"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?


James Holzhauer

I can't believe no one has mentioned this yet, but the threat of being iced should be the real factor. As Caleb suggested, often the kicker will expect to be iced but is forced to kick when no timeout is called, and perhaps this affects his nerves.

Since icing is now a ubiquitous tactic, the real comparison should be made between kickers whose opponents have timeouts remaining versus those who do not, in those situations where the kicker would normally be iced (ie game-ending kicks). No timeouts remaining, no threat of icing, no problem.

If you don't control for this, you might as well go ahead and argue that pitchers should throw nothing but curveballs, since curveballs are generally more effective than fastballs. The curveball is successful because the batter doesn't know whether it's coming or not.

otownes

Reading this on a Friday, and going to a hockey game on Sunday, made me think of another late-game sports activity: Removing the hockey goalie to get the extra attacker in the last two minutes.
What's the relative rate of pay-off (points gained/lost, games that go from losses to ties, etc) and does it actually make sense to do?

Stephen

I can't remember where, but I have read the study on this (maybe even in Freakonomics?). Essentially, the result of pulling the goalie in hockey is an increase in the likelihood of a goal, by either team. The team that pulls their goalie gets scored on fairly often, but they also increase their own likelihood of scoring by some smaller amount. In other words, you are increasing the volatility of goal-scoring in a way that is negative in relation to your expected goal differential, but positive once you make the risk-adjustment for the fact that losing by 2 is the same as losing by 1, but tying the game is a vast improvement over losing by any amount.

So the decision becomes: when do I pull the goalie? The longer you play without a goalie, the more likely you are to be scored on, cementing your loss. However, if you never pull your goalie, you decrease your own likelihood of scoring the goal that could swing the decision, which isn't good.

This is all based on hazy memory, but I believe they found that the optimal time to pull the goalie is with ~100 seconds remaining in the game, once you have clear possession of the puck. Your goal is to maximize your own time of possession with an extra attacker without guaranteeing the other team possession(s) without a goalie to face. You want enough time to get the job done while preserving the chance that the other team will never get a chance to shoot.

Interesting stuff, and I don't even watch much hockey.

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andy

2% improvement in chance of winning...definitely worth icing. What we need are measures of statistical significance. My guess the result of 15 seconds or less has many fewer incidents to measure from.

Rob

My theory of why icing is done actually comes from a previous Freakonomics podcast about the "other" football - soccer. In a discussion of penalty kick it was show that statistically the kick or the goalie should stay in the middle but don't because they feel pressure to do SOMETHING.
I would argue the same applies in football, especially in this time of multimillion dollar coaching contracts at NFL & DI levels. At that point in the game, icing is the only thing a coach has left to do, even if it accomplishes nothing. To justify their position and contract the coach probably feels a certain pressure to be seen as doing something and would most likely be criticized if they choose not to ice a kick that wins the game.
As evidence of my theory, I submit that as a high school coach, I rarely see icing used. But as high school coaches we don't have huge contracts, TV audiences and ESPN analysis to worry about.

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Brendan

So, I though of this again, last night, when the Eagles decided at the last second, to "ice" the Giants' kicker... who missed the kick that he got off, leading to an apparent Eagles win. Too bad it was negated by the Eagles' "just before the snap" timeout. The "icing" actually gave the kicker another opportunity at the kick.

As luck would have it, he missed again, but this time, he was short, not offline. Had the kick had a little more umpf behind it, it would have spelled DISASTER for the Eagles and their coaches. Clearly, Andy Reid is not familiar with the data collected here because there was exactly 15 seconds left in the game when he called his timeout.

I wonder if the "reverse icing" effect, where the kicker is actually MORE accurate in the final 15 seconds when "iced" has anything to do with having the time to get the players on-field and set without having to rush. If the kicking team has a timeout to spare in the final 15 seconds, they're going to call it to be sure the personnel are in place, but if they don't have one, they're going to have to rush in the kick team, line up in a hurry and rush the snap... especially at the lower end of the 15 second range. If not having a timeout is a disadvantage, why would the offense negate that by calling one for them?

I can tell you from experience that a kicker does NOT want to be rushed on a field goal, especially a longer one, where the exact mechanics are so important. If he's off by so much as an inch on that plant foot, the kick can end up wide by a country mile. The late "icing" seems to give the kicker and the kick team more time to get into position and get set so the kick is more typical than when they have to rush in to get the kick off before time expires.

Reid got away with one here... clearly he needs to pay more attention to the Freakonomics blog!

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PC

OK. Kickers are now used to it and prepare for the eventuality of icing. Accepted. But did those initial kickers do worse? The ones that the strategy was first tried on? If so it is the surprise/volatility that may have led to the desired outcome.