“Football Freakonomics”: Why Even Ice a Kicker?

The following is a cross-post from NFL.com, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

Icing the kicker: Even casual football fans have come to expect that when a game is on the line and the kicker is brought out to try a crucial field goal, the opposing coach might call a timeout just as the kicker approaches the ball.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? The coach can “ice” the kicker — mess with his mind, throw off his routine, make him stand around like an awkward guy at a cocktail party for all the world to see.

But does it work?

The short answer: No. In their book Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim marshal the most compelling evidence to date on the subject, analyzing “pressure” kicks from 2001 through 2009 while controlling for distance of the field-goal attempt. They found that icing the kicker certainly doesn’t produce the desired effect, and in some cases might even backfire. The one situation in which icing might confer a slim advantage: When there are fewer than 15 seconds left in the game. Here’s their data:

Field goal success whether opponent calls a timeout or not
(Percentage of kicks made)
Situation
All kicks
Iced
Not iced
Less than two minuntes left in fourth quarter or OT 76.2% 74.2% 77.6%
Less than one minunte left in fourth quarter or OT 75.5% 74.3% 76.4%
Less than 30 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT 76.5% 76.0% 76.9%
Less than 15 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT 76.4% 77.5% 75.4%

 

Moskowitz and Wertheim also looked for the icing effect in “pressure” free throws in NBA games, and similarly found that icing made no difference. Interestingly, NBA players make about 76 percent of their “pressure” foul shots — the same percentage as pressure field goals in the NFL.

So if icing doesn’t really work, why do we still see so much of it?

Here are a few theories. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

» It has become tradition — and, as Tevye taught us, tradition doesn’t get broken easily.

» Coaches are a generally risk-averse group, and find it’s easier to parrot an accepted strategy — even if it’s worthless — than explain why they deviated from accepted tradition.

» Even in the NFL, where coaches arguably have more influence on their teams than other sports, they don’t really get to do all that much during a game. Running up to the sideline official at the crucial point in a game and frantically making a T with your hands is an acceptable and laudable form of intervention. Good TV, too.

» Since it’s been around for a while now, the novelty effect of icing has worn off; while it may have messed with the minds of the first few kickers it was tried on, once the surprise element has worn off, it no longer harms the kicker and perhaps even helps by giving him more time to set up, assess the wind, etc.

» Icing confirms how the football universe views the kicker — as a lesser being, not a real athlete, a man (barely!) whose fragile psyche is susceptible to bruising. Think about it: When’s the last time you saw a coach try to ice an opposing quarterback?

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  1. Hugh says:

    Most of the time the pressure field goals are in the final seconds of the game– if the field goal is made the game will be over. The coach has no real options if the field goal is made… so he might as well use the rest of his timeouts trying to make a kicker think about the kick.

    It would be interesting to compare this statistic between NFL and college football. I would think the strategy would be more successful in college where you are dealing with 18-21 year old kids that haven’t been in many of these kinds of situations in front of thousands of fans… whereas, in the NFL, the kickers are “battle hardened” kickers who are used to the situations and can keep themselves in the right mental frame of mind during timeouts before kicking the field goal.

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  2. Ben M. Schorr says:

    I may be missing something but the data in your table seems to reflect the opposite of the text in your article. It looks like the kickers are MORE accurate iced with less than 15 seconds than they are not iced and LESS accurate iced in the other three scenarios.

    Or am I misreading something?

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    • Jen says:

      Thank you for asking, I came down to the comments section just to see how I was reading this wrong!

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      • Tim says:

        To expound on your thought, it appears that the bigger the data set, the more pronounced the difference.

        <2 min = 3.4% worse when iced
        <1 min = 2.1% worse when iced
        <30 sec = 0.9% worse when iced
        <15 sec = 2.1% BETTER when iced

        Since each is a sub-set of the previous, the <2 min data set is presumably the largest. 3.4% would seem more than statistical noise to me.

        The data set covers 8 seasons,with 32 teams at 16 games a season, that's 4096 regular season games. If only 10% of games involve a potential game tying/winning kick in the final two minutes, that's over 400 games. Quite the data set.

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  3. Greg W. says:

    I agree with Ben.
    The table clearly shows a small (1-2.4%) decrease in field goal success when the kicker is iced except when there is less than 15 seconds left in which case the field goal success goes up when the kicker is iced.

    So is the author’s argument that those differences are not statistically valid, or what?
    It seems there is something missing.

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  4. Tucker says:

    I think the real point is that there is almost no opportunity cost generally for doing so. When coaches ice the opposing kicker it happens at times when they would have no further opportunity to use those time-outs. If they had the opportunity to use the time-out earlier and didn’t, that was where the mistake was, but if there is less than 30 seconds left in the half and you have a time-out left there isn’t really an opportunity cost.

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  5. Vince says:

    The cost of the using the timeout at the end of the game is nothing. Since having timeouts at the end of the game will buy you nothing, why not use this if there’s even a slight slight chance of icing the kicker.

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    • EdN618 says:

      Because the possibility exists that with more time to assess the kick, as the author states, the kickers may have a HIGHER rate of success.

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  6. Andrew says:

    Icing the kicker should be looking at each individual kicker’s statistics when being iced. It may have a big effect on certain kickers while not having any effect on others.

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    • Brian says:

      Unfortunately, I doubt there is enough data for any single kicker to do be able to do that with any statistical meaningfulness. How many last minute kicks do most kickers end up trying in their entire careers? Even if it is a decent number, were the distances between the iced and non-iced kicks similar?

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  7. Hassan says:

    You guys should look into Home-Away Uniform colors and there effects on W-L. I’ve read that teams in all black come across as more intimidating and therefore some subjective calls (pass interference, unnecessary roughness, etc.) are interpreted as such by officiating. Football seems to be the only sport where the Home team prefers to wear dark and the away team wears a lighter color.

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  8. Lance says:

    Isn’t some of the mental pressure on a kicker also cause by the spread of the game? Did the study look at that a a factor and how it plays into icing?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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    • nathan says:

      that’s a good point, but if it’s not a close game then they won’t kick a field goal. this may be relevant in the 2-min range, but other than that teams will only kick a field goal when they need to for the win. otherwise they would just try to run out the clock.

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