Thursday, December 04, 2008

NFL kickers missed 700% more PATs in the 70s

Are athletes getting better, in general, as the decades progress? If you look at sports where there's an absolute measure of performance – like track – the answer is obviously yes. At the finals of the 1500m run, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, all twelve runners beat the time that was the world record back in 1956.

In team sports, it's not as obvious when athletes improve, mostly because there's an offense and a defense. When Wayne Gretzky scored 92 goals back in 1981-82, was he really that much better than Rocket Richard, who scored 50 in 1944-45? Not necessarily: even apart from the fact that Gretzky played 80 games to Richard's 50, there could be many other factors operating:

-- expansion could have diluted the talent of the goalies and defensemen Gretzky played against;

-- a different style of play in the 80s might have caused a shift in the balance between offense and defense, so that more goals were scored in general;

-- Gretzky may have been given more playing time than Richard;

-- Gretzky might have been allowed to handle the puck more than Richard, giving him more opportunities;

And so on.

So I find it interesting whenever someone discovers a method of showing actual improvement in a team sport. And that's what Eddy Elfenbein has done for the NFL here.

In the middle of Elfenbein's post is a historical graph of how often kickers missed the point after touchdown (PAT). This year, it's less than 1%, but that's exceptional – in the past few years, it's been between 1 and 2 percent. But what's amazing is that misses were so much more frequent in what is pretty recent history. In the 80s, it was 4%, and back in the mid-70s, it was as high as 8%. Here, let me copy in Elfenbein's graph, if it's not a violation of blogger etiquette:

Elfenbein notes that some of the improvement comes from rule changes (notably one in 1984), so it's not all improved ability. Still, that can't be all of it, or even most of it, since the graph is so smooth.

I would never have believed the change could be that dramatic. And check out Elfenbein's entire post, where he advocates moving the two-point conversion line from the two-yard line to the one, to make it more competitive with the virtually assured single point kick.

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