Place Kicking and Other Head Games

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

Some more thoughts on the psychology of kicking, in the wake of Shaun Suisham's 2012 season.

As the tenure of Jeff "Skippy" Reed was weaving its way to a close in 2010, I published an article entitled "Kickers and the Role of the Psyche in Performance." I compared kickers to French horn players in an orchestra, and explored the psychological issues of doing something quite difficult under enormous pressure while lots of people are noticing.

My youngest son, who happens to be a professional horn player as well as very interested in sports, left a long comment. In it he discussed auditioning for a horn job, and I think it is worth quoting one bit in particular:

Under these circumstance I believe that one’s ability to perform is reduced by at least 50% or more, according to my experience. There is an overwhelming sensation, mental and physical, of the need to perform perfectly RIGHT NOW, in that moment. Now add to that the unbelievable pressure of the NFL environment; millions of fans watching and a legion of pundits ready to jump on every little mistake… if an audition is bad, I can only imagine what an NFL kicker’s life must be like.

The point is that there is a great deal more that goes into kicking performance than mere ability, talent, or want-to. Really, even a small advantage in psyche can make a world of difference. For this reason the ‘best’ player is often not the one to win the audition, but the winner is whoever handled the pressure best; who had their ability decreased the least by the circumstances. Which is why Jeff Reed, and not Kris Brown, has been our kicker for the last several years (despite probably being not as gifted a kicker).

In Reed, the Steelers had found a capable kicker who could handle both the pressure of Steeler Nation, and of Heinz Field. My thought is that this sort of psyche is a rare commodity, even in the rarified air of NFL-level talent...

I've been revisting these thoughts recently. I loved Shaun Suisham's story when he was hired. (I put a brief summary in a comment to Anthony Defeo's post, but just ask in the comments below if you want it repeated here.) He seemed at the time, and still does, to be the anti-Jeff Reed. How refreshing.

Not that my purpose here is to speak ill of Reed. Living in Pittsburgh, I know someone who knows Jeff Reed, at least a little bit, and said he has a big heart and did a lot of work with the Steeler charities. Unfortunately for Reed, his personal demons caught up with him, I think, in sort of a latter-day Greek drama.

But back to Shaun Suisham. Lovely young man that he appears to be, there is a reason he was available when the Steelers cut Jeff Reed. He had been cut for the sixth time, by the Redskins, and was home on his couch. You can bet if Jeff Reed had continued booting the football between the uprights reliably, he would almost certainly still be here, however many unfortunate pictures of him appeared on TMZ. But he didn't.

Two years ago Raven's kicker Billy Cundiff was the darling of the league, with an unbelievable touchback rate before the kickoff line got moved up five yards. This past week he got fired from the team who picked him up after Baltimore cut him—ironically, the Redskins. He had the worst record in the league after last Sunday's game—seven kicks made on 12 attempts. What happened?

Who knows? How does one lose confidence in one's ability to do something you have done multiple times in your life? Easy enough—I expect we've all had the experience, at least on some level. The much more difficult question—how does one regain the confidence if you've lost it?

Shaun Suisham was undrafted in 2005. That doesn't give you an inflated idea of your self-worth, I suspect. I heard a talk by a woman who attained a very prestigious position in the music world, and her advice to young music students was to persevere. If you go to a hundred auditions and don't win a job, will you still go to the 101st audition? Naturally, it is sensible to step back from time to time and make sure there isn't a good reason you aren't winning jobs. But the point she was making was, are you allowing your self-assessment to be formed by the results of a very imprecise process?

The principal trumpeter of a major U.S. orchestra has taken 82 auditions in his life. He won thirteen of them along the way, but it wasn't until No. 39 that he won a full-time job, (having won a half-dozen or so smaller jobs before the full-time position) and another four auditions on the way to his present job. He never allowed himself to doubt, apparently, as 69 of those auditions ended in the committee preferring another player.

You get far fewer chances at an NFL career (although I have no idea how many teams Suisham tried out for, other than the ones he has been cut from.) He has been cut by the Steelers (in 2005, before the end of the pre-season,) the Cowboys twice, by the Redskins, and by the 49ers. Ironically, the first time the Cowboys cut him was to sign Billy Cundiff.

