Kickernomics: Answers don’t come easy in plotting Bears’ best course

Finding an answer is complicated, even for economists who study sports.

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Bears kicker Cody Parkey misses a field goal attempt in the final moments of their 16-15 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Soldier Field on Jan. 6. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bears kicker Cody Parkey misses a field goal attempt in the final moments of their 16-15 loss to the Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Soldier Field on Jan. 6.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bears’ search for their next kicker has been almost as dramatic as their reason for needing one.

This offseason, the Bears cut Cody Parkey and tried out eight different kickers at their rookie minicamp. When they report to organized team activities next week, they will have a whopping three kickers on their roster —Chris Blewitt, Elliott Fry and Eddie Piñeiro — who have a combined zero games of regular-season experience.

Is the Bears’ kicker derby a smart thing?

“It sounds crazy and very unorthodox,” said Jon Hartley, an economics writer and sports analytics consultant who has worked for the Cowboys. “But at some level, in many respects, it’s kind of what the stats people say you would do, what the analytics say you would do.”

Tobias Moskowitz, a Yale finance professor who co-wrote the 2011 best-selling sports analytics book “Scorecasting,” isn’t so sure.

“My guess is the other thing they’re trying to do is find a value bet, a diamond in the rough — ‘If they turn out to be fantastic, we look like heroes,’ ” said Moskowitz, who previously was a professor at the University of Chicago. “But if it were me, and you have a playoff contending team — and I think the Bears do — then my guess is they would try that strategy but at some point be in the market for a veteran at the beginning of the season.”

Finding an answer is complicated, even for economists who study sports.

Welcome to Kickernomics 101.

Sunk cost

Hartley and Moskowitz agree there was no reason for the Bears to keep Parkey merely to justify the $3.5 million owed to him. He was a sunk cost — a price that can never be recovered, whether or not he’s on the team.

“The reality is, fans don’t necessarily see it that way,” Moskowitz said. “And your owner might not see it that way.”

The Bears, however, did.

“Assuming Parkey is a player you don’t want, the $3.5 million you’ve already spent should be seen as dead money,” Hartley said.

By replacing Parkey with three kickers — at least for now — the Bears are assuming an opportunity cost. A 90-man roster spot taken up by a kicker could otherwise be given to a position player with a chance to make the team. However, that won’t continue into the regular season, as the Bears are only expected to carry one kicker.

Sample size problem

The trouble with evaluating kickers is that there simply aren’t enough data points.

Hartley said he would need 1,000 field-goal attempts to decide a kicker’s worth. Since the NFL-AFL merger, only one NFL kicker has topped 700 career attempts — and Morten Andersen, the NFL’s Methuselah, was 47 when he made his last try, No. 709.

Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who has 690 attempts and figures to pass Andersen this year, is the only currently employed kicker with more than 420 tries.

Pressed, Hartley said 200 tries would “probably give you a sense” of a kicker’s value, within the 5 percent level of statistical significance. Only nine current NFL kickers meet that threshold.

Hartley sees value in totaling up makes and misses in practice, as the Bears did during their eight-man tryout and will continue to do during OTAs. The pressure isn’t the same as in a game — but the threat of getting cut is real. Players can be judged fairly “as long as the incentives are aligned,” said Hartley, a University of Chicago grad who’s working on a sports analytics book. “As long as these guys are fighting for a roster spot and are desperate.”

Moskowitz also would need a large sample size to evaluate a kicker. But he was more interested in comparing kicking performance year over year.

“To do this analysis right, what you’d like to see is one season when you look at all their kicks, and what you would do is analyze what parts of the field they’re better in than others,” he said. “Then you would test that same set of characteristics in the next season. If you don’t find the same things, then it was dumb luck.”

One problem, according to Hartley: Research has shown that a kicker’s performance in his first season doesn’t seem to be in any way connected to his field-goal percentage in Year 2.

“Don’t fall in love with a kicker just because of what he did last year,” Moskowitz said.

The small sample size in each season accounts for some of that variability. Neither economist could think of something so wonky in other sports. Hartley compared the “random walk” of kicker success charts — an unpredictable trend — to that of gross domestic products and stock prices.

“I can’t explain why kickers kick the way they do,” Hartley said.

Draft dodgers

The smartest thing the Bears did this offseason was what they didn’t do — draft a kicker.

According to research conducted by FiveThirtyEight, 61 kickers who entered the NFL this century have tried more than 15 kicks and made at least 80 percent of them. Twenty-five of those players were drafted, but 36 were not.

“It’s a good thing the Bears didn’t draft a kicker — I’ll give them points for that,” Hartley said. “It’s a waste of a pick.”

That’s a counterintuitive thought, Moskowitz said, given that teams are trying field goals more often than they should. He winces every time his favorite team, the Colts, trots out their kicker — as great as Vinatieri is — on fourth-and-two in the red zone. He senses that coaches aren’t more aggressive on fourth down because of fears about their own job security.

“I always find it ironic that [general managers] don’t want to pay for a kicker,” Moskowitz said. “They never draft them high, and for good reason. They don’t want to pay them big money. But then they make them kick more often than they should.

“If you’re going to kick that much, you might as well hire a good kicker.”

‘Secret sauce’

Robbie Gould, of course, remains available. The Bears’ all-time leader scorer has demanded a trade from the 49ers and would like to kick again near his Chicago home.

Dealing for a kicker, though, comes with similar risks to drafting one.

“I think trading for a guy like that is probably giving up too much, whether you’re trading draft picks or trading players or paying him outright,” Hartley said. “My guess is that would probably be a mistake. From year to year, field-goal percentages don’t appear to be too correlated.”

Moskowitz’s research shows that icing a kicker with a timeout is ineffective. But he’s willing to concede a veteran may handle pressure situations better than a rookie.

Hartley, meanwhile, is open to the idea that some kickers, such as Gould, might just perform better at Soldier Field than others.

“It’s possible there’s some kind of secret sauce, where you understand the wind,” he said. “There’s some sort of park effects thing going on. It’s all possible. It’s a windy city.”

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