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Nick the Kick

Nick the Kick

On Tuesday, I explained the formula used in my system of grading field goal kickers, which is based on field goal success rate adjusted for distance and era.  Yesterday, I looked at the single-season leaders using that methodology. Today, we look at the best field goal kickers since 1960 on the career level.

And frankly, it’s not much of a question as to who is the best kicker ever. Until presented with evidence to the contrary, that honor belongs to Nick Lowery (you can tell him about that here). The table below shows the top field goal kickers ever; let’s walk through Lowery’s line as an example.

Lowery played from 1978 to 1996. The length of his average field goal attempt was 36.6 yards, and the length of his average made field goal was 34.8 yards. Lowery attempted 479 field goals in his career; based on the distance of those kicks and the era in which he played, we would expect an average kicker to have made about 337.6 of those attempts. Instead, Lowery made 383 of them, a whopping 45.4 field goals above expectation. Thought of another way, Lowery’s expected field goal rate was 70.5%, while his actual was 80.0%, so he was successful an extra 9.5% of the time he lined up to kick. That’s remarkable. In short, Lowery was the most valuable field goal kicker in NFL history.

RkKickerFirst YrLast YrAvg Length (Att)Avg Length (Made)AttExp MadeMadeFG ab ExpExp RtAct RtDiff
1Nick Lowery1978199636.634.8479337.638345.470.5%80.0%9.5%
2Morten Andersen1982200736.834.8709528.056537.074.5%79.7%5.2%
3Jan Stenerud1967198534.731.1558340.837332.261.1%66.8%5.8%
4Jason Hanson1992201238.236.4601465.249529.877.4%82.4%5.0%
5Gary Anderson1982200435.834.1672508.653829.475.7%80.1%4.4%
6Jim Bakken1963197833.830.2446256.428225.657.5%63.2%5.7%
7Eddie Murray1980200036.735.1466328.635223.470.5%75.5%5.0%
8Garo Yepremian1966198134.631.2313188.421021.660.2%67.1%6.9%
9Mark Moseley1970198637.134.3457280.430019.661.3%65.6%4.3%
10John Kasay1991201137.135.2563441.746119.378.5%81.9%3.4%
11Fred Cox1963197733.329.0455263.228218.857.9%62.0%4.1%
12Norm Johnson1982199936.434.3477349.936616.173.3%76.7%3.4%
13Mike Vanderjagt1998200635.734.5266215.723014.381.1%86.5%5.4%
14Matt Stover1991200935.133.4563457.347113.781.2%83.7%2.4%
15Lou Groza11961196733.929.918190.110312.949.8%56.9%7.1%
16Don Cockroft1968198034.130.9328203.121612.961.9%65.9%3.9%
17Donald Igwebuike1985199038.435.514395.310812.766.6%75.5%8.9%
18Jim Turner1964197932.929.2488292.030412.059.8%62.3%2.5%
19John Carney1988201035.433.8580466.147811.980.4%82.4%2.1%
20Sam Baker1960196933.728.9220113.812511.251.7%56.8%5.1%
21Tom Dempsey1969197935.431.6258148.115910.957.4%61.6%4.2%
22Raul Allegre1983199137.234.8186126.113710.967.8%73.7%5.9%
23Horst Muhlmann1969197733.830.3239143.715410.360.1%64.4%4.3%
24Jason Elam1993200936.734.8540425.843610.278.8%80.7%1.9%
25Rafael Septien1977198635.932.9256169.918010.166.4%70.3%3.9%
26Rob Bironas2005201337.636.3279228.923910.182.1%85.7%3.6%
27Paul McFadden1984198937.735.6163110.11209.967.6%73.6%6.1%
28Pete Stoyanovich1989200035.633.8342262.42729.676.7%79.5%2.8%
29Al Del Greco1984200036.234.4449337.63479.475.2%77.3%2.1%
30Toni Fritsch1971198234.131.1231147.91579.164.0%68.0%3.9%
31Lou Michaels1960197133.127.7324170.01799.052.5%55.2%2.8%
32Don Chandler1962196732.427.916085.1948.953.2%58.8%5.6%
33Dan Bailey2011201438.737.7127105.11148.982.8%89.8%7.0%
34Rolf Benirschke1977198635.833.6208137.21468.866.0%70.2%4.2%
35Jeff Wilkins1995200736.835.3375298.33078.779.6%81.9%2.3%
36Errol Mann1968197834.030.9276168.41778.661.0%64.1%3.1%
37Mick Luckhurst1981198737.836.3164106.81158.265.1%70.1%5.0%
38George Blanda1960197533.528.6440238.92478.154.3%56.1%1.8%
39Justin Tucker2012201438.136.910889.4977.682.8%89.8%7.0%
40Efren Herrera1974198235.532.3171108.91167.163.7%67.8%4.2%
41Ray Wersching1973198736.033.2329214.92227.165.3%67.5%2.2%
42Doug Brien1994200537.335.8258200.02077.077.5%80.2%2.7%
43Ryan Longwell1997201136.435.0434354.03617.081.6%83.2%1.6%
44Bruce Gossett1964197432.227.2360212.32196.759.0%60.8%1.9%
45Pat Leahy1974199134.531.9426297.63046.469.8%71.4%1.5%
46Robbie Gould2005201436.635.1284237.32435.783.6%85.6%2.0%
47Sebastian Janikowski2000201439.237.0454358.73645.379.0%80.2%1.2%
48Connor Barth2008201438.537.3134110.01155.082.1%85.8%3.7%
49Dan Carpenter2008201438.036.4229189.21944.882.6%84.7%2.1%
50Adam Vinatieri1996201435.734.3571473.44784.682.9%83.7%0.8%
51John Smith1974198335.332.8191123.41284.664.6%67.0%2.4%
52Fuad Reveiz1985199536.233.5250183.51884.573.4%75.2%1.8%
53Tony Franklin1979198837.334.3264172.71774.365.4%67.0%1.6%
54Josh Brown2003201437.836.3336273.92784.181.5%82.7%1.2%
55Nate Kaeding2004201235.434.0210176.91814.184.2%86.2%1.9%
56Shayne Graham2001201435.434.0311262.32663.784.3%85.5%1.2%
57Matt Bryant2002201435.934.7335282.32863.784.3%85.4%1.1%
58Gene Mingo1960197034.429.7219108.41123.649.5%51.1%1.7%
59George Blair1961196428.125.28046.5503.558.2%62.5%4.3%
60Tony Zendejas1985199536.234.6252182.71863.372.5%73.8%1.3%
61Jim Martin1960196432.229.712160.8643.250.2%52.9%2.7%
62John Leypoldt1971197835.732.615489.9933.158.4%60.4%2.0%
63Florian Kempf1982198735.633.53826.1292.968.7%76.3%7.6%
64Rich Karlis1982199035.733.3239169.41722.670.9%72.0%1.1%
65Stephen Gostkowski2006201435.134.1278238.42412.685.8%86.7%0.9%
66Blair Walsh2012201439.037.510384.5872.582.1%84.5%2.4%
67Steven Hauschka2008201436.635.3149125.81282.284.4%85.9%1.5%
68Steve Myhra1960196132.830.45827.9302.148.1%51.7%3.6%
69Kai Forbath2012201436.936.16756.9592.184.9%88.1%3.1%
  • One blunder can certainly define a player’s career, but it isn’t fair in the case of Garo Yepremian. He’s top ten kicker of all time by this methodology.
  • The greatest field goal kicker to ever miss two field goals in a Super Bowl, Adam Vinatieri, does not fare all that well in this system. What makes Vinatieri better than say, Sebastian Janikowski? The two are contemporaries, and while it’s easy to note that Vinatieri has a better field goal rate, consider the other data in the table: Janikowski’s average made kick is 37.0 yards, significantly higher than Vinatieri’s average (34.3). The same goes for average attempt (39.2 to 35.7). There’s not much of an era adjustment going on here, obviously, but longer kicks is why Jankowski’s been about 1.2% above average compared to Vinatieri’s 0.8% rate.
  • Among active, young, kickers, two stand out: Baltimore’s Justin Tucker and Dallas’ Dan Bailey. Both are a whopping 7.0% above average, courtesy of 90% success rates compared to 83% expected rates.

