the Leg, Young GZ, or Legatron, if you prefer — has cooled off since his hot start. He’s hit 3 of the successful field goals from 56+ yards this season, but all three came in September. Mason Crosby comes out as the worst kicker, and some have defended him because he’s mostly missed long field goals. While that’s somewhat true, this metric adjusts for distance, so he’s struggling even when you consider the difficulty of the kick.

Crosby is 1 for 8 when attempting field goals from 50+ yards, but the average kicker would have been successful on 4.2 field goals. He’s also missed from 32, 38, 42, 43, and 44 yards, and comes out as the worst kicker in the 43-to-46 range. David Akers tied an NFL record with a 63-yarder this year, but otherwise, he’s had a rough season. He’s missed six field goals from inside of 43 yards.

  1. There is some bias in the data in that only the best distance kickers attempts long field goals, but dealing with that is best left for another day. []

Would you trust this man?

Most criticisms of 4th down calls spring when teams fail to go for it on 4th down and instead punt or kick a field goal. It is much rarer for stat geeks to cry out for a field goal attempt instead of a punt, and for good reason: field goals aren’t that valuable.

One reason for that: a field goal isn’t really worth 3 points; historical data tells us that a field goal is really worth 2.4 points. That’s because the other team gets the ball following a kickoff, on average, at the 26- or 27-yard line, and possession on 1st and 10 there is worth +0.6 points to that team. Therefore, a touchdown is really worth 6.4 points and a field goal worth 2.4 points, making a touchdown 2.67, and not 2.33, times as valuable as a field goal.

(It’s worth noting that, according to Jim Armstrong of Football Oustiders, since the rules changes last year on kickoffs, the average field position following a kickoff was 22.2 last year and 22.0 so far this season. Teams are at +0.4 in that situation, so a touchdown might now be worth 6.6 points and a field goal 2.6 points.)

Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen faced an interesting decision in the first quarter of the game against Atlanta last Sunday. On their second drive of the game, Oakland ran Darren McFadden for 8 yards on 3rd and 16 from the Atlanta 48. Facing 4th and 8 from the 40, Allen chose to punt.

In retrospect, it’s easy to criticize the decision. Shane Lechler’s punt went for a touchback, giving Oakland just 20 additional yards of field position, and after one play, the Falcons were already on the Raiders’ 39-yard line. And, of course, the Raiders lost by 3 in a game where Atlanta’s Matt Bryant nailed a 55-yarder to win the game.

But we can’t look at the outcome when analyzing Allen’s decision. What was the right call? We should probably start by acknowledging that, as a technically matter, the numbers say you should go for it. Considering the fact that the Raiders were an underdog, and that Oakland has (compared to the rest of their team) a pretty good passing game, and Atlanta has (compared to the rest of their team) a weak pass defense, going for it becomes an even more attractive option. But let’s put that to the side for now.

What are the odds of Janikowski hitting from 58 yards away? This season, kickers are 9 of 14 from 55+ yards out, although none have been attempted by Janikowski. Normally I would advise against using such a small sample size, but kickers this year seem to be deadlier than ever from long range. On the other hand, Janikowski is just 4/15 on kickers form 57+ yards over the last five and a half years. Even if you remove the 64, 65 and 66 yard attempts he missed, that’s still just a 33% rate. On the other hand, only two of those came in a dome — two misses in the span of two minutes in a game in New Orleans in 2008. My gut tells me that Janikowski is pretty close to even money in this situation in 2012, but I’m not sure how precise we can get.

But what we *can* do is figure out what the minimum percentage likelihood of success he needs to be at to make kicking the field goal the right call. According to Brian Burke, a missed field goal is worth -1.9 points to the Raiders, since the Falcons would get the ball at midfield, while a punt is worth +0.04 points to the punting team (presumably based on the other team getting the ball at their own 13-yard line).

There breakeven point where you should be indifferent between kicking and punting is therefore 45% (0.45 * 2.4 + 0.55 * -1.9 = +0.04). That seems to make it a pretty neutral decision. Given the fact that the Raiders were a heavy underdog, it’s pretty easy to argue that a 45% chance of 2.4 points (and a 55% chance of -1.9 points) is better than a 100% chance of being in a +0.04 situation. Underdogs need to take aggressive tactics, and this would have been an advisable decision. Of course, the more aggressive strategy with the highest reward would have been to go for it, although the presence of Janikowski does seem to argue in favor of kicking.

This wasn’t a particularly easy decision — or, given the context of the game, a particularly important one. Coaches make far worse decisions every Sunday. I do think in that situation, punting was the worst of the three options available for the Raiders.

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[Note: I’m scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 12:30 today. If you’re interested, you can listen here.]

Mike Tomlin can't see why going for it on 4th down is so unconventional.

If you weren’t watching the Steelers-Raiders game, you probably didn’t hear about Mike Tomlin’s gutsy call late in the 4th quarter. That’s because it worked.

On 3rd-and-1 with 4:34 remaining in a tie game, Pittsburgh had the ball at their own 29-yard line. The Steelers ran Isaac Redman over the left guard for no gain, leaving them in a precarious position. According to Brian Burke, immediately following Redman’s run, Pittsburgh had just a 34% chance of winning the game. This makes sense, because on average, punts from the 29-yard line end up with the other team gaining possession at their own 33-yard line (net of 38 yards). This conforms with Burke’s win probability model, which states that a team with 1st and 10 at their own 33 with 3:45 remaining has a 66% chance of winning.

That’s just the average, though. What about the specific teams in this case? Pittsburgh has a rookie punter, so we probably shouldn’t assume anything better would happen if they punted. The biggest variable in the Raiders’ favor was the presence of Sebastian Janikowski, an uber kicker who appears capable of connecting from anywhere on the opponent’s side of the field. Since 2010, Janikowski is 12-of-18 from 50-yards or more, including a miss from 65; on average, those 18 kicks were 55-yard attempts. Essentially, if the Raiders got 30 yards after the punt, they would have had a very good chance of winning the game.

Of course, the Steelers defense is generally one of the best in the league, even without Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. The Raiders had scored 3 touchdowns and a field goal on their prior 4 drives, although we shouldn’t let a small sample size persuade us too much. Additionaly, the Steelers would go three-and-out after converting the 4th down, and the Raiders ended up driving down the field and kicking the game-winning field goal, anyway. Again, it’s tempting to consider this when determining the Raiders’ odds of winning following a punt, but that’s the sort of logic I would rally against if the circumstances were different.

My gut tells me the Raiders being at home, having a pretty decent offense, and a super kicker would outweight the fact that generally Pittsburgh has a very good defense. So at a minimum, I’d argue that a Steelers punt gives the Raiders a 66% chance of winning.

If Pittsburgh converted, they’d probably have the ball somewhere between their own 30 and 35-yard lines; ironically, right where the Raiders ended up having the ball. That makes the calculus pretty easy: Pittsburgh would have a 66% chance of winning if they converted. You might argue that their odds would be greater, because of the presence of Ben Roethlisberger and a strong passing attack and considering Oakland’s pass defense is suspect. I’m sure Steelers fans were very confident that they would win the game after converting on 4th-and-1, but taking the conservative approach would say Pittsburgh had “only” a 66-percent chance of winning if they converted.

Now what were the odds of converting? As always, you can trade a larger sample for a more precise one, and determining the appropriate cutoff is tricky. I looked at all plays in the second half or overtime of games where the team had 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field. I also limited this to games where the team was trailing by 3 or fewer, tied, or winning, to make sure that defenses were truly focused. That left 64 examples from ’00 to ’11.

Teams converted 48 of the 64 attempts, or exactly 75% of the time. On average the teams gained 2.8 yards with a median gain of 2 yards. 55 of the 64 times the team ran the ball, with 44 of those being successful (80%). Only 4 of the 9 passes were successful, although the quarterbacks in the misses (Ryan Leaf, Byron Leftwich, Jason Campbell, Gus Frerotte and Alex Smith) leave something to be desired.

If we increase the sample to any 4th-and-1 attempt outside of the opponent’s 30 (so the first 70 yards of the field for the offense), teams converted 67% of the time. Let’s split the difference and give Pittsburgh a 70% chance of converting.

Facing 4th-and-1, Pittsburgh has a 70% chance of getting a 66% chance of winning the game; that means they have a 46% chance of converting the 4th-and-1 and of then winning the game. This ignores the possibility of Pittsburgh missing the 4th-and-1 and still winning the game, which is clearly non-zero. And remember, if they punt, they have only a 34% chance of winning. Even if we force them to automatically lose if they don’t convert, they still are more likely to win the game by going for it. In fact, they only need to convert half of the time on 4th-and-1 to make it a break-even proposition, and that’s still ignoring the possibility of failing and still winning.

What are the odds of that? With just under 4 minutes left, maybe not as bad as you think. If Oakland has the ball at the Steelers’ 29-yard line, they are extremely unlikely to be able to run out the clock. Pittsburgh called its first timeout before the 4th-down decision, meaning the Steelers still would have had 2 timeouts left if they could not gain one yard. Odds are the Raiders play it pretty conservatively and kick a field goal, and the Steelers have 2 minutes to go to kick a field goal to force overtime (or score a touchdown). That’s hardly a hopeless position in which to be.

Based on past history, Oakland would have had an 82% chance — not 100% — of winning if they had the ball at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with 3:45 left in the game. Oakland’s odds would be higher because of Janikowski, although that would be counterbalanced by Pittsburgh having one of the best quarterbacks in the league in the two minute drill.

Add it all up, and it becomes a pretty obvious call… unless you’re risk averse. If Pittsburgh punts, they have just a 34% chance of winning, maybe even lower because of Janikowski. If Pittsburgh is successful, they are the team with the 66% chance of winning; if they miss, they still have an 18% chance of winning, based on having a small chance of winning in regulation and a decent chance of still going to overtime based on the amount of time remaining. Note that if there was one minute left, Pittsburgh’s odds of winning drop to just 9% if they don’t convert, but with nearly 4 minutes to go, they would not be out of the game if they failed. Considering a 70% success rate on 4th and 1, and they would have a 52% chance (66% x 70% + 18% x 30%) of winning they game if they went for it. In other words, punting it on 4th and 1 would drop Pittsburgh’s odds of winning from 52% to 34%, making this a significant and obvious decision for Tomlin.

To make punting the better decision, you would really need to skew the odds. If you have the utmost faith in your defense, perhaps you think the Raiders having the ball at their own 33-yard line with 3:45 to go doesn’t make them the favorite to win. If you view that as a coin-flip game — a pretty difficult proposition to believe — Pittsburgh would *still* benefit by going for it, since their win probability was 52%.

It also would have been wise to go for it if they were winning by 1 or 2 points… or even 3 points. A larger lead and it gets a little cloudy, but this is not much different than Bill Belichick’s decision against the Colts a few years ago. At the end of the game, especially in today’s high-octane NFL, you don’t want to be in a close game without the ball.

And as you can see, converting the 4th down was one of the biggest swings in the game. Take a look at Brian Burke’s win probability graph:

I said it was an obvious call unless you’re risk averse. As we all know, NFL coaches think conservatives are very liberal. On the surface this wasn’t a unique situation, but when you try to find comparables, you have to limit yourself. Since 2000, I looked at all situations where a team faced 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field, in a game where they were leading by 8 or less (or were tied), and with between 2 and 6 minutes remaining. There were only 20 situations like that, and 18 times the teams punted. The two other times? One came in week 17 for the Steelers in the game where Jamal Lewis crossed the 2000-yard mark and Pittsburgh was trying to close the curtain on a 6-10 season. A year after “4th and 2“, Bill Belichick went at it again against the Chargers. With exactly 2 minutes to go and the ball at the Patriots 49, New England ran it on 4th and 1. They missed, but went to win after Kris Brown could not connect on a 50-yard field goal.