Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Does icing the kicker really work?

If you’re anything like me, your shouts of joy at seeing Lawrence Tynes’ last-second field goal attempt sail wide last night turned to shouts of largely-unprintable expletives when you realized that Andy Reid called a timeout just as the ball was snapped, thus affording Tynes another shot at the 54-yarder. If you’re anything like me, you also probably said something unprintable about the practice of ‘icing the kicker’ and how stupid you think it is. After all, we’ve seen countless kickers miss the first attempt, only to make it on their second try.

Does icing the kicker really work?

Andy Reid shakes Tom Caughlin´s hand after Sunday night´s Giants/Eagles game. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Andy Reid shakes Tom Caughlin's hand after Sunday night's Giants/Eagles game. (AP Photo/Michael Perez) AP

If you’re anything like me, your shouts of joy at seeing Lawrence Tynes’ last-second field goal attempt sail wide last night turned to shouts of largely-unprintable expletives when you realized that Andy Reid called a timeout just as the ball was snapped, thus affording Tynes another shot at the 54-yarder. If you’re anything like me, you also probably said something unprintable about the practice of ‘icing the kicker’ and how stupid you think it is. After all, we’ve seen countless kickers miss the first attempt, only to make it on their second try.

It turns out Michael Vick is a lot like us. After the game, he said he wasn’t a fan of the practice. When asked about it in his post game press conference, Eagles’ coach Andy Reid said he regretted calling a timeout in an attempt to ice Tynes.

Now, hindsight is 20/20, but if coaches regret icing the kicker after the game, why do they still do it? Who came up with the stupid practice anyway? And, more importantly, how often does icing the kicker even work?

It turns out, there’s plenty of research done on the subject. Just this past Friday, ESPN’s Stats & Info blog fielded a question on the subject. They determined that, since 2001, kickers are successful on 81% of field goals when no timeout is called beforehand and 76% successful when a timeout is called. That’s only a 5% difference. And in a season where kickers are making 92% of their kicks, the best start in the sport’s history, is that 5% chance really worth giving the kicker a second shot?   

In their 2011 book Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Werthheim took things a little further and considered the amount of time left on a clock for iced-kicks:

FG success whether opponent calls a timeout or not 
(Percentage of kicks made)

Situation

All kicks

Iced

Not iced

Less than two minuntes left in fourth quarter or OT

76.2%

74.2%

77.6%

Less than one minunte left in fourth quarter or OT

75.5%

74.3%

76.4%

Less than 30 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT

76.5%

76.0%

76.9%

Less than 15 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT

76.4%

77.5%

75.4%

 

The Freakonomics blog says that Moskowitz and Werthheim even compared kickers’ success under pressure against high-pressure free throws in NBA games and, amazingly, both groups of athletes maintained about a 76% success rate.

So, if icing the kicker doesn’t really work all that often, why do coaches do it? The simplest explanation is that icing the kicker is now ‘part of the game’, and when something becomes ‘part of the game’ coaches will keep doing it no matter what. Freakonomics’ Stephen J. Dubner says “Coaches are a generally risk-averse group, and find it’s easier to parrot an accepted strategy — even if it’s worthless — than explain why they deviated from accepted tradition.” Deadspin’s Drew Magary, as he is wont to do, put it differently, saying “coaches possess a kind of tunnel vision that often precludes them from doing things that are antithetical to winning football games.” To state it plainly: icing the kicker is something that NFL coaches do, so NFL coaches will keep icing the kicker, no matter what the numbers say.  

So what genius came up with this idea in the first place? The New York Times says that while the notion of calling a timeout before a high-pressure kick has been around the game for a long time, it was then-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan in 2007, who was the first coach to wait to call a timeout until the kicker looked up to take the snap. When a timeout is called from the sidelines, it takes a few seconds for the players on the field to realize it, so the field goal unit is forced to go through the act of the kick before finding out it won’t count.

This practice wouldn’t have been possible until 2004, when the NFL rulebook was amended to allow for head coaches to call timeouts from the sideline.

In 2007, Mike Pereira, then the NFL’s head of officiating, now Fox Sports’ on-air officiating guru, called the practice of icing the kicker an “unintended consequence of a good rule change. I don’t think any of us projected it would be used this way. It just doesn’t seem right.”

That was five seasons ago, and despite evidence to the contrary, it doesn’t seem like NFL head coaches will stop trying to ice kickers any time soon.

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