"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?


Hugh

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.

Ben M. Schorr

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?

Jen

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

Tim

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.

Greg W.

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.

Tucker

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.

Vince

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.

EdN618

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.

Andrew

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.

Brian

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?

Hassan

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.

Mark

Hockey.

Lance

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.

nathan

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.

Mr.Europa

1. “Football Freakonomics”: Icing the Kicker
2. “Football Freakonomics”: Why Even Ice the Kicker?

... really ?

For me, as an non-American , it's like trying to demonstrate cheating among sumo wrestler and findout out they don't cheat... TWICE !

James

For me as an American, too.

Caleb b

I like the idea of pretending to like you are going to ice the kicker, but then not actually doing it. The kicker says, "eh, they're just going to ice me, so no need to get ready right now." then when you don't, the kicker is surprised and misses.

Ben K

That's a factor too -- before you call timeout, there's uncertainty. Once you call timeout, the kicker knows when he will kick.

Robin

Does it work better in low temperatures when you make the kicker stand there and get cold. You know, when you actually ice them.

RGJ

Couple of comments:

1. Ben's post having a 43 to 1 thumbs up ratio revives my faith in that feature.

2. The other comment about studying each kicker's icing history also makes sense.

3. It has to be considered that in some situations, the other team having 1:59 seconds left will not be a place to "blow" a time-out if they can still attempt a rally, even if the field goal puts them two scores down. I am sure hundreds of NFL games have seen two-score rallies with less than two minutes to go. So, some of those decisions to "not ice" made not have really been decisions.

4. The other scenario that has to be considered is that sometimes the play clock, or even the game clock, is running as the team is setting up to kick. It may be that the stress of that would also make it a bad decision to "ice".

In other words, I think to really get the data, the kick has to be an end of the quarter or end of the game (or literal end of the game, like putting the team up two scores with less than 10 seconds or so.)

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Jason

Well, I think it maybe a psychological thing. People enjoy watching the last few seconds of any sport where the score is close. I, myself, can only watch basketball after the clock goes 1:59 in the 4th, that is when I become a huge fan. We enjoy the feeling we get, the suspense to find out what is going to happen. Unlike daunting tasks where we can't wait for them to be over, in sporting events and events that bring us entertainment, we don't want them to end: We like to delay the inevitable. That is why the practice of "icing" has stayed in effect despite it not actually working. The practice hasn't met any objection from fans and has simply become a mindless tradition.

As for the coaches, that's easy... Why not call the TO? You have nothing to lose, and may even think of some brilliant scheme in the extra 45 seconds you bought your team. Your players might be able to "pysch" out the kicker or offensive line. Who knows? You still have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

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Ben

Another point to remember. . . Particularly in recent years, the kicking team will snap the ball after the timeout has been called to give the kicker a practice kick identical to the real thing. You need to find the statistics for these situations. You'd have to think conversion would be higher.

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.