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How much do clutch moments impact NFL field goal kickers?

With the release of Connor Barth, many Bucs fans are clamoring at the departure of a "clutch" kicker. But can a kicker really be clutch? Or is it all down to luck and percentages?

Vaughn Ridley

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the somewhat bold decision to ditch the highly paid Connor Barth in favor of young, unproven Patrick Murray to handle kicking duties for the 2014 NFL season. Barth is a bit of a folk hero in Tampa, booting key field goals to help the Buccaneers win games since his arrival a few years ago.

So of course, fans aren't in love with the idea of giving away a "clutch" kicker in favor of a kicker who is unproven. Last season, the Bucs lost multiple games in which Rian Lindell missed opportunities, something that would be beyond frustrating to witness again in 2014.

But is there really such a thing as a "clutch" kicker? Or is kicking, in general, a game of odds and probability?

Let's consider some numbers and historical examples.

Situation FGA FGM %
Qtr. 1-3 10269 8425 82.04%
All FG 13971 11503 82.33%
4th Qtr. or OT, within 3 points 1463 1195 81.68%
Last 2 min. of the 4th Qtr., game within 3 points 514 410 79.77%
Trailing by 3 or less last 2 min., 4th Qtr. 240 192 80.00%

The data above represents every field goal attempted since 1998 from a distance of 52 yards or shorter (anything longer than that is a crapshoot, as kickers only make 43.4% of kicks over 52 yards). The situations listed were filtered using the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder.

So, as you can see, the difference in the accuracy of kickers in "normal" situations and in "clutch" situations differs by only one or two kicks per 100. In the most clutch of situations, trailing with less than two minutes to go with a chance to tie or take the lead, kickers are just over 2% worse than they are in normal circumstances.

To use a more specific example, let's consider the career of Rian Lindell, the Bucs kicker in 2013 who is hated by the fanbase for his lack of "clutch."

During his time with the Bills, Lindell made 10 of 12 field goals in 3-point-or-less games with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That average was actually the exact same as his overall kicking average during his time with the Bills. He was no different during "clutch" situations than he was in other situations.

Of course, upon arriving in Tampa, he missed a trio of notable late attempts and drew the ire of the fanbase, but these are just three kicks out of a career of nearly 400. Which is the definition of a small sample size.

Kickers attempt so many kicks, and when the sample sizes grow large enough and everything balances out, players tend to kick about the same in any situation. The chart above proves that pretty clearly.

There are some notable examples of players whose career field goal percentages differ greatly from their "clutch" field goal percentages, however. Robbie Gould is a career 86% kicker, but with 2 minutes or less to go in a three-point game, he's 7 of 7 on kicks of 52 yards or less. Kris Brown was a 77% kicker for his career who was 50% in such situations.

Even Bucs' legend Martin Gramatica, a 76.4% career kicker, was 63.6% on these "clutch kicks."

There are players on either side of the averages, as some players have historically done better or worse in "clutch situations." But we're only talking about 7-10 kicks out of a career built upon hundreds of attempts, which throws away any semblance of sample size or consistency in measurement.

This leaves the door open for natural statistical variance, as an 80% kicker who misses two clutch field goals must then make 14 or 16 just to "fix" his average. Kickers are bound to miss kicks, and if they just so happen to be in these late-game situations, it will ruin their average and not be representative of their ability, but rather of random chance. Similarly, a kicker who makes 10 30-yard field goals in these pressure situations will have a better average than one called upon to take 50-yard attempts more often.

Kickers have one job to do, and they do it over and over. The element of "pressure" is already baked into every attempt, as even a slight miss when striking could send a ball way off course. The difference between "iced" field goals and "non-iced" field goals provides further proof that "pressure" has no tangible impact on kickers. In fact, some kickers prefer being "iced" as it allows more time to focus, and sometimes gives them a practice run at the kick.

However, as fans, we often find ourselves angry at or enamored with the kicker depending on his performance in the most clutch of situations, so the memories of a missed or made kick in a key situation stand out more than the average, every day performance of a placekicker.

The law of averages will eventually balance things out, however, as kickers as a whole tend to be only slightly impacted by the notion of a "clutch" situation. There are certainly those who always make a high-pressure kick, but there are quite a few who bounce back and handle the pressure of every situation with a sense of optimism.

The totals over the past 15 years balance out to provide a clear picture of a position largely unfazed by pressure. So while we can't be certain that Patrick Murray is going to have success in "clutch" situations in Tampa, it's similarly foolish to be certain that a handful of Connor Barth kicks make him an irreplaceable, "clutch" kicker.