As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments. Presumably your thoughts about how awesome Nick Lowery was.

  1. Note: The "First Year" column denotes each kicker's first year since 1960 when they attempted a field goal. For Groza, he's included, but his pre-1960 stats are not. []
  • LightsOut85

    Very nice. I’m a little surprised the top has a lot of names of people who are considered good kickers (ie: not a lot of surprises – although Bakken is someone who was very successful, but I wasn’t familiar with).

    I’d be interesting to see this list, but only for longer FGs (40+?).

    • That is, of course, where Lowery really differentiated himself. I deleted all field goal attempts of less than 40 yards, and here are the new results:

      • Michael

        What about the best players for FG’s 50+ yards?

      • LightsOut85

        Nice! Thanks!

  • eag97a

    Adam Vinatieris’ HoF chances just took a major hit! 🙂

    • I have no doubt that at least 80% of all HOF voters are either reading this site daily, strongly endorse all of my work, or have no idea who I am.

    • Adam

      You can’t fight irrational kicker narratives!

    • Chase has done some really interesting work for this project, but keep in mind the quick-and-dirty nature of the math here. This weighs all field goals equally, and I don’t believe it includes postseason data. If you think that leverage matters, Vinatieri’s HOF argument becomes much less silly: he has probably made more high-leverage field goals than anyone in history. Add a 20-year career — this methodology underrates longevity — and I just might support Vinatieri’s bid for Canton.

      • eag97a

        It was a tongue in cheek comment but yes I know that AV is not as great as other kickers but for the reasons you mentioned I support his HOF chances but obviously some of the other kickers on the list should be given consideration as well.

      • I would not doubt that Vinatieri has made more high-leverage field goals than anyone in history, but it would also not surprise me if he has missed more high-leverage field goals than anyone in history (at least, adjusted for era, since kickers used to be so much less accurate). Kicking for an eternity almost entirely for excellent teams causes that to happen.

        Duke Snider hit the most World Series home runs of any National League player ever. He was a great player, but those home runs are the result of opportunity just as much as they are of being great. And he only played a small part in creating that opportunity.

        • Really? I don’t see that at all. There have been many studies on whether clutch ability really exists in sports, and most of them have suggested that it probably does not. But I wonder if placekickers aren’t the exception. If I had to name one player, in any sport, who seems to actually play better in high-leverage situations, I would choose Vinatieri. He hasn’t just made kicks in big situations, he has made his most difficult kicks in the biggest situations.

          His game-tying field goal against Oakland is widely considered the greatest kick in NFL history. He kicked a 48-yard game-winning field goal as time expired in Super Bowl XXXVI. In his first year with the Colts, Vinatieri kicked 5 field goals in a postseason game, accounting for all 15 points in the victory. In ’08, he made a 47-yard game-winner with :03 remaining and a game-winning 51-yarder with :00 remaining. He made a 50-yard go-ahead field goal with under a minute left in the 2010 playoffs. It was his longest kick of the season. Vinatieri made a 53-yard, game-winning kick with :08 left in 2012, his longest kick of that season. Here’s a guy who seldom kicks long field goals, but makes them when a game is on the line.

          Wikipedia informs me that through 2005, “he had kicked 18 game-winning field goals with less than one minute remaining, including the postseason.” The Chiefs’ Hall of Fame informs me that “Lowery kicked more than 15 game-winners during his career, including in 2 playoff games.” Granted that there are more successful field goals now, and that perhaps Vinatieri had more GW opportunities than Lowery, Vinatieri passed him 10 years ago. He’s up to 23 GWFG now, if Wiki is accurate. I would argue — and this would be a bold statement if it weren’t so obvious — that Vinatieri has at least twice as many memorable field goals as anyone else in NFL history — no matter what criteria you prefer for “memorable”.

          There’s an increasing feeling among baseball sabermetricians that relief pitchers are better measured by context-dependent stats like WPA rather than the context-neutral stats we prefer for starting pitchers and especially for hitters. I think the same principle applies to placekickers. A 24-yard GWFG is not nearly as meaningful as a 48-yard GWFG, and a 50-yarder in the first quarter is not as meaningful as a 50-yarder in the final seconds. Vinatieri’s context-dependent performance has been significantly better than his raw stats imply.

