Greg Zuerlein had a difficult season for the then-St. Louis Rams in 2015. With the Rams on the move to Los Angeles for 2016, many fans wonder whether a change of scenery will be beneficial to Zuerlein, or if kicking outdoors for eight home games a year will cause his disappointing 2015 numbers to fall further. Chuck Zodda examines the man they call “Legatron” to see if he can get his mojo back this fall.
Out of kickers who attempted at least 16 field goals in 2015, Zuerlein ranked 32nd out of 32 kickers in accuracy, making just 20 kicks in 30 attempts. For those of you struggling with math on a Monday morning, that equates to 66.7%, well below the league mark of 84.5%. He was one of only two kickers below 80.0% accuracy for the season, the other being 14-year veteran Matt Bryant, whose career 85.0% accuracy suggests a statistical aberration caused by only attempting 18 kicks, rather than a new trend.
But Zuerlein’s career numbers are much more varied than Bryant’s. As a rookie in 2012, Zuerlein earned the “Legatron” moniker after making several long field goals early in the season, but actually finished the season with just 74.2% accuracy overall. His sophomore campaign was his best year, clocking in at 92.9% accuracy over 28 kicks, before declining to 80.0% in 2014 and seeing his performance fall off a cliff last year.
So what is in store for Zuerlein in 2016?
The Statistical Case
Zuerlein’s career average of 78.2% is well below the league mark of 84.7% during that time. On the surface, this would suggest that the Rams were mistaken in re-signing Zuerlein this offseason, even to a one-year contract. But a deeper analysis of the numbers shows that Zuerlein’s apparent weakness is a result of his usage pattern, rather than any profound weakness in his game.
The following chart shows his accuracy from various distances, compared to the league mark during that season:
|7-29 Yards||30-39 Yards||40-49 Yards||50-59 Yards||60+ Yards|
While the individual seasons often have sample sizes too small to make any type of determination as to the statistical significance of the data, a four-year sample may show clear trends with regard to Zuerlein and the rest of the league. On kicks from 7-29 yards, Zuerlein is statistically identical, connecting on 95.7% of his kicks from this range compared to 97.4% for the NFL. From 30-39 yards, his 86.8% accuracy trails the league mark of 90.7%, but once again is statistically identical because of sample size issues. Moving out further, Zuerlein connects on 81.5% of his kicks from 40-49 yards, besting the league mark of 79.1%, but not by enough to prove anything conclusively. At 50-59 yards, he made 53.8% of his field goals compared to 65.2% of the league average. This is the closest we get to anything statistically significant, but still shows nothing conclusive. Lastly, from 60+ yards, Zuerlein connected on 40% of his kicks, compared to 24% as the league average. Once again, sample sizes are so small that no conclusions can be drawn from them.
Unfortunately for Zuerlein, he attempts a greater proportion of his kicks from distance, negatively impacting his accuracy compared to other kickers. Last season, NFL kickers attempted 160 of 987 field goal attempts from beyond 50 yards, approximately 16.2% of kicks. Yet Zuerlein attempted 9 out of 30 kicks from this range, 30% of his field goals, and nearly double the league average. From 60+ yards, he had three attempts, which was equal to the number attempted by the entire rest of the league combined. Zuerlein’s average field goal was attempted from a distance of 42.6 yards last season, more than 1 yard higher than his closest competitor and nearly 4.5 yards higher than the league average of 38.2 yards.
In short, the statistics show that Zuerlein is a league-average kicker who suffers from a coach who wants to use him from extreme distances due to his leg strength, but may be damaging his kicker’s psyche as a result. Imagine a boss that challenges you to take no breaks and work longer than you ever have before, and longer than the rest of your co-workers. While you may be able to succeed for a time, eventually, the stress and toll the job takes on you diminishes your performance. This seems to be what we are seeing from Zuerlein.
The Film Case
Outside of his 2014 season, Zuerlein has never been above-average compared to the league on 50+ yard field goals. But his tape from 2013 shows a kicker the Rams believed would be a long-term solution at the position.
Facing the Seattle Seahawks, Zuerlein trots out for a 54-yard attempt from the left hash in the Edward Jones Dome:
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A domed stadium, with no wind, perfect humidity and temperature, and no precipitation, is the perfect place to attempt a long-distance kick. Zuerlein takes his standard three-steps-back, two-steps-over setup, and prepares to kick. At the snap, he fires his left foot, a small jab step to begin his motion. His right foot follows, building speed as he heads towards the ball, before planting his left foot and turning his forward momentum into rotational energy. Everything is in sync, with his hips pointing directly through the target at impact. He finishes in-balance, with his weight centered, and a slight body lean to his right, directly through the center of the target.
This is a very compact motion, with remarkably little horizontal movement for a kicker who generates so much power. Zuerlein’s follow-through is somewhat clunky, for while he displays great balance, he seems to lack ideal flexibility and height on his kicking leg after coming through the zone. Despite this slightly-awkward finish, we come back to the standard kicking mantra of “as long as you can do the same thing every time and give yourself a solid platform, continue to do it.”
Unfortunately, Zuerlein does not appear to do the same thing every time. One year later, during his strong 2014 season from 50+ yards, the seeds for his disappointing 2015 performance began to show up near the end of the year. His problem is not a significant shift in mechanics, but rather one of timing and pace.
Facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 22, Zuerlein lines up for a 50-yard attempt from the left hash in the climate-controlled comfort of the Edward Jones Dome once more:
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Zuerlein steps off his initial setup, aligning himself with the center upright. As the ball is snapped, he takes a small jab step with his left foot to begin his approach, starting his momentum towards the ball. However, Zuerlein’s approach is significantly quicker than usual here. From jab step to plant step, Zuerlein clocks in at 0.72 seconds. In analysis of Zuerlein’s made kicks throughout the 2013-2015 seasons, his approach generally fell in a range between 0.90 and 0.95 seconds. For some reason, Zuerlein has sped his approach, though everything else appears nearly identical to his make from 2013 against the Seahawks explained above.
However, this quickened pace causes an issue in his mechanics. Because he is so much quicker in his approach, Zuerlein’s hips and leg do not have the same amount of time to come through his motion before striking the ball. As a result, Zuerlein has a near-replica of his 2013 motion, but he is striking the ball earlier in that motion when his hips and leg are not properly aligned with the target. The result is a push-slice, similar to what a golfer sees when they have a similar quickening of their pace.
Unfortunately, many of Zuerlein’s misses seem to have a similar issue, with either a quickened pace in this range, or a slower one in the 1.1-second range that causes a slice due to him rotating too much and spinning off the ball. The rest of his motion remains clean and compact, but his timing varies too much to generate a consistent flight path.
Zuerlein is a victim of his circumstances to some extent, with an absurd usage pattern in terms of distance. However, he needs to refine his timing to the point where he is not varying as much from kick to kick, as this will give him significantly greater accuracy going forward. He is worthy of a one-year extension due to the statistical oddities produced by his usage, but needs to improve this timing mechanism if he is ever going to be more than an average NFL kicker.
Follow @ITP_ChuckZ on Twitter. Check out his other work here, an unlikely Super Bowl MVP, an under-appreciated great NFL kicker, and his look at the league not appreciating kickers for being too good.
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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.