And yet Suisham has some impressive accomplishments to his name. During his senior year at Bowling Green he set an NCAA record. (It has since been broken.) The only kicker besides Suisham in NFL history to make four kicks of over 40 yards in a single game is Sebastian Janikowski. Suisham has done it twice—five kicks from over 40 yards in 2007 for the Redskins, including the game-winner in overtime, and four kicks for the Steelers in 2010 vs. Buffalo, including the game-winner in overtime. Suisham's career average is 80.4%, and his average with the Steelers is 82.8% in the regular season. (It drops to 81.8% if you add in the post-season, but more on that later.) His average this season so far was 100%, until the last minute of Thursday night's game, when it dropped to 91.7%.

Suisham is not a terribly highly-rated kicker, at least prior to this year, mainly because of his kick-offs. He doesn't have a huge leg, like the kid who came to training camp this past summer. But Danny Hrapman was cut, presumably because the coaching staff had less confidence in him than they did in Suisham. This may have been because they had less data. But Hrapman was inconsistent in training camp, and that was a death knell.

Billy Cundiff has a big leg, too. But Cundiff was fired because he was missing field goals. A lot of them—he was making them at a rate of 58.3%. And frankly, when you look at the numbers on Cundiff, 2010 was an anamoly. His career average is 75.5%, and although he had one season with a perfect 100% rate, it was because he was six for six. That’s great, but not a lot of information to base an assessment upon, especially when his rate the season after, with a full season of games, was 70.6%.

Jeff Reed, on the other hand, was consistently much better. He had a few stinkers of seasons, with the worst being the 2010 season, when PIT cut him. (His percentage of goals made to attempts was 68.2.) His second season in the league (2003) was also pretty unimpressive, converting attempts at a 71.9% rate. But his career average is 82.2%. Look at other kickers. Most kickers seem to have off years. Even the great Sebastian Janikowski has a 80.1% career average, with a low of 66.7% (in 2005) and a high of 89.7% (2009.)

I decided to look at a few of the "greats" in place-kicking and see what their stats look like in comparison to Suisham. I used their career average, worst year, and best year. Have a look:

Kicker_comparison_medium

I had to make it pretty tall so you could actually see the differences. Interesting, isn’t it? All of these kickers were in the league a long time—that’s part of their greatness. With only seven years in the league, Suisham is the baby of the lot. But with all of the "great" kickers, there were bad years and good years, and their average over their career doesn’t look so different from Suisham’s. His career high so far (not including this season, naturally, since there's a long way to go) is a good bit lower than the others, but many of them did not have a big year until well into their career. Gary Anderson's perfect season was his 17th in the league. Gary Anderson began his career as the kicker for the Steelers in 1982, and continued, for other teams eventually, until 2004. His amazing 100% year was 1998, with MIN. (And, as we will discover in due time, the regular season was perfect, but not the post-season.) Both Jason Hanson and Matt Stover entered the league in 1991, and Hanson is still the Lion’s kicker. Stover was responsible for over 40% of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens’ total scoring. (I couldn’t resist throwing that out.)

What's the takeaway? There is one thing for sure—even the most consistent kicker is going to have a few down years. There is something to be said for the down years being not horribly down. As a coach, I would be happy knowing my kicker might never be a world-beater, but was reliable enough to make me willing to risk some low-percentage kicks in a pinch.

One of the really interesting things you note when you start looking at kickers is how powerful perception is in the public eye. Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, etc.) wrote a piece for the New York Times about kickers. He spent considerable time with Adam Vinatieri trying to puzzle out the psychology of a very reliable kicker. As is the case with pretty much anything Lewis writes, it is vastly detailed and interesting. He made the following observations about kicking in general:

First, you should never leave any game before it's over, because you never know what's going to happen. Second, grown-ups watching sports say a lot of stuff with total certainty when they really don't know what they're talking about. And finally, it is extremely difficult for a field-goal kicker to be a hero. He can perform a miracle, but the world will always find some way to shove him back in his place.

