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.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

How to mess up a good analysis

I guess I don't really know how good this analysis of QB rating differential in relation to winning, because I didn't read it. And I didn't read it because the author commits one of the worst sins of a good analysis...he doesn't bother explaining what it is he's analyzing right off the bat. He spends far too many paragraphs talking about how critical it is, without ever explaining it.

QB rating differential, in case you don't know, is your team's QB rating on offense minus the QB rating allowed by the defense. This is something that should never be explained after the second paragraph, nevermind the seventh.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Terrell Pryor Makes Dumb Decision

Stop The Presses!

Yeah, this topic is slightly dated but it's been on my mind and this is my first chance to discuss it. Terrell Pryor has rejected the idea of playing football in the Canadian Football League. Makes no sense, or at least it makes no sense to anyone who has a lick of sense. So that being the case, it makes perfect sense for Terrell Pryor.

Why Drew Rosenhaus agreed to hitch his fortunes to this nag I have no idea. I doubt that Rosenhaus Sports Representation is going to invest much in the way of resources in Pryor who seems doomed to fail utterly. I guess picking Rosenhaus could be chalked up to another Pryor mistake, as Pryor seems unlikely to listen to any kind of sound professional advice (such as 'why don't you go to the CFL for a couple of years' type of advice) that Rosenhaus might be able to provide. Pryor could have gone with a smaller, more desperate agent. On the other hand if Pryor is looking for a single payday then maybe Drew 'Willis McGahee is a first round pick with one working knee' Rosenhaus is a good choice. In terms of professional development this kind of seems like a(nother) disaster in the making.

So the CFL. It seems to me that league is perfect for Pryor to showcase his athleticism while developing the quarterbacking skills that eluded him at Ohio State. Right now he appears to be a great athlete masquerading at quarterback. His arm strength is pedestrian and decision making poor. In college teams learned that he could be handicapped by simply containing him and forcing him to make actual football plays rather than allowing him to escape the pocket and use his dual threats to beat opponents. He will get killed in the NFL with the latter philosophy and that will have to get trained out of him before he stands a prayer of succeeding at that level.

But anyhow, he seems to want to be a quarterback but does not seem to want to learn how. And since he has refused the developmental route he seems destined to be a guy who gets a couple of years at the back end of an NFL roster and then 5 years from now simply wondering who to blame.


Monday, June 13, 2011

I Hate [Blank]

Joe Posnanski with what I think is a great observation in his NBA finale post mortem

But in despising the Heat, I came to admire them, too. That’s how it can go with Sports Hate (what I have come to call Clemenate). I truly believe that in a weird way I admired John Elway more than any of his biggest fans, because I watched him gut my teams again and again and again.
Man, aint that the truth?

I kind of twonder how I feel like this in the context of my own fandom. I hate the Cowboys for all the usual reasons, but I reserve an additional layer of hate for them for becoming the team in the 1990s that the Lions didn't. I hate that people thought Emmitt was better than Barry.

I don't know that I ever hated Brett Favre, but I hated that he never lost a home game to the Lions. Not once. Something like 18 straight in Lambeau and another in Minnesota. I hate that. I hate that he beat the Lions in the playoffs a couple of times. Ultimately I guess I enjoyed watching him become irrelevant, watching him play one season too many, watching the cape come off.

Come to think of it, I did hate the Vikings. Not the now Vikings but the then Vikings. The John Randall/Henry Thomas Vikings that ruined seasons in Detroit. I was jealous of the Bears in the '80s but the timing wasn't right for any special kind of hatred, the Lions weren't good then anyway.

I hate the Yankees, again for all the usual reasons, for the same reason that the regular hate the entitled privileged, for the obliviousness to the idea that their position isn't deserved. I did root for them in 2004 but only because of that other special kind of hatred: schadenfreude. If there was one constant it was that Red Sox fans were more miserable - both collectively and individually - than me. So I rooted for the Yankees and hated them for choking. And I hated the Red Sox too, just cuz. And now I hate them both for being rich kids who purchase championships.

Schadenfruede. Now that is a special emotion. Questions of Lebron aside, I think it is felt more potently by football fans than anyone else. Perhaps more exquisitely by Lion fans who could really only root for the misery of others, a sharing and leveling of our own taste of frustration and futility. So the Ravens? I don't hate the Ravens, but I do enjoy that small burst annually when they lose their playoff game, usually to the Steelers. The Steelers? I also don't carry any special emotion for them other than the appreciation I feel when they torment Raven fans.

If I can't win then you can't win. Pyrrhic victories are better than none. Sure, someone has to win but better someone that perpetuates the shared misery of others than someone I don't particularly care about.

My team is out of it anyway.


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