          I guess none of that counters the idea that Vinateri has missed a bunch of high-leverage field goals, but I sure don’t remember them. Maybe I’m buying into a narrative, but I think I pay pretty careful attention, and I just don’t recall Vinatieri shanking a bunch of potential GWFG. I’m sure he’s missed a potential game-winner in the final minute at some point, but I can’t think when. If you really believe Vinatieri has missed more high-leverage FGs than anyone else in history, I think it’s up to you to show that’s true. I would doubt it.

          Vinatieri has been all-pro three times, and not because of poor voting. I didn’t vote for him last season, but he had a great year. I did pick him in ’02 and ’04, and I stand by those selections. This isn’t just some guy who made a few big kicks in the playoffs, he’s had a great regular-season career.

          Here’s a guy with a 20-year career (still effective at age 42), great regular-season kicker (3x all-pro), and by far the most accomplished postseason kicker of all time (most FG in a game, season, career; most FG in Super Bowls; multiple SB-winning FGs; most SB appearances and wins of any kicker). He has made an unusual number of game-winning kicks, especially in the postseason, and he converted a field goal widely considered the greatest in NFL history. I think he’s had hands-down the greatest career of any kicker in his generation, and I believe he’s got a strong HOF case.

          • Richie

            For the record, Vinatieri’s career FG% is slightly higher in the regular season (83.7%) than the post season (82.4%).

            • Richie

              I looked a little more. Vinatieri has just had more opportunities to be clutch. If we look at these game situations:
              – playoff game
              – overtime or final 2 minutes of 4th quarter
              – game is tied or team is trailing by 3 or less
              – Since 1994

              Vinatieri is 5 of 5 in this situation. (vs Colts, Raiders twice, Rams, Panthers)
              David Akers is 3 for 3
              Lawrence Tynes is 2 for 3 (he missed a 36 yarder in a tie game at the end of regulation vs. the Packers in the 2007 playoffs)
              Nate Kaeding is 1 for 3 (he missed the 40 yard game-winner against the Jets in 2004. That was brutal. And he missed a 54-yarder that would have sent the game to overtime against NE in 2006.)

              Nobody else has had 3 attempts. The league average is 29 of 41 (71%) in those situations. 7 of the misses came from 45+ yards.

              • LightsOut85

                That’s really the thing. Even with a broader definition of a “pressure situation”, the sample sizes are very small.

                • I really appreciate Richie’s research, but you’re right, that’s too small a sample to be useful. When I brought up high leverage, I didn’t intend that to mean playoffs only. I would suggest that Vinatieri’s regular-season GWFG record also looks unusually good, and also that his playoff performances are more impressive when one considers the distance and/or environmental factors on these kicks.

                  • James

                    Courtesy of PFR, since 1994 in the final 2 minutes of the 4th and down 0-3 points in both the regular season and playoffs Vinatieri has the most attempts at 23, and Longwell has the 2nd most at 18.

                    I don’t have time to adjust for distance, but that’s not very important when talking about legacy/clutch. So going off average from this sample, the most clutch was Matt Byrant and Paul Edinger who were perfect on 14 and 8 kicks for +3.5 and +2.0, respectively. Following them up essentially tied at +1.8 are Vinatieri, Elam, Folk, Carney, and Stover. At +1.5 are Christie, Prater, and Tucker who are all 6/6. It’s probably worth noting that Vinatieri’s 100% in the playoffs is much better than his 79% (15 for 19) in the regular season. Switch a few of those misses around and Vinatieri’s HOF case collapses.

                    And for fun, the worst are Kris Brown (-3!), Kasay, Martin Grammatica (-2), Crosby, Gano, and the following three who are all 6/10 and -1.5: Hall, Graham, and Bailey.

                    • “I don’t have time to adjust for distance, but that’s not very important when talking about legacy/clutch.”

                      It’s not? I think it’s hugely important. A 50-yard GWFG is much, much more impressive and significant than a 25-yard GWFG. I think the difficulty of Vinatieri’s GWFG is precisely what separates him in the minds of so many fans.

                    • James

                      I agree distance should be considered, but this is what you said above:

                      “Wikipedia informs me that through 2005, “he had kicked 18 game-winning field goals with less than one minute remaining, including the postseason.” The Chiefs’ Hall of Fame informs me that “Lowery kicked more than 15 game-winners during his career, including in 2 playoff games.””

                      When talking about narratives, excuse me *legacy*, distance doesn’t matter.

                      For that matter, high profile games matter. I’ve never heard anyone say Matt Bryant is a clutch kicker, but he’s literally been as good as possible! Vinatieri is extremely lucky he was perfect in the most important games that everyone was watching.

                    • How can you possibly believe that degree of difficulty doesn’t matter in Vinatieri’s narrative? If that kick against Oakland was 25 yards in nice weather, no one remembers it.

                      “I’ve never heard anyone say Matt Bryant is a clutch kicker”

                      Do a search for ‘Matt Bryant clutch kicker’. There are a ton of hits, including an article at Football Outsiders which calls Bryant the best clutch kicker ever.

                      Furthermore… last year, Bryant was my all-pro placekicker and Special Teams Player of the Year. He got my special teams game ball in Week 1 after he “hit a last-second 51-yarder to send the game into overtime, then a 52-yard field goal to win.” I had pretty nice things to say about Bryant after his last-minute 49-yard field goal sent Atlanta to the NFC Championship Game in 2012-13. I called him “one of the league’s best kickers” in 2012. He led off my Week 8 power rankings in 2006, when he followed up the previous week’s 62-yard GWFG with a 43-yarder in extremely strong wind. There are probably others, but that’s what a search immediately turned up. My colleague Jeffrey Boswell, who does weekly predictions, frequently forecasts Bryant to kick long, last-minute, GWFGs.

                      I generally like context-neutral stats, but for kickers, I think context matters, and that reflects well on both Bryant and Vinatieri. They’ve made very tough kicks when it matters most, and that’s a quality it’s tough not to get excited about.

                    • Richie

                      It’s tough to determine “memorable”, especially since everybody has different memories.

                      I think these are probably the things that made Vinatieri’s game-tying FG against Oakland memorable (in order of importance):

                      1. It came shortly after the “tuck rule” play

                      2. the Patriots went on to improbably win the Super Bowl (therefore this kick was replayed more frequently)

                      3. It happened in the snow

                      4. It was 45 yards long

                      Here is a list of game-winning or game-tying field goals in the playoffs since 1994 (the query says 1994, but 2000 is the oldest result). http://pfref.com/tiny/YiTVe Of these 17 kicks, I don’t remember any of the non-Vinatieri kicks. 3 of them were longer than Vinatieri’s game-tying kick. But none of the non-Vinatieri kicks resulted in those teams going on to win the Super Bowl.

