ATLANTA – Seconds after the Atlanta Falcons finally closed out Seattle in the NFC divisional playoffs, Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant jogged off the field and down the tunnel toward the Falcons' locker room. Under his arm he'd tucked the ball he'd just kicked for the winning score. It's surely destined for a place of honor in his home.
The fate of the ball he kicked right before that, however, is unknown. That ball sailed wide right, but thanks to a timeout called by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll just before the ball was hiked, it had no more impact on the final score than a warm-up kick – which, of course, is exactly what it was.
In the locker room, still wearing the determined scowl that earned him the nickname "Grumpy" from his teammates, Bryant answered variant after variant of the same question: Were you nervous? What were you thinking out there? Did the timeout Carroll called right before your first attempt bother you?
"We've been in this position before," he said. "You focus on what you have to do, and you do it."
Carroll's decision to call timeout, and Bryant's subsequent miss-make, reignited the perpetual debate about "icing" a kicker – a practice that, in theory, halts the flow of the game to try to wedge thoughts of failure into the kicker's head.
"Icing is almost exclusively done for psychological reasons," says Najiv Goldschmeid, a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego. "A [blocked kick] is so rare that coaches can't count on that as a defense."
The reason for icing in the first place lies in the name itself: to cool down a kicker, disrupt his momