Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Good was Matt Stover?

About a week ago, the official Baltimore Ravens site released their full list of the Top 50 Ravens of all time. The article listed Matt Stover at #4 overall, which among some Ravens fans seems to be a controversial ranking.

I wound up in a somewhat heated discussion with another fan about how good Stover was in comparison to other kickers. This, to me, is a more interesting question than where Stover ranks on the all time Ravens list. An argument over the value of a great kicker compared to a great starting position player could be endless.

So I set out to rate Stover in relation to his peers, in response to hearing him called “overrated” and “not much better than an average kicker.” These two statements caused me to react sharply, as I believe Stover is one of the best kickers ever to play the game.

And so I set out to look at Stover from a pure statistical perspective to get an idea of how good he really was in comparison with the rest of the NFL kickers. I grabbed 30 years of kicker data from Pro Football Reference to evaluate this question. I looked at four major categories, and will cover each below.

Field Goal Percent

Take the total # of FG made divided by total # of attempts and you get “FG%”. Stover sits at 83.66%, good enough for eighth on the all time list. Interestingly, if you look at the top 25 kickers on this list, all but three of them are active. The three that aren’t, all played as recently as 2007. Clearly there’s some sort of recency bias that should be accounted for. How good is Stover in comparison with the kickers he’s playing with?

I looked at the full set of NFL kicking data for both the whole of Stover’s career, and the years ’01-’09. The latter is a bit of an arbitrary data set, but it was brought up in discussion so I looked at it just the same. The data are as follows:

Last decade
All kickers: 6,872/8,527 = 80.6%
Stover: 234/270 = 86.7%
Full Stover career
All kickers: 19,943/25,993 = 76.7%
Stover: 471/563 = 83.7%

Over his career, Stover is seven points better than the league, and six points better over the final nine years of his career. Fairly impressive numbers, but how do they stack up to other players above him?

I didn’t spend the significant time to evaluate everyone against their peers for only their careers. However, using the league-wide data for Stover’s final nine years, we get a decent proxy. For instance, the top guy on the all time FG% list is Nate Kaeding, an 86.5% kicker from ’04-’10 (kickers in ’10 made over 82%). Stover’s ’01-’09 is better. Shayne Graham, #3 on the list, is 86.0% from ’01-’10. In fact, if you run down the list of kickers in front of Stover on the list, all but #2 – “idiot kicker” Mike Vanderjagt – started their career in ’01 or after. And Vanderjagt started his in ’98. Given Stover’s 86.7% accuracy in this time, there’s an easy argument to be made that Vanderjagt is the only one that stacks up to him.

One of the criticisms Stover faces is his short leg, and how he had accuracy issues from 40+ in the final years of his career. I’ll address this later.

Field Goals Made

Stover sits at #4 on this list, unlikely to be passed by many if any over the next few years. At some point as offenses continue to move the ball more efficiently and attempts go up, with the increased accuracy we see in the game, he will be passed. But compared to his peers, he stacks up quite strongly.

To compare him with his peers, I looked at kickers who kicked more than 15 attempts in a season. An arbitrary number, but about one kick per game should be good enough to indicate who were the primary starters over the course of a season. These kickers averaged 22.0 FG made per season, compared to Stover’s 25.7 FG made for all but his final season (where he didn’t record 15 att). Stover averaged nearly 17% more FG made than the “average” NFL starting kicker.

Purely for perspective, I looked at the top 25 QBs in passing attempts in 2010. This gives us QBs with > 350 att on the season. Take their avg comp, att, yds, TDs and INTs. The stats for this “average passer” look like these:
306/492 (62.1% comp) ... 3,546 yds ... 23 TDs ... 13 INT
I then inflated the critical numbers - completions, yards and TDs - by the 16.8% that Stover's been above avg in FG made for his career. The stats now look like these:
357/492 (72.5% comp) ... 4,141 yds ... 27 TDs ... 13 INT

Aaron Rodgers is the closest comparison. For 18 of his 19 years, was Stover the Aaron Rodgers of kickers? It’s debatable, but a case can be made.


An argument has been made that it’s difficult to evaluate the value of Stover’s 19 season tenure, since kickers and punters tend to last longer than other position players. This article states the following:
“Punters, kickers and long snappers are more likely to have the longest careers in the NFL. … Four of five players with the greatest longevity (>18 yr) were punters or kickers (the other, a rare quarterback).”

While not surprising kickers have the longest careers due to lack of impact on players at their positions, what we don’t see is a lot of difference in the average tenure of the kicker vs. the average tenure of all NFL players. This article, using NFLPA data, shows the average career length of a kicker is 4.9 years vs. 3.3 years for all NFL players.

Stover isn’t the most seasoned to played the position. There are three kickers who have 20+ years – Morten Anderson, Gary Anderson and John Carney. John Kasay is poised to pass him this year, and Jason Hanson to tie him. But only Adam Vinatieri remains as a recent threat to Stover’s 19 seasons. Others may pass him at some point, but it’s far too early to say they will.

And Stover’s performance held up very well over 18 of his 19 years. The 19th year was also not bad. Playing spot-duty for a Colts team with a hurt Vinatieri that punched the ball in the end zone most of the time, he made almost nine of his eleven kicks.

Outside the Forty

Two of Stover’s biggest criticisms have been that he doesn’t have the leg to kick from 40+ yards and that he faded badly in this category toward the end of his career. However, the numbers refute the argument that he doesn’t have a good leg outside the 40, and the dip toward the end of his career was driven by the final two years in Baltimore.

Across Stover’s career, using the same 15 att criteria, all NFL kickers - from 40+ yards out - were on average making 6.97 FG in their 10.92 att per season (63.8%). Stover averaged 7.72 FG per 11.67 att (66.2%). He’s clearly better than the league average in all measures here.

I then plotted Stover’s FG attempts and FG% from 40+ through his years (lopping off his Indi tenure, where he didn’t have 15 att), and added a trend-line for both. One should expect the trend lines to dip, or at least have no slope if he truly was getting worse. Instead, the trend lines slope up, showing that not only were the Ravens trusting him to kick from 40+, he was also validating that trust for all but the final two years of his time in Baltimore. For 16 years, Stover was both trusted to kick from 40+, and was getting the job done at that distance.


Overall, I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be made that Stover is either “overrated,” or “not much better than an average kicker.” The numbers all argue he is significantly better than average, and clearly deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time best at his position. Whether he belongs at #4 on the all time Ravens list could be an interesting debate. But where he belongs in relation to his FG kicking peers does not appear to be a controversial topic.


  1. He doesn't deserve to "be recognized as one of the all-time best at his position" at least, not on the evidence you present. As you note, considering context of the time you really can't compare him statistically with anyone whose careers spanned periods earlier than the mid 90s. When we look at that list:

    it seems that Stover more accurately would fall in the mid to back half of the best 10 of the last 20 years.

    Your whole volume argument is simply a matter of opportunity. It isn't like Stover got opportunities that other kickers wouldn't have gotten in his place. He just happened to play for a team whose defense was great at providing field position and whose offense was great at avoiding touchdowns. Stover wasn't some kind of kicking iron man because he had a few more attempts/year than average. Projecting him out to Aaron Rodgers (you overlooked INTs) is kind of ridiculous.

    I also don't think your 40+ argument is very strong. To demonstrate that the Ravens trusted Stover from 40+ as much as other kickers on your list were trusted by their respective teams you would need to calculate it as a ratio of total attempts. I am not able to determine how you extracted the league-wide 40+ data from your filtered set of kickers from PFR so I can't really go any further with that question. My bet though is that in fact Stover was not trusted more than the average NFL kicker in that regard. Considering he averaged fewer than 2 50+ attempts/year I am thinking that his outer limits for his coaches was more in the 45 yard range. How you can think it is a fair comparison with kickers like Hanson or Janikowski who have been regularly asked to kick from 10 yards farther I do not understand. Kickers like Hanson, Kasay and Norm Johnson made their livings from outside the 45. Josh Brown has more 50+ attempts in 6 years than Stover in 18 and he's hitting 65%.

  2. I thought about looking at 40+ as a % of total kicks, but it was late and the article was already long. I may follow-up on that as I was already curious about it.

    I think the PFR link you used suffers from the same problems you say I have with my're comparing kickers outside of their own careers. I didn't compare Stover with anyone outside of his career. I compared him to all kickers during his career, and all kickers over only the last nine years. I used nine years as a proxy for some of the other kickers, which is less than ideal, but I didn't have the time to do every kicker individually.

    But comparing Kaeding's career - kicking from '04-'10 when kickers were hitting 82.1% of their FGs - to Stover's entire career - when kickers were hitting 76.7% - is in no way a fair comparison. Stover was 87.2% between '04 and '10. And it's not cause Kaeding was kicking more from 40+...he kicked 32.5% of his kicks from that distance vs. 36.0% for Stover (not including Stover's Indi time, cause PFR doesn't have that break-down). Kaeding did kick 6.5% from 50+ compared to Stover's 3.7%, but that's not enough to cover the 3% gap that shows up in the data you linked. FWIW, Kaeding is 53.8% from 50+ for his career, Stover is 50% from '04 on and 41.9% for his career from 50+.

    I think the more interesting question - which is why I pulled 30 years of data - is why we've seen such a sudden spike in kicking percentage. Across the league it's gone up significantly, and it's a question I'd like to get into at some point.

  3. I'm pretty sure kickers are much better now. 30 years ago you were lucky to make $100k kicking. Now you can retire on a single season salary.

    Exercises are better, year round training is better. Kids growing up on soccer doesn't hurt either.

  4. Yeah, one of the things I want to look at is whether individual kickers have been sloping up as well, or if it's more of an improvement in the kickers coming in. i.e. Is there a bunch of Stovers, who have FG% which slopes up; or is there a bunch of 0 slope kickers that just get better and better as time goes on?

  5. Stover's made the Pro Bowl once, I think this has to be some sort of joke by Chris.


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