The River City Relay was perhaps one of the most spectacular plays in NFL history. The New Orleans Saints, down seven points, pulled off a miraculous last-second touchdown. Three laterals culminated in Jerome Pathon scoring the game-tying touchdown, sending the game to overtime and keeping the Saints—at the time on the brink of playoff elimination—alive.
Except it didn’t.
Jon Bois covered this famous and infamous moment as part of his Pretty Good series—it’s pretty good. John Carney, fifth all-time on the NFL’s points scored leaderboard, missed the extra point, and the Saints lost. It was heartbreak all around.
That’s what kicking in the NFL can do to you. It can make or break dreams. Oddly enough, kicking itself is often overlooked. Teams “settle” for field goals instead of touchdowns. People forget about extra points until the waning minutes of the game. As Lions fans know, kicking is a roller coaster. The transition from Jason Hanson to Nate Freese to Alex Henery to Matt Prater is enough to give someone whiplash. Dependable kicking is extremely underappreciated. If a kicker missed earlier in the game, and the score is neck-and-neck, suddenly the kicker gets blamed for what could easily be attributed to the failures of the offense or defense. That is the nature of the NFL: kickers tend to get most noticed when they fail.
But what if they always failed?
I wanted to examine how important and game-changing the kicking game really is to the NFL. My question: what if every kick during the 2019 season was missed? How much would scores and records change? Could the Lions actually improve? What conclusions can we make about the importance of kicking?
There are a few things to consider before turning the NFL into whiff city.
Firstly, after a converted field goal, the scoring team kicks off. After a missed field goal, the opposing team starts their next possession from the point where the ball was kicked. For example, if a team misses a 30 yard field goal (meaning the ball was kicked from the 20), the opposing team takes over at the 20 yard line. If all the NFL’s kicks missed, then we would be diving into alternate history. The lines of scrimmage would change, which would lead to very different drives. As a result, let’s pretend that the field position after every new missed kick is the same as it was in reality after the kickoff of the made kick it’s replacing.
Secondly, we need to consider ties. In this timeline, we cannot create overtimes that did not exist. As a result, any game tied after regulation ends in a tie. This leads to some... interesting tiebreakers down the road. You’ll see.
Thirdly, we need to consider games that actually went to overtime. For our experiment, we need to calculate the score after regulation, and if it was still tied, then we would include the overtime portion. If the game was not tied, then we would ignore overtime, since it would not have happened.
Seems simple, right? Just subtract the extra points and field goals, calculate new scores and possibly new winners.
Let’s have a look at the first week:
This might seem like a lot, so I’ll break it down, using the Cardinals as an example.
The Cardinals faced the Lions in Week 1. They originally scored 27 points. The Lions scored 27 points. This game ended as a tie, as most of us remember. While this game went to overtime and both teams kicked field goals, none of those kicks exist in our new reality, so the overtime period is essentially moot. In most cases, it’s a straight-forward equation:
Original Score - (Number of Extra Points x 1) - (Number of Field Goals x 3) = New Score
From there, we check the new score of the two teams and determine a winner. The Cardinals, having kicked four field goals and an extra point, dropped to 14 points. The Lions, meanwhile, scored two field goals and three extra points, dropping to 18 points. As a result, what originally was a tie changes to a Lions win. Hooray!
In Week 1, we had a few changes. The Bills, who beat the Jets 17-16, ended up losing instead, 16-12. The Texans and Saints game also changed, going from a 30-28 Saints win to a 24-18 Texans win. The Rams, meanwhile, ended up tying the Panthers. We are going to see a lot of ties, trust me.
Let us jump ahead to the end of Week 17.
There is a lot of unpack here.
The actual 2019 season finished with a single tie, the aforementioned Cardinals-Lions game. This alternate, kick-less reality finished with 45 ties. As you can imagine, this makes tiebreakers a bit odd looking. In a normal NFL season, it is very easy to tell which team is above which based on win totals. Very rarely do you have a team tie more than once in a season. In this reality, however, you need to look further.
The NFL primarily does tiebreakers based on win-lost-tied percentage. The formula for this percentage is the following:
(Wins x 1.000 + Losses x 0.000 + Ties x 0.500) / (Games Played) = Win-Loss-Tie Percentage
As an example, an 8-6-2 team would have a percentage of:
(8 x 1.000 + 6 x 0.000 + 2 x 0.500) / (16) = 0.5625
The Lions went from 3-12-1 to 2-10-4, which is both better and worse. They won one fewer game, but win percentage-wise, they increased from 0.219 to 0.250. Hooray? The Texans made the playoffs with a record of 6-4-6, ahead of the 7-6-3 Broncos, thanks to win percentage. The Packers won the NFC North despite the exact same record as the Vikings due to winning their season series 2-0.
