The end of the preseason is always full of surprising cuts in the NFL, with 2016 being no different. This year, one of the most surprising firings was that of Robbie Gould, who made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and was also named first-team All-Pro that season and spent all 11 seasons of his career with the Chicago Bears. Gould’s career 85.4% accuracy is seventh among kickers with at least 100 career games, and some have wondered if his accuracy would be even higher if he had kicked in a more hospitable environment than Soldier Field. Chuck Zodda breaks down Gould’s numbers and looks at his replacement, Connor Barth.
While Gould has not been in the elite category of NFL kickers over the past several years, he undoubtedly was above-average. From 2011 through 2015, he notched 85.4% accuracy on field goals, averaging a distance of 37.26 yards per attempt compared to the NFL marks of 84.3% accuracy and 37.61 yards per attempt. In particular, Gould has been outstanding from 50+ yards over the past five years, making 18 of 22 kicks, good for 81.8% accuracy while the league made just 63.6% of kicks from that distance.
Barth, Gould’s replacement, has had an inconsistent track record over the same time period. He was phenomenal in 2011, making 92.9% of his field goal attempts and going 13-for-14 from 40-49 yards. Barth’s 2012 season saw him successful from this range once more, going 12-for-13 from 40-49 yards, while also putting up average numbers from long-distance, going 6-for-9 from 50+. Following an Achilles injury in 2013 that cost him his season, Barth’s 2014 season is too small a sample to draw any meaningful data from, and his 2015 numbers feature a 3-for-6 performance from 40-49 yards and 3-for-5 mark from 50+ that bring his capability from distance into question.
Speaking with the Chicago Sun Times, Bears GM Ryan Pace noted of Barth, “If you look at, especially under 40 yards, he’s extremely accurate.”
Barth is indeed incredibly accurate from under 40 yards, going 80-for-84 in his career on kicks from this distance, good for 95.2%. But since 2008 (the year Barth entered the league), NFL kickers have made 92.9% of their kicks from this distance, which fails to prove any statistical significance to Barth’s performance. In short, Barth has been better, but there is only around a 60% chance this is due to some true talent Barth possesses rather than random luck.
But let us also examine the so-called “Soldier Field Effect.” Soldier Field is located immediately next to Lake Michigan, with swirling winds and changing weather that can rattle even the most-seasoned kicker. Or so we are told.
From 2011 through 2015, Robbie Gould made 83.6% of his kicks at Soldier Field, going 61-for-73 with an average distance of 37.82 yards per attempt. Over the same time period, other kickers attempting field goals at Soldier Field made 78.9% of their attempts with an average distance of 36.96 yards. Stripping out the Soldier Field data, NFL kickers made 83.5% of their attempts in road games over this five-year period, meaning there is over a four and a half percent divergence in their typical road performance compared to that of Soldier Field.
Is this statistically significant?
Not quite. There is still a nearly 29% chance this is due to random luck as opposed to weather or location being the culprit. So there’s a good chance weather plays a role in this performance, but it’s not enough to prove it conclusively. However, there does appear to be an interesting wrinkle to the data. From 2011 through 2015, there were 118 field goals blocked in the NFL. The average attempt of a blocked kick was from 41.14 yards, suggesting that it is typically longer kicks that are blocked as kickers attempt to drive the ball lower in order to pick up additional distance.
At Soldier Field over this time period, there were five blocks of opposing kickers, with the average distance on these attempts just 35.2 yards, two yards below the average NFL attempt. Why? Among the possibilities for this oddity are improper footing due to weather, a natural grass surface that can be uneven at times, as well as the psychological pressure of kicking in a location thought to be difficult for kickers.
Barth is likely to see his numbers from under 40 yards regress in Chicago, mostly due to the fact that he does not appear to have a measurable talent for these kicks, rather than simply the effect of weather or location. From 40-49 yards and 50+, he is likely to have continued struggles that difficult conditions could exacerbate, while Gould has been excellent from this distance in recent years. According to OverTheCap.com, the Bears are well under this year’s cap, so this appears to be a move they believe will increase performance, as opposed to an attempt to free up cap space. This makes the move all the more puzzling given that Barth lags Gould from distance, and has been only slightly better on shorter attempts. Gould is likely to catch on somewhere in the near future, as the first month of the season often sees several kicking positions open up due to weak performance or injuries. He is still a very capable kicker, and though he is not an elite leg, he still represents an upgrade for teams in the bottom half of performance from their kicking unit – and should still be kicking in Chicago this season.