He gave several examples of the final tenet, including Gary Anderson, who isn’t remembered for the perfect season but for the kick he missed in that post-season. Or this:

Item: Scott Norwood. At the end of Super Bowl XXV, in 1991, Norwood, who up to that moment has enjoyed a wonderful six-year career, misses a 47-yard field goal for the Buffalo Bills. The Bills lose to the New York Giants, 20-19. Norwood retires after one more season and eventually becomes a real estate agent who spends part of his day selling houses and another part avoiding phone calls from sports journalists seeking either to mine his tragedy for pathos or to get even with him on behalf of the city of Buffalo. A decade after his missed kick, he tells a reporter that he dreads the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, when his failure is invariably revisited on national television. "A great, great, great kicker was Scott Norwood," Jason Elam, the kicker for the Denver Broncos, says. "And he'll only be remembered for the one that he missed." It's the first of many reminders of the terms of trade between N.F.L. field-goal kickers and everyone else. "People are quick to blame the kicker," an executive with a National Football Conference team says. "If he makes the kick, the coach made a good decision. If he missed the kick, it's [the kicker’s] fault. There's virtually no upside, because every kick you're expected to make."

Lewis said it took quite some time, but he finally managed to get Vinatieri’s assessment of himself:

Every year for the past 12 seasons he has found himself in a training camp with a handful of kickers, many of whom have stronger legs than he does. What sets him apart, he is certain, is his character, though he never uses that word. A combination of innate traits and learned skills has rendered him extremely well suited to handle the pressure of the position. "Kicking at this level," he says more than once, "is all about how you handle pressure. We're on an island; everyone is watching us. It's not like some play where only the coaches who can see the film can tell who screwed up. The difference between kickers is, can you do it when the lights are on?"

Do check out the article. There is a lot more of enormous interest.

Let’s look at a couple of the perceptions people have about Shaun Suisham. Because, make no mistake, people are certain they know things, like "he chokes in the post-season," "he is completely unreliable between 40 and 49 yards," and so on. Are these based in reality?

First, the choking in the post-season. Part of the trouble of looking at the post-season is, the numbers are small. But it is true he has a lower percentage of made kicks in the post-season overall. He made three of five kicks in the 2010 postseason, missing one of 40+ yards in the Divisional game and one of 50+ yards in the Super Bowl. (He made the second kick in both games.) However, the story is quite different in 2011. In the 2011 post-season he was a perfect three for three in the Wild Card game, one of the only bright spots in a really depressing game. Two of those kicks were between 30 and 39 yards, one between 40 and 49.

It is certainly true his accuracy decreases as the length of the kick increases. It’s hard to imagine this isn’t true for essentially every kicker. So I looked up the statistics on the "great" kickers featured above, as well as Jeff Reed, Shaun Suisham (career), and Shaun Suisham (as a Steeler.) Here's what I found:

There's a reason they call short kicks (under 20 yards) "chip shots." People hardly ever miss them. The two kickers who had a less than 100% rate for the 1 - 19 yard kicks missed one in each case. There are typically few field goal attempts from this close, even over the course of a 15-20 year career. As a result, I didn’t bother to include the chart. (Suisham is not one of the kickers who has missed from under 20 yards.) Instead, let’s look at the distances where the bulk of the kicks any kicker is asked to make are—between 20 and 39 yards. Here's what the above-mentioned gentlemen look like on what you might call the bread-and-butter kicks:

Bread_and_butter_medium

A couple of notes - I began all charts at 25% and ended a 100%, so you’re looking at the exact same range of percentages. Suisham’s career numbers are the first bar, his PIT numbers the second. (Note in almost every case the PIT numbers are better.) All numbers include the post-season when a kicker kicked in a post-season.

Now let’s look at the lower-percentage kicks. Notice the percentage dives pretty steeply from the above chart even at 40 yards, and note also few of the kickers managed much better than a 1 in 2 average for kicks over 50 yards. The best percentage was 60.3%, and that was achieved by Jason Elam, who kicked his entire career in Denver. Thus he kicked half his games at high altitude, where it is well known the ball travels further because of decreased air resistance.