Meanwhile, despite winning more games than the Eagles, the Cowboys missed the playoffs. Both teams were tied in terms of win percentage, so we needed to look further down the tiebreaker list. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head, but the two teams split their season series. The second tiebreaker is win percentage in games played within the division. The Cowboys and Eagles, yet again, tied the tiebreaker. This brought us to the third tiebreaker, win percentage in common games. The Eagles managed to sneak through as a result.
However, the main question I had going into this experiment was how greatly this would affect standings?
The answer? Not much changed.
Every single team that made the playoffs in 2019 also made the playoffs in this situation. There are some more seeding changes, such as the Titans winning the division instead of Houston, or the Patriots leapfrogging the Ravens and Chiefs for the top spot in the AFC, but overall it is a minor change.
In fact, two teams finished with the exact same record. The Buffalo Bills finished at 10-6 in both realities, although in this simulation they ended up losing to the Jets and defeating the Browns in Week 10. The Browns, meanwhile, also finished with a 6-10 record, with a new loss against the Bills and a new win against the Seahawks in Week 6.
I was curious to see if there were certain teams more reliant on kicking, and for the most part, there were no significant outliers.
Three teams—the Texans, the Saints, and the 49ers—all won four fewer games, the biggest change out of all teams. However, a majority of teams won fewer games as well. On average, teams won 1.34 fewer games, likely due to the sheer number of ties. The Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Browns, Chargers, Patriots, Buccaneers, and Titans are the only teams that won the same amount of games. The Cowboys, Giants, and Vikings are the only teams that won more games, with each of them gaining one more win.
Also, Washington went winless and secured the first overall pick. That’s fun.
Removing kicking from the 2019 NFL season change much did not change much, but there are some additional considerations.
Kicking in football is highly situational, so straight-up removing the kicks would change play calling. Being down by one point at the end of a game calls for a game-winning field goal attempt. However, in the no-kicking reality, what if the team is instead down by four points? In this reality, the play call stays the same, but the logic does not. We cannot change the mentality of the team from “Get in field goal range” to “Score a touchdown.” Additionally, most of the 45 ties that occurred would not end as ties, given that these fictional teams did not get an opportunity to score in overtime.
If kickers suddenly could not kick field goals, as if the aliens from Space Jam stole their abilities, teams would adapt. The simplest strategy would be to not attempt field goals or extra points—bold, I know. This would mean more punts and more fourth down attempts. With the safe option of field goals off the table, teams would either play it safe (punt) or risky (go for it). It would certainly lead to some exciting and tense moments.
After touchdowns, meanwhile, we would see a two-point conversion renaissance. Two-point conversions have an interesting history. They were first introduced during the 1994 season, and they were the hot new fad. Teams attempted 113 two-point conversions that season to 902 extra point attempts, nearly a 1:8 ratio.
The total number of post-touchdown scoring attempts has remained fairly consistent since 1994, but the two-point conversion has been a roller coaster. It became a bit of a dying trend in the mid-2000s before resurging in recent years:
The low point of the two-point saga was in 2006, when a mere 35 two-point conversions were attempted to 1135 extra points, a ratio of nearly 1:32. A significant rule change happened in 2015, and with it saw the rebound of the two-point conversion. The cause? The extra point was moved back to the 15-yard line from the 2-yard line. This change of distance made extra points less consistent, and as a result, going for two became less of a gamble.
Now imagine a world without extra points. If every single touchdown led to a two-point attempt, not only would it add to the excitement of a close game, but it could also carve out new roles on teams. Bruising goal line running backs would get a significant increase in value. Having big-bodied receivers and tight ends would be a necessity to maximize goal line opportunities. Teams could experiment with short yardage quarterbacks that are common in the Canadian Football League. There are a lot of ideas that could be explored.
It would be weird to play football without kicking, thus eliminating the foot part of it. It is an integral, and often underappreciated, part of the sport. On a league-wide scale, removing kicking did not have a significant effect on the standings, but that does not mean kicking isn’t valuable. With field goal rates usually in the 80 percent range, good kicking could very well be enough to win your team the game. Kickers like Matt Prater and his booming leg or Justin Tucker and his laser accuracy are not to be underestimated.
Overall, I was hoping for some significant changes, like a team missing the playoffs due to no field goals, but I’m still satisfied with the results. Removing kicking illustrates the importance of touchdowns over settling for field goals. In very few instances did the team with fewer touchdowns win the game, so removing the field goals hardly mattered. Good teams capitalize on their scoring opportunities. On the other hand, the number of ties indicates how close many games are on a weekly basis. As a result, a single made field goal could be the difference between a win and a loss.
I think the NFL is in a good place right now regarding extra points. They are no longer automatic, and it opens up the opportunity for more two-point conversions. At the same time, they aren’t so variable as to affect the final outcome on most occasions. There is plenty of potential for unique goal line tactics in today’s NFL, and more plays in the vein of the
Philly Detroit Special will likely occur.
After all of this, it is time to answer the question: how important is kicking?
It is important, but it is just one piece of the puzzle that leads to winning.