Life isn't easy for NFL kickers. As third-year kicker Dan Bailey told DallasCowboys.com, "You're only as good as your last play." That's the sort of mindset that haunts many players at the position; fans remember the last missed field goal, but the makes are just what's "supposed" to happen.
When you look at league-wide field goal rates, you can see why that's the perception. NFL kickers have become so good at connecting on field goals – with significant improvement even over the last half-decade – that they hit on nearly 60 percent of attempts between 53 and 57 yards. So on any given attempt from almost anywhere on the field, chances are a kicker will hit a field goal. That's quite a bit of pressure to not miss, regardless of the game situation.
It's really important to understand the percentages that coincide with field goal attempts, though. Even though kickers have made nearly 70 percent of their attempts between 48 and 52 yards since 2008, for example, the most likely scenario for a kicker who attempts two field goals in that range during a game is to make one and miss one.
That's why Bailey's first two seasons in the league have been so impressive. The kicker has made 61 of his 68 field goal attempts, 89.7 percent, and he hasn't missed once on any field goal between 22 and 46 yards.
Bailey has outperformed NFL kickers as a whole in almost every field goal range. He missed a 21-yard attempt in his second game as a pro, a kick that he'd miss less than one percent of the time, but he came back with a 48-yard field goal to send that same game into overtime and then booted a 19-yarder to win it.
Bailey's career-long field goal came at 51 yards, and he's missed two kicks longer than that. So while he's underperformed from 53 yards or more, he's really just 0-for-2 in a range where NFL kickers as a whole connect just under 60 percent of the time.
Bailey's Adjusted Value
Bailey's career field goal percentage of 89.7 percent trumps the league average: 82.9 percent in 2011 and 83.9 percent last season. But since the distribution in the length of kickers' field goal attempts can vary so much, it's best to analyze Bailey's play based on the distance of his attempts.
We can determine how successful Bailey has been compared to an average kicker by calculating how many points he "should have" scored on field goals versus how many he actually did score. Believe it or not, the calculation for that, a metric called "expected points," is pretty easy. For now, we'll just ignore that teams must kick off when they make a field goal or give up possession at the spot of the kick if they miss. From the standpoint of expected points on the field goal alone, all we need to do is multiply three by the chances of an average kicker making the kick.
For example, NFL kickers have hit on 99 percent of field goals between 18 and 22 yards. When a kicker attempts a field goal in that range, the expected value is thus 3 * 0.99, or 2.97. That's why Bailey's 21-yard miss was costly; although the opponent was forced to start at their own four-yard line, the Cowboys lost three points that they would score almost every time Bailey attempts that kick.
So assessing Bailey in this manner, we can calculate expectation versus reality in every area of the field.
Here, it's easy to see how Bailey has outperformed what we should expect of him given the length of his field goals. All told, Bailey
has scored 181 points on field goals during his two-year career, while the point expectation was just 171.98 on those kicks. You can think of the latter number, we'll call it 172, as the points an average NFL kicker would score on Bailey's attempts.
That means Bailey's worth to the Cowboys, at least in regards to his field goal attempts, has been somewhere in the range of nine points over average. That's 0.28 "extra" points per game just for making three more field goals than the typical NFL kicker.