Low-percentage_medium

Since, as you can see, there isn't a huge amount of difference between the kickers, here's a clearer look at the trajectory. (The two charts are Suisham's lifetime percentage at each distance and his percentage as a Steeler.)

Suisham_comp

What does all this mean? Does it mean Suisham is unreliable between 40-49 yards, or that he isn't? Basically, it means he is unreliable to just about exactly the same extent as kickers known for their consistency and considered to be some of the best kickers to ever play in the league. Does this mean he will end up in this category? Only time will tell. He's been kicking less than half as many years as most of the kickers on the charts above. Even Janikowski and Reed have several more years on him. A lot can happen in five years. But for now, he looks very much like a quality kicker, and being a quality kicker doesn't mean he will never ever have another bad year, necessarily. Besides, he can tackle if need be, and punt, too.

Am I say there’s little difference between kickers? No, but less because of any particular physical attribute than because of the all-important psychological (or character, as Lewis would have it) traits. They have to have the confidence that when their foot connects with the ball it is going to go through the uprights. Vinatieri said he doesn’t watch the kick. He knows the instant it leaves his foot whether it will be good or not. Small wonder kickers develop routines that sound almost OCD when you read them.

The Billy Cundiff miss heard around the world in the AFC Championship game was most likely a result of the play clock being wrongly set to second down instead of third. By the time Cundiff discovered he had to get on the field, he was one step behind in his pre-kick routine, and it rattled him. Because of the interruption of his routine, and because he was rushed, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl instead of into overtime.

These routines aren't necessarily mere superstition. There is an entire industry devoted to helping people such as place kickers, horn players, and those under similar pressure and scrutiny to train themselves to remain calm. The methods vary, but the idea is the same. But maybe the alpha-wave machines and suchlike are overkill.

German researchers have discovered that right-handed soccer players were far more likely to score a high-pressure penalty kick if they clench their left hand just before their shot...That’s likely because clenching the left hand activates the right side of the brain, which governs rote movements, and dampens the activity of the brain’s left hemisphere, which tends to initiate over-thinking. "Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions or what their coaches told them during practice," sports psychologist Jürgen Beckmann of the Technical University of Munich tells ScienceDaily.com.

Note the photo which heads the article. It sure looks to me like Suisham is clenching his left hand. Could this be the secret of his accuracy this season? I don't have the slightest idea. The far more interesting question is, will the miss in Thursday's game mess with his head?

It shouldn't. The kick was straight as an arrow. Had it been just slightly harder it would have been good. But these things aren't a matter of logic. As Michael Bean said, in a quote which inspired the original article,

I honestly think Tomlin was not exposing Reed to another potential miss. Why? Well, the psyche of a kicker is a fragile, precious thing not to be tampered with unnecessarily. Had Reed not missed a number of kicks in the previous weeks, I definitely think Tomlin sends Reed out.

The kick in question would have been a 56-yard attempt, definitely longer than Reed's career high. And of course the 54-yard attempt on Thursday night was two yards longer than Suisham's career long of 52 yards, which he matched earlier in the evening. Tomlin apparently felt the 52-yard kick he made had enough additional distance on it that there was a decent chance of it going through from 54 yards. But I won't soon forget the look on Suisham's face when he realized it was short. He looked like he was going to literally be ill.

So I fervently hope, both for his sake and the Steelers', he can throw this off and not think less of himself—or too much about his kicking.

And to give you some idea of what these guys go through, here is a final excerpt from my son's comment:

One of my college professors, who was one of the great horn players of his generation, would always say that playing the horn is like trying to spit a 95-mph fastball through a garden hose, on cue, beautifully. There is quite literally the sensation (and often, the reality) that you have no idea what is going to come out of the horn when you attempt a note. I say this despite having played for 15 years, in that time playing hundreds upon hundreds of concerts, multiple thousands of hours of intense practice, and quite likely several million notes. Despite this I still sit down with a methodical warm-up routine for at least 45 minutes every morning before I feel even reasonably comfortable about what will come out of the instrument.

The salary for NFL kickers is not high, relatively speaking. It may seem like money for nothing much to the average fan, but kickers earn every dime, in my opinion. Sleep well, Shaun, and nail some kicks for us next week...

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