Sunday, 26 January 2014

NFL Kickers Verses Rugby Kickers.

The 2013 NFL season pauses for breath with the Pro Bowl, before two former AFC West rivals, Denver and Seattle face off in Super Bowl XLV111. NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell also used the week gap between the season's most meaningless game and the most important, to propose the elimination or replacement of the kicked extra point following a touchdown. Unlike penalty kicks in football, extra points are getting much too easy to execute. Only five were missed this season and conversion rates easily tops 99% over recent seasons.

Fans and coaches, alike appear to be in general agreement with Goodell (kickers are less keen), although alternatives are naturally both numerous and varied. One, inevitably given both sport's common origin, harks back to rugby, where the kick is taken on a line back from where the ball is touched down. Logistically and from a game play view, applying rugby's solution to the NFL's kicking problem would create problems.

A touchdown scored at the pylon would require a kick from the touchline. The optimum distance from the posts for such kicks chosen by the rugby kickers is around 25 yards, so the long snapper in the NFL would have to get longer and half the line would line up out of bounds. Most pertinently, the rate of conversion from the touchline in rugby is just below, 50% giving an expected points value of below half a point for such attempts. 2 point conversions (if they were retained) are converted at a similar rate, so their expected points would be over twice that of a kick.

A team would never attempt the more difficult kick.

A rugby crossover is therefore unlikely. However, it does rekindle the debate over which sport has the best kickers. The initial variables are relatively close. Rugby and gridiron posts are of almost identical dimensions. The balls are of similar weight, although a NFL ball is more designed for its primary use as a missile. Special kicking balls possibly redress this aerodynamical disadvantage and such balls are only lightly greased when Tony Romo is acting as holder.

Up to now, we have a relatively level playing field. The major advantage given to kickers in the NFL over their rugby playing cousins is they always kick from a relatively central position. Union and league insist on conversions being taken from the aforementioned line from the point where the ball is grounded and penalties are awarded where the infringement occurred.

Therefore, overall conversion rates of around 70% for rugby kickers aren't directly comparable to the 80+% percentage of successful (non extra point) field goals achieved by the NFL's 32 regular kickers.

Gone in 60 seconds. Dan Biggar kicks another 3 points for the Ospreys.
In order to eliminate this bias caused by the difficult kicking angles faced by rugby's kickers, I looked just at penalties and conversions attempted within a couple of yards of the centre of the posts. Kicks were drawn from both hemispheres, across club and international fixtures and included all of rugby's current best footballers. Carter, Halfpenny, Farrell, Wilkinson etc.

NFL data comprised field goals from the last four completed seasons. The majority of extreme distance kicks from the NFL came with seconds remaining either in a half or a game. 24 of the longest 30 attempts had 15 seconds or less on the clock, so I eliminated these, much in the way Hail Mary's should perhaps be struck from the passing stats. "S Janikowski, 76 yard field goal is NO GOOD" is hardly a typical play, even for the Raiders.

Above I've plotted the expected conversion rate by distance (not yard line, in the case of the NFL) for both sets of kickers. Once we allow that rugby's raw conversion rate is depressed by the more difficult range of kicks, the respective conversion rates practically converge.

Kicking indoors at the Superdome or at mile high altitude, may be easier than kicking on a wet night at Rodney Parade, but large sample sizes appear to wash out any advantage, especially when Lambeau is included.

Rugby takes a minor lead as the distance between posts and ball increases, but sample size does become patchy towards fifty yards. NFL teams perhaps become wary that a failed attempt gives their opponents excellent field position and rugby can call on the exceptional contribution of Toulon's Leigh Halfpenny.

So with the SuperBowl imminent, along with the start of the Six Nations, both sets of kickers can probably call for an honourable draw. As for the beleaguered extra point, we should really put up with season on season a predictability just occasionally to witness the unfortunate John Carney to do THIS!


  1. Rugby kickers win...Because they don't sit on their arses on the sideline. They are playing for 80 minutes unless they're injured of substituted. NFL kickers spend only seconds on a field.

  2. But rugby players don't have a hoard of players bearing down on them, attempting to block their kicks from a few yards out. That must add a degree of pressure that rugby players just don't experience...

  3. Rugby players on average are able to kick longer as they are playing members of the team, usually a fly half. More muscular and athletic than the average kicker. The average guy kicking a rugby ball is going to be 6"2 and about 225-240lbs - as opposed to NFL kickers who average 205-215lbs.
    Accuracy rates can probably be attributed to the fact that an NFL football is snapped and held, vs a rugby ball which is perfectly positioned on a kicking tee. I'd say skill levels are probably fairly similar, both are professional athletes and if you gave a high level player of either sport ( eg Johnny Wilkinson/Adam Vinatieri) a chance at the other they would excel with a bit of practice.
    However very few NFL kickers if any could compete for a rugby position as they would also be required to fulfill all the other positional requirements (tackling, passing, possibly even running the team if fly half) as opposed to simply kicking. They dont even kick from the hand, teams generally have a seperate punter and place kicker in the NFL.