                    • Thanks for the link, interesting stuff. And yeah, I only remember four or five of those, including three by Vinatieri. I do think you’re (slightly) underselling the importance of weather conditions. 3 of them were longer than Vinatieri’s game-tying kick, but Vinatieri’s 45-yard FG in Oakland wasn’t just some random 45-yarder in the playoffs. The difficulty of the kick, considering distance and weather, gave it the potential to become legendary. What happened afterwards (Vinatieri follows it up with a game-winner in OT, Pats go on to win SB) solidified that legend.

                      I would argue that with very few exceptions, successful field goals are only memorable when they meet both of two conditions:

                      1. Big situation (late fourth quarter or overtime, team tied or trailing by ≤ 3, especially in the postseason)
                      2. Degree of difficulty (≤ 60% chance of making it, real tension)

                      The bigger the situation and the higher the degree of difficulty, the more memorable the play. The degree of difficulty on Vinatieri’s snow kick was extremely high. That season, NFL kickers were 202/338 from 40-49 yards (59.8%); Vinatieri was 7/12 (58.3%). But the weather at that game was serious: temperatures in the 20s and the heaviest snow fell between 8 and 10pm, which was exactly when the game was played. We all know that kicking in the cold is tougher — and snow makes it even worse. The footing on that field was noticeably tricky, and it was still snowing hard when Vinatieri made his kick. It was a crazy impressive play in a pretty big moment. You’re right about the other factors that seared it into our memories, but if the field goal had been a 20-yard layup in a dome, we wouldn’t care that it was in the Tuck Rule game and the Pats won the title: the focus would all be about the play with Brady. The odds against the kick were the key ingredient that made it memorable.

                    • Richie

                      Can you think of any other non-Vinatieri field goals that would meet your two criteria?

                    • Off the top of my head, the Matt Bryant kick I mentioned to James earlier. Bryant’s 62-yarder in ’06. Tom Dempsey. Some misses also come to mind, notably Scott Norwood.

          • “Vinatieri has been all-pro three times, and not because of poor voting. I didn’t vote for him last season,
            but he had a great year. I did pick him in ’02 and ’04, and I stand by
            those selections. This isn’t just some guy who made a few big kicks in
            the playoffs, he’s had a great regular-season career.”

            This is a straw man. He has had a great career and I would not argue that he hasn’t. I would, however, argue that making a few big kicks in the playoffs has contributed disproportionately to how he is viewed. Duke Snider was a great player. He just wasn’t as great as looking at his number of World Series home runs would make him appear.

            My saying, “[I]t would . . . not surprise me if he has missed more high-leverage field
            goals than anyone in history (at least, adjusted for era, since kickers
            used to be so much less accurate)” is not at all the same thing as saying that he has “shank[ed] a bunch of potential GWFG”or that “[I] really believe Vinatieri has missed more high-leverage FGs than anyone else in history.”

            I’ll just use the “most FG in Super Bowls” statistic to perhaps clarify what I am saying. Only Roy Gerela has missed more field goals in the Super Bowl in his career than Adam Vinatieri. He’s made seven, yes. But no one else has even attempted seven in a career. He’s 7/10. He’s been given more opportunities to make those memorable field goals than anyone else. He’s made a good number of them, but he’s also had opportunities others just haven’t had. All I’m saying is that the number of high-profile kicks he has made are at least in large part a function of where he has played. I’m not saying that he is a terrible kicker who’s gotten lucky a couple of times or that he is actually the chokingest choker who ever did choke. I’m saying that he’s an excellent kicker who has gotten extra recognition as a result of rolling a nat 20.

            It would be a large project to find out where Vinatieri’s opportunities for heroics rank in history, but given where he’s played out his career, he’s definitely had an extraordinary number of postseason games. He has attempted 68 playoff field goals in his career. Since 1960, David Akers is second with 47. Obviously most of those are not potential game-winners, but the more chances you get to kick in the post-season, the more chances you’re going to have to kick potential game-winners, and I suspect that plays a large role in the perception of Vinatieri.

            However, the most important thing I want to respond to here is this: “[N]one of that counters the idea that Vinateri has missed a bunch of
            high-leverage field goals, but I sure don’t remember them. Maybe I’m
            buying into a narrative, but I think I pay pretty careful attention[.]” I do hope that I have not given you the impression that I think you’re some neanderthal who remembers him making a couple of big kicks and thus declared him great with no further thought and I apologize if I have. You no doubt pay careful attention, and I would not doubt it for an instant. Indeed, were I required today to vote on Vinatieri for the Hall of Fame without reference to anything beyond my memories versus yours, I would doubtless lean on yours. (Though, as someone with a psychology degree, I would be frightened by the idea of reliance completely on memories!) I just think his situation in his career has been ideal for him to create the view that he is a great “clutch” kicker.

            • There’s no need to apologize for anything. I didn’t take offense, and I didn’t feel like you were calling me “some neanderthal”, though it’s nice of you to be so careful. Likewise, I hope my reply didn’t come across as unnecessarily harsh; tone is so hard in this kind of forum. I would dispute that my all-pro comment was a straw man, though: I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth, I just saw that as thorough and relevant background for our discussion.

              You’re right, of course, that Vinatieri has benefitted from a huge number of opportunities. He’s played on consistently successful teams, in an era when kickers are more effective than ever before. But I do think your previous comment implied that Vinatieri has missed a lot of kicks just as important as the ones he’s made, and I don’t think that’s true. I believe a WPA-type approach would show Vinatieri as one of the top five kickers of all time, depending on how you weigh postseason performance. So while I agree that “his situation in his career has been ideal for him to create the view that he is a great ‘clutch’ kicker”, I think the way he’s taken advantage of those opportunities suggests that this view is correct. Maybe Vinatieri has some mystical clutch ability, and maybe not, but whether through luck or skill or whatever, he’s made a huge number of clutch kicks — especially the long, game-winning variety. Combined with his longevity and impressive peak, I don’t think he’s gotten nearly enough credit from the author and commenters on this post.

