Thursday, November 05, 2009

Do field-goal kickers do worse in the clutch?

My favorite studies are ones that don't need any fancy math or statistics, but those where you can just look at the data and answer the question almost instantly.

Brian Burke, of "Advanced NFL Stats," had one of those last week. He wondered: is there an overall "choke" effect for field goal kicking? Are kickers less likely to make their kick when the game is on the line, either because of nervousness, or because defenses change their strategy?

The answer appears to be: no. Adjusted for distance, the clutch success rates track the overall success rates almost exactly, except for one blip in the data at 44 yards.

Of course, that doesn't mean that *no* kicker is different in the clutch. The data are consistent with the possibility that only one or two kickers are clutch or choke, which wouldn't be enough to show up in the graph. It's also possible that half of all kickers are clutch, and the other half are choke, and they exactly offset each other so there appears to be no effect.

But in view of the baseball evidence, which shows only very, very slight "clutch" variation among hitters, it doesn't seem likely that field-goal kickers would be significantly clutch.

Furthermore, considering how much data it took to test the clutch hypothesis for baseball, it's probably impossible to find an effect for kickers, even of the same rough size as for batters (less than 3% variation in success rate). Baseball hitters get several hundred opportunities in a season; kickers get maybe 30 or 40. If an effect for individual kickers exists in the NFL, it would have to be huge to have any chance of being detected.

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