End Zone

The Kickers Stink

The Kickers Stink
Credit: Erik Daniel Drost

If you’re looking for evidence of that famous American spirit of innovation, avoid football. It’s a stodgy sport governed by a conservative league. Theorists of American football have largely rested on their laurels since the invention of the forward pass over 100 years ago. Has the game evolved since then? Of course—the pass-heavy West Coast Offense has risen at the expense of the old “ground and pound;” the combination of “packaged plays” and the no-huddle offense makes it difficult for defenses to guess right, ever; also, J.J. Watt exists.

Nevertheless, the NFL is still struggling to get used to the radical idea that the player who usually throws the football might also be able to tuck it under his arm and run for a first down. Like Rex Ryan trading for Tim Tebow so he could run a wildcat offense, then casting his lot with traditional-but-flailing QB Mark Sanchez, coaches are often tempted by the appearance of innovation, only to retreat to the safety of the known, even if it doesn’t work.

That background helps explain the sudden rise and odd persistence of a practice known as “icing the kicker.” This can refer to any instance in which a team calls a timeout just before the opponents attempt to kick a field goal, but the version that has the knickers of at least one sports writer in a twist this season—the number of Bill Barnwell tweets about the phenomenon must by now number in the hundreds—has only been around since 2007, when the NFL changed its rules to allow coaches to signal timeouts from the sidelines, just before the snap.

The unexpected break, in theory, both cools off the warmed-up kicker and messes with him psychologically. The momentum is lost; his leg tenses up; second thoughts rush in as he’s forced to stop, then restart. The intended result: A field goal he could have made sails wide because neither head nor leg are “in the game.”

It worked the first time, and in dramatic fashion: The Broncos beat the Raiders in overtime in 2007 after Sebastian Janikowski’s first, game-winning kick was voided because Denver’s then coach, Mike Shanahan, had called timeout on the sidelines just before the snap; Janikowski, unprepared for a second kick, missed. Since then, this visually compelling and easy to implement strategy has grown in popularity, even as its effectiveness has been debated.

While a 2010 University of San Diego study seemed to prove that icing decreased the chance of a successful field goal, data included in the 2011 book Scorecasting suggested that kickers actually get more accurate when they’re iced with 15 seconds or fewer left in a game. ESPN’s number-crunchers have come up with similar results: Using data collected since 2001, they determined that attempting to ice a kicker with 10 seconds or fewer left in the fourth quarter actually increased his chances of nailing a field goal by 18.2 percent.

This season has seen several prominent examples of icing having no—or the opposite—effect. In September, the Dolphins successfully blocked what would have been a game-winning field goal by Jets kicker Nick Folk, only to learn that their head coach, Joe Philbin, had called a timeout. Folk’s second kick was good, securing a Jets victory.

And though Eagles coach Andy Reid’s attempt to ice Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes in Week 4 didn’t end up making a difference—Tynes missed twice—the second kick was much better than the first. Tynes maintains that the delay helped him—the Giants had rushed out onto the field to get the play off, and the pause gave his team time to collect themselves and properly set up, a sentiment other kickers have seconded.

Whether what detractors have termed a “warm-up kick”—because coaches are calling timeout just before the snap, a first kick usually sails away, then is voided, theoretically giving kickers a chance to adjust for round two—would help or hurt in a vacuum, the element of surprise has been lost. A trick has become standard; it’s more unexpected when a coach lets the opposing team kick unimpeded. And it’s perhaps for this reason that the earlier study is the only one that suggests a net positive for the coach calling the timeout; as the practice has become more common, it’s also become less effective.

Which is precisely why it keeps happening. It was fresh and exciting once and it worked for a time; these factors combine to ensure that NFL coaches will continue to ice kickers long past the point when it seems, statistically, like a good idea. On Deadspin, David Roher explains these diminishing returns using game theory, which provides, in his words, “some scientific validation for occasionally being crazy as fuck.” Icing the kicker no longer qualifies as “crazy as fuck,” and in the dynamic, chaotic system of a football game, its effect has been neutered by overuse.

Roher suggests that if NFL coaches really want to keep opposing teams on their toes, they would do well to follow the example of Louisiana State University coach Les Miles. I don’t follow college football, but the Quotable Les Miles (“I tell you one thing, he gave us something with his feet that I really enjoy.”) and this list of some of his more surprising calls (letting a kicker fake a field goal and then run for a touchdown in the middle of a tropical depression!) are almost enough to make me an LSU fan. Unconvinced? Imagine being a kicker facing a team whose coach occasionally goes on rants like this:

Getting iced would be the least of your worries—and a genuine surprise.