              I think sports analytics are so valuable, but I also think our community occasionally attaches itself to ideas traditional analysis has rejected for a good reason. There is plenty of room for reasonable people to debate whether Andersen, Anderson, Groza, Stenerud, Vinatieri, etc., might have been better kickers than Lowery. It’s weird to me to be the guy defending traditional and armchair analysis, because more often I’m on the other side, but I think on this topic a lot of us have missed the mark.

            • I found this article I wrote four years ago, with comments on both Adam Vinatieri (near the top) and David Akers (Packers/Eagles section). The Vinatieri bit explains my thoughts on his HOF worthiness, while the Akers bit addresses ways that mainstream media misjudge kickers (demonstrating once again that I am not some neanderthal 😉

              • We’ll have to see how you feel in a year and a half, when it will actually have been six years since that. 😉

  • So, for his career, you could say Lowery produced 136 points over expectation. He played in 260 games, so he was worth 0.52 points over expectation each game, on average. That is incredible. Sorted by POE/G, Lowery still ranks first among the 69 guys from your table.


    • James

      0.52 points over expectation is pretty good for a guy who touched the ball less than 2 times per game!!

      Since it’s around 30-35 points to an NFL win, that means Lowery was worth about 0.25 wins per season above the average kicker. That’s really good!

  • I sorted the table by “Best Name Points.” Here are the top five:

    5. Efren Herrera
    4. Kai Forbath
    3. Florian Kempf
    2. Mick Luckhurst
    1. Horst Muhlmann

    • Richie

      Donald Igwebuike had to be #6 then.

    • Clint

      Also, Ali Haji-Sheikh

    • Mitch Springfield

      Happy Feller HAS to be in this Name Top 10!

  • sacramento gold miners

    Nick Lowery had the misfortune to play for mediocre teams during his excellent career, he’s a good example of a player who probably would have made more important plays for playoff teams, enhancing his HOF chances. It’s not necessarily fair, but one of the ways sports reflect life. I’m a fan of both Lowery and Janikowski as kickers, but we actually don’t know if they would have had those special moments since they didn’t have those opportunities.

    Gary Anderson had a HOF-worthy career, and had the game winning 50 yard FG in the Steelers 1989 playoff upset at Houston.
    But his bad NFC TG field goal miss for the Vikings a decade later will likely always keep him from Canton. Again, maybe not fair, but that’s the way it is.

  • I knew Lowery was going to be number one, but I did not expect him to have the kind of separation from the pack he has.
    I am trying not to care about the Hall of Fame any longer, but I’m going to laugh heartily when Vinatieri becomes the second kicker in.

    Also, I’ve always wanted to know how Garo Yepremian is properly pronounced. I really doubt it’s the way I’ve usually heard it.

    • Chase has done some really interesting work for this project, but keep in mind the quick-and-dirty nature of the math here. This weighs all field goals equally, and I don’t believe it includes postseason data. If you think that leverage matters, Vinatieri’s HOF argument becomes much less silly: he has probably made more high-leverage field goals than anyone in history. Add a 20-year career — this methodology underrates longevity — and I just might support Vinatieri’s bid for Canton.

  • I am not sure you can Lowery was most valuable. Some definitely produced more value. I’m thinking ROI is a better term. He’s definitely delivered the highest return on investment of any kicker.

    Some have just had a lot more invested in them.

    • Hmm — I’m not quite sure I’m following. What are you thinking?

  • Andrew Koche

    You aren’t accounting for the impact of environmental conditions in this, are you? Vinatieri and Gostkowski spent most/all of their careers thus far in Foxborough, which has notoriously difficult conditions. On the other end of the spectrum is Denver, which is a significant outlier in terms of ease of kicking field goals, and somebody like Elam can get a huge boost in these sort of rankings.

    Perhaps you could try some sort of comparison between a kicker’s success rate and the success rate of opposing kickers (and adjusted for strength of schedule). There may be some problems with sample size, but you could probably get some reasonable adjustment for conditions.

    • LightsOut85

      Part I mentioned that everything besides era-adjustments is going to happen in articles next off-season.

      • Andrew Koche

        Thanks, I missed that. Sort of skimmed the other parts in the series.

  • Richie

    Does anybody remember what happened to guys like Donald Igwebuike, Paul McFadden and Florian Kempf? They had fairly short careers. But they show up on this list as guys who hit a far higher percentage of their field goals than expected.

    Did they quit football, or were they cut? Were coaches judging them on some missed long kicks, not realizing that they were tough to make? Or maybe they were a liability on kickoffs?

    • Good questions. Another guy to think about is George Jakowenko, who was at +10.8% in his lone season in Buffalo.

    • John McFadden

      Richie, My brother Paul Mcfadden suffered some serious injuries that ended his carreer including a hip injury. He was one of only four barefoot kickers in NFL history. He is working for the Youngstown Foundation now at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

      • Richie

        Cool, thanks for the info. Bummer for his injuries, though.

    • DonaldIgweIgwe

      Igwebuike was involved in a MAJOR heroin trafficking charge in 1990. He was cut and went to trial, and came out innocent, but never kicked in the NFL again. That’s why his career stopped.

  • Richie

    Regards to Vinatieri vs. Janikowski. I was looking at the length of average attempt. I wonder how much has to do with circumstance. Vinatieri spent most of his career on good offenses. Theoretically, his teams were getting closer to the end zone, more often. Also, his coaches may have had more inclination to go for it on 4th down, especially from longer distances, due to the better offenses.

    I imagine the data would be impossible to extract, but I wonder if it would show us anything if we could look at percentage of 4th down plays from various yard lines were field goal attempts, punts or “go for it” for each kicker.

    For instance, when Oakland stalls out at the 30 yard line, what percentage of the time does Janikowski get to attempt a field goal compared to other kickers?

  • I’m going to make an argument for Morten Andersen. Lowery is ahead of Andersen by 8.4, which is significant and impressive separation. But look at their total number of career FGs: 565-383. That’s almost 200 field goals. Andersen was an effective kicker for over two decades. Hey, Lowery was a little more efficient. That’s great. Maybe he was more valuable to his team. But Andersen had the greater and more impressive career, and I’m not sure it’s especially close.

    It seems to me that these “best of” questions need to incorporate both efficiency and longevity, and this study leans strongly towards efficiency. Average seasons are dismissed as worthless, and I don’t think think that’s appropriate. Morten Andersen (or Jan Stenerud )was the best kicker of all time.

    • Interesting view — one could viewed this analysis in the other direction, in that it’s easier for compilers to get to the top. The tradeoff between efficiency and longevity is a tricky one, as you know better than most. I’ve always felt, though, that comparing to league average works well for the best players ever. I wouldn’t use this formula to separate numbers 40 from 50, because there, comparing to replacement level does make more sense. But considering that Lowery was at 9.5% above average and Andersen at just 5.2%, I think that’s more than enough to make up for the lack of volume.

      • Lowery is underrated, but he and Morten Andersen were contemporaries, and I don’t agree that the guy who was slightly more efficient was better than the one who made 200 more field goals. I think you and I are always going to differ on the relative importance of efficiency vs production, but I also believe it’s a mistake to lump all FGs together. Morten Andersen was the best deep kicker of his generation, made the most really long field goals.

        Look at ages 35-36, for instance, and those numbers were not chosen randomly: there are official stats by distance beginning in Lowery’s age 35 season. I’m using two simple categories: <40 and ≥40, though I'll add comments in both cases.

        Age 35
        19/19 <40; 4/9 ≥40
        19/19 <40; 11/17 ≥40

        Lowery's season long was 48. Andersen made eight 50+ FGs, with a long of 59.

        Age 36

        NL: 18/19 <40; 4/5 ≥40
        14/16 <40; 8/13 ≥40

        Again, Andersen attempted more long kicks. He was 1/5 from 50+, with a long of 54. Lowery was 1/1 from 50+, with a long of 52. Neither of has mentioned this yet, but Andersen spent most of his career in a dome, whereas Lowery kicked in tougher conditions. I suspect this influenced how often Andersen attempted long FGs, as well as how often he made them. Anyway, from 40-49 Andersen is ahead on both efficiency (87.5%, compared to 75% for Lowery) and production (7-3). It's a little bit of Simpson's Paradox the way I've used the 40+ figures.

        I think Andersen's ability to hit the really long kicks gives him an edge on Lowery. It's the same idea that prompted me to name Sebastian Janikowski the greatest kicker of the last decade (2005-14).

        Here’s a quick-and-dirty calculation. Add up each player’s longest field goal of the season, for every year of his career. We’ll use ages 24-40, since that’s when Lowery played (meaning Andersen gets no longevity bonus in this calculation).

        Lowery: 871
        Andersen: 902

        That’s about two yards per year. Lowery never hit anything from 55+ after he turned 30. Andersen had four such seasons after turning 30, including a 60-yarder. I think the analysis in this series is interesting and valuable, but incomplete. It shortchanges Andersen in several ways. But the heart of my argument remains what I wrote at the beginning: Lowery and Morten Andersen were contemporaries, and one of them made 182 more field goals than the other. That’s the better player.

        • Here’s the thing: ’95 was Morten Andersen’s 3rd best season, while ’92 was Lowery’s 9th best season. So we’re not really talking apples to apples.

          And the 182 more field goals is a bit misleading. Andersen simply attempted more, and played longer (Lowery also lost 7 games in ’82 to the strike). For example, they both played from ’83 to ’96; Andersen played in 220 games, Lowery 217. During that stretch, Andersen went 353/450, and Lowery went 318/392.

          Now, is it Lowery’s fault his team simply attempted less field goals? I don’t think so. And if you want to look at 50+ yard attempts, Lowery was 17/32, while Andersen was 31/66. Maybe Andersen’s coaches had more faith in him, but 1) I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization, or fair to Lowery, and 2) maybe Lowery’s coaches were simply more risk averse.

          Anyway, let me present the full data here.

          Kick_Year___Tm____10-19__20-29__30-39__40-49___50+___Att_Exp M__Made_VALUE__Exp Rate__Act Rate___Diff
          • I mean, of course Andersen attempted more FGs. Obviously he didn’t make 200 more field goals on the same number of attempts. But I think his volume, especially on longer-range kicks, is to his credit. Example from 2014: which is more impressive?

            Stephen Gostkowski went 1/1 from 50+. Dan Carpenter was 6/8. I think Carpenter deserves more credit. His lower % is more than offset by his greater production on the most challenging kicks, the ones that help the team most (turn mediocre field position into points). Lowery is Ghost; Andersen is Carpenter.

            You’ve mentioned Lowery’s efficiency advantage, but Andersen’s 48% production advantage is at least as compelling, I think. Andersen doesn’t benefit from an era difference, he’s only four years younger than Lowery. And yet he kicked 48% more field goals. It seems like you’re overthinking this. Your own analysis puts Lowery’s efficiency advantage at 8.4 field goals. That’s what, maybe two wins? Andersen’s +833 points scored in his career are a much bigger deal.

            Frankly, I think you’re ignoring your most compelling argument: Andersen played in domes, so his conditions facilitated better stats.

            • Let’s say kickers hit on 60% of FGs from 50+. That would put Ghost at +0.4, and Carpenter at +1.2; so I don’t think your example is a good one. If Ghost was 3/3, and Carpenter was 6/8, then they would both be at +1.2.

              Now, Lowery’s efficiency advantage isn’t just +8.4 over Andersen. It’s Lowery was 45 FGs above average on 479 attempts, while Andersen was 37 FGs above average on 709 attempts. To me, that’s really compelling evidence that Lowery was a better kicker than Andersen.

              Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of the large difference in attempts. Are attempts really an indicator of quality? And even if they are, since we all know Lowery was at least one of the best kickers ever, does it make sense to use attempts as an indicator of lower quality against him? If Lowery played just 8 years, that’s one thing, but he had a very long career. Here is a chart showing how many FG above average they were in each season of their career. From ’99 to ’07 — i.e., years 18 through 25 — Andersen attempted 199 field goals and made 164, and he was 1.5 field goals above average during that stretch. That’s great, and a sign that Andersen is one of the best kickers ever, but that explains much of the reason his cumulative numbers outpace Lowery’s cumulative numbers. I’d rather focus on their prime, especially when we’re talking about 17 other years, so it’s not exactly comparing Emmitt to Sayers.

              • Further comment likely to come, but I wanted to note that I’m really glad, however many years after the PFR blog, that we’re still having discussions like this and respectfully challenging each other’s ideas.

                • Definitely! I don’t always have the time to comment, but I do read every comment. And I am always excited to read your thoughts.

                  • James

                    Alright, here’s a quick and dirty test for you two. In your opinion, who is the better kicker between Yepremian and Vinatieri? Jon Carney and Mark Moseley? Dan Bailey and Gostkowski? If necessary, use the stats Chase has above to help you decide.

                    Additionally, how do you feel about these career rankings for kickers compared to the list above? I removed Lowery and Andersen to try to minimize bias.

                    Gary Anderson, 55
                    Hanson, 53
                    Stenerud, 49
                    Kasay, 41
                    Murray, 40
                    Bakken, 38
                    Storver, 37
                    Carney, 35
                    Moseley, 34
                    Johnson, 34
                    Elam, 32
                    Cox, 32

                    Or if Brad could you provide commentary on the list, and/or a ranking of your top 10 or 25 kickers? That would help with the test. Once I have a response I’ll explain the test.

                    • I haven’t done nearly enough research on kickers to have a strong opinion on this, and I certainly don’t have a personal list of the top 10. But off the top of my head, I’d say Vinatieri, Moseley, and Gostkowski.

                    • James

                      Cool. So you really do care more about longevity than “excellence”. I was testing to see if that was a consistent stance.

                      My quick and dirty method was to multiply the expFG% by 0.95 and then rerank based on the new FGs abv expected, which benefits longevity. I picked that particular number because it gave Andersen a score of 63 and Lowery 62, so it’s the “breakeven” point. Compared to Chase’s valuation, that method noticably benefitted Andersen over Lowery, Vinatieri over Yepremian, Carney over Moseley, and Gostkowski over Bailey. The first three have the top 5 most attempts since 1960, and Ghost has twice as many attempts as Bailey. You picked 3 of the 4 benefitted by longevity.

                      Vepremian and Vinatieri were the next two names on my list above at 15th and 16th, after Chase had them at 8th and 50th respectively. You might prefer an even lower baseline!

              • I understand your point about Gostkowski and Carpenter, but I’m not sure how it applies to Andersen/Lowery. On 50+ yard attempts, Lowery was 17/32, while Andersen was 31/66. I think that’s a pretty clear advantage for Andersen, isn’t it? Lowery’s efficiency advantage is small, while Andersen’s volume advantage is large. It’s the same reason you’d rate Sebastian Janikowski ahead of Adam Vinateri from 2005-14. Vinatieri was 15/26 from 50+ (58%), compared to 41/74 for Janikowski (55%). But the volume strongly favors Janikowski. I feel like Lowery’s 17/32 and Andersen’s 31/66 fits nicely with the Carpenter/Ghost comparison, though maybe I misunderstood your point.

                And sure, the focus should be on players’ primes, but since you chose an RB example … Emmitt’s much longer career makes the Sanders/Smith debate a lot more interesting, I think. Players like Joe Perry and Marcus Allen deserve extra credit for what they did late in their careers. We’re obviously in agreement that Lowery and Andersen are among the greatest kickers of all time — and that’s clear from their primes. Andersen’s unique longevity can’t be ignored, though: that separates him from every other kicker in history, barring perhaps Blanda.

                I apologize for repeating myself, but compared to Andersen, you have Lowery with a modest advantage of +25 points over average. Andersen’s edge in value over replacement is probably in the hundreds. I understand preferring VAA for best-of judgments, but I think any simple model is invariably flawed. RB comparison: what if Emmitt Smith had continued to play at an average level until he was 40? Now he’s got something like 22,000 rushing yards, and a much stronger argument as the best of all time, even though he didn’t add any above-average seasons. A running back who can last 18 productive seasons would probably rank among the greatest in history even if he didn’t have Emmitt’s magnificent prime and excellent postseason résumé. A kicker who’s effective enough to last 27 seasons deserves credit for the same reason, and an “above average” calculation misses that. This is why I compute QB values the way I do: begin with replacement level, then adjust to exponentially reward positive outliers.

                You’ve pegged Lowery’s practical advantage at roughly 25 points. That’s nothing. I find the production advantage far more compelling. Andersen was asked to do more, and he did.

                It’s not entirely analagous, but who do you think had the greater career, Curtis Martin or Terrell Davis?

                • The Ghost/Carpenter example was a way of showing that it’s not as though my system says 1/1 >> 6/8. I wasn’t trying to apply that to Lowery/Andersen w/r/t 50+ yard kicks, but just saying that my system rewards volume and efficiency.

                  Was Andersen better on 50+ yarders? I wasn’t trying to say that 17/32 >> 31/66 (although once we account for domes, who knows), but rather both were around 50/50, which means I think we can rebut the presumption that Andersen was the better long-range kicker (or, since I’m not that interested in this portion of the debate, we can rebut the presumption that Andersen was a significantly better long-range kicker). It’s not as though Lowery’s edge comes from being automatic inside of 50 and meh outside of 50; Lowery hit over half of his kicks from 50+ yards! That’s awesome!

                  Your next point is an interesting one, and does make me reconsider things. Vinatieri went from 2003 to 2007 without a 50+ yarder, and didn’t get any in 2009 or 2010, either. So yes, I’d say that Janikowski was the better long-distance kicker there. And anecdotally, I think it was pretty clear that Janikowski was known for his huge leg and was regarded as a better long-range kicker.

                  Morten was, too, and there’s no doubt that popular perception would say he was the best long range kicker of his (or perhaps, any) era. I guess I’d just say I’m not really sure why Lowery didn’t have more long kicks. He did struggle early in his career, going 5/17 his first three years with KC. Perhaps that is the reason. I decided to look up the breakdowns by length, and it’s interesting:

                  Andersen played longer, so some of these numbers are a reflection of that, too. But Lowery did have a pretty darn good leg, too. FWIW, Lowery’s 3 long kicks were in KC, KC, and Washington. To add something new to the discussion, Andersen was 40/84 on 50+ yard kicks for his career, while Lowery was 22/49. In non-dome games, Andersen was 19/33 on 50+ yarders, while Lowery was 16/39. In domes, Lowery was 6/10, and Andersen was 21/51.

                  Putting aside the weirdness of those efficiency ratings, here’s something interesting. About 59% of Andersen’s kicks of <50 yards were in domes, while about 60% of his 50+ yarders were in domes. So it doesn't appear, at least initially, that being in domes caused Andersen to try more long kicks.

