Academic journal article International Journal of Sport Finance

On the Evaluation of Kickers in the National Football League

Academic journal article International Journal of Sport Finance

On the Evaluation of Kickers in the National Football League

Article excerpt


Kickers in the NFL have two jobs. The first is kicking off. The second is scoring via field goal attempts and extra points. Of these two actions, the latter's impact on outcomes is most easily observed. Decision-makers should be able to go beyond simple visual observation and evaluate actions in terms of their impact on outcomes. Consistent with past research in baseball and basketball, though, we find evidence that decision-makers undervalue the factor that is hardest to visually connect to outcomes.

Keywords: National Football League, behavioral economics, specialization


One of the main themes of Adam Smith's seminal book The Wealth of Nations is the central role specialization plays in determining an economy's rate of economic growth. For example, Smith describes the process of specialization within the production of a pin factory in the following way:

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a particular business, to whiten the pins is another ... and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which in some manufactories are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometime perform two or three of them. (Smith, 1776, p. 6)

Smith, recognizing the value of the division of labor, further argues that when the "business of making a pin is" divided into smaller distinct operations, the returns to productivity may be immense.1

This lesson was certainly not lost on many in the production sector. Henry Ford, for example, used these principles in the production of the Model T. After incorporating the Ford Motor Company in 1903, Ford went about revolutionizing the auto manufacturing process. By introducing the assembly line production to the process of producing automobiles, Ford was able to increase the production of his Model T from 1 car every 12 hours to 1 car every 93 minutes in 1914, a rate nearly 5 times the rate of his competitors.2

In the world of sports, though, this message often appears lost. The best basketball players are asked to dribble, shoot, pass, rebound, and defend. Baseball players are often prized if they have the five tools, the ability to hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and field. In other words, in basketball and baseball, the nonspecialist is preferred.3

In American football, though, the gains from specialization have clearly been recognized. Whereas in other sports players are encouraged to be good at everything, football players focus on a very specific list of skills. On offense, one player throws the ball, others run, still others catch, and others only block.4 This lesson also seems to have been learned across time as, for example, the day of the two-way player is now a thing of the past.

Perhaps for no position is this focus on specialization more important than for the kicker. While other players on an NFL team are responsible for throwing the ball, carrying the ball, catching the ball, blocking, or tackling, a kicker has none of these responsibilities.5 In sum, many of the activities generally associated with football are not the responsibility of the kicker. Two jobs are generally assigned to the kicker. The first is kicking off, with the objective being to kick the ball as far as possible, thus forcing the opposing team to travel more yards to score. The second task involves scoring, either via field goals or extra points.

It is this latter task that generally earns a kicker fame or infamy. For example, Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired proved to be the winning margin in the New England Patriots triumph over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And Jim O'Brien-with five seconds left in Super Bowl V-kicked a 32-yard field goal to give the Baltimore Colts a victory over the Dallas Cowboys. …

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