                  Andersen may have been the most valuable kicker in history — I can understand that argument. But that is still different than being the best one. And while "25 points" might not sound like a lot, there is not a huge amount of spread in kicker rankings. And that Lowery +9.5% really sticks out like a sore thumb, at least to me.

                • I am going to have to call it a day soon, but I decided to run one more look. Here are the breakdowns by distance:

                  So, in fact, Lowery *does* come off looking like the better long range kicker here. And this chart helps identify something that is hiding in the data. Since there has been a generally smooth progression over time in range, this next sentence makes sense. 26 of Lowery’s 49 50+ yarders came from 1980 to 1984, so you could say his median kick came in 1984. For Andersen, 42 of his 84 50+ yard kicks came from ’82 to ’92, so his median kick came in ’92. That’s a pretty significant difference, which is why this methodology says Lowery was better at longer kickers.

                  Lowery’s average 50+ yard attempt was from 52.6 yards, Andersen’s from 52.3 yards. That’s comparable, but Andersen’s expected success rate was 43% while Lowery’s was 35%. That’s due to era and it’s a pretty big difference. That’s why Lowery has the better expected differential.

                  But even if we say Andersen was the better long range kicker, Lowery’s huge advantage from 40 to 49 yards is what wins the race for him. And while Andersen was slightly less efficient relative to average from 30 to 39 yards, his longevity gave him the win there in value over average.

                  Anyway, here’s common ground we could probably reach: Andersen and Lowery are two awesome kickers. Lowery’s efficiency was insane, as was Andersen’s longevity.

                  • Very good stuff here, and certainly a strong bolster for your position. And you’re certainly right about common ground: Andersen and Lowery were both great kickers, clearly among the best of all time.

                    It is interesting to note how early Lowery peaked compared to Andersen (and at least anecdotally, compared to most other great kickers as well). Would it be a ton of work to do a year-by-year workup on these two? I don’t necessarily think it adds anything to the who-was-better discussion, but it would be interesting to see the progression of their careers.

                    re: Ghost/Carpenter, I get you now. I realize that your system rewards volume and efficiency, I just think it overemphasizes efficiency. It’s a similar difference to our approach in rating QBs. Those dome stats are interesting and surprising; most notably, I would have thought for sure that Andersen attempted more long FGs in domes.

                    re: 25 points, this study shows very little separation until you get to Lowery at #1. It’s an obvious point in his favor. But compared to Andersen, Lowery’s excellent efficiency probably added one or two wins. Compared to Lowery, Andersen’s sustained effectiveness, productivity, and volume probably did more to help his teams. I understand your position, but I’m sticking with Morten. I do think this is largely a difference of approach: you prefer VAA, I prefer VAR. But I think VAA invariably misses on a longevity outlier like Andersen. An average season at age 27 is nothing special, but at 45 it’s evidence of greatness.

          • Carl

            Playing in a dome helps as well, even more so on longer kicks where wind, or in domes no wind makes a difference plus he kicked eight times a season in NFC West all good weather or dome teams during his career, different to the mud and cold of the old AFC or NFC central!

  • SilverX2

    the flaw in your logic is that Field goal kickers get a choice in where they kick the ball from. the only thing that matters for kickers is success, what is there % of made field goals, and Extra points. I’d take Vinatieri over Mike Vanderjagt every 10 out of 10 times

    • Richie

      How often have Vanatieri’s teams chosen to punt instead of having him try a 45+ yard field goal that a guy like Vanderjagt might have been given the opportunity?

    • Trepur

      Kickers have no control over where they kick the ball from.

      If kicker A is kicking mostly ~50 yard attempts his % will be much worse then a kicking kicking almost ~30 yard attempts, even if he is the better kicker.

      • Richie

        It would be interesting if we could get some data on distribution of fields goal attempt data for kickers combined with 4th down locations where his team choose to go for it or punt instead of attempting the field goal.

  • Will Durham

    This reminds me of statistical analyses that leave Manning/Mr. October as the best QB. I can’t think of anyone who matches Vinatieri’s performances in big games, or the critical difference he made in big games for two teams, sometimes in bad weather. Maybe some of the kickers here might’ve done it, but they never did so in the contexts Vinatieri did. Lowery could be the statistical Manning of kickers, but I don’t want to hang that on him.

    • sacramento gold miners

      Lowery is much different than Manning in the sense he only had a scant total of eight playoff games, and one AFC TG over his long career. Don’t remember how many chances he had to make a real difference.

    • Trepur

      By virtue of being on a terrible team, Lowery never had the opportunity to attempt a field goal in a where his team was trailing 0-3 points in a playoff game.

      If Tom Brady didn’t drive the ball down the field, Vinatieri wouldn’t have had the opportunity to prove that he was clutch.

      Stop rating players for something outside of their control.

      • Carl

        Not true he missed a 40 plus yard field goal against Miami in a wild card game at the end that would have won it, like Gary Anderson of the Vikings only missing in the NFC Championship Game, I would take intangible clutch Vinatieri over statistical excellence in same way I’d rather have John Elway as QB rather than Manning

        • Trepur

          Forgot about that one, except it was 54 yards. 40 plus makes it sound way easier then it actually was.

          Point stands. 48 yards in doors vs Rams is way less impressive.

  • Mitch Springfield

    I’d like to make an argument for Dean Biasucci. Played for the Colts. Rarely, if ever let me down in Tecmo Bowl. In fact,it’s been said the Colts had the BEST kicking game IN Tecmo Bowl. Of course, due to Jack Trudeau’s weak arm, Dean got a LOT of chances to kick the ball.

  • juniorgilb

    I went to college with Nick Lowery. A great guy and great athlete, but only a journeyman college kicker who was underutilized by a mediocre college coach, Nick went undrafted. Then he went to kicking school and figured it out. A spectacular NFL career, sustained the 80% threshold long before most of his peers, and by kicking from distance. I have said for the past 20 years that Nick is arguably the greatest NFL player at his position. He is also arguably the greatest Ivy Leaguer in NFL history, with deference to great players like Chuck Bednarik, Sid Luckman, Gary Fencik, etc. Nice to read analytics that support Nick’s excellence. Clearly, Nick belongs in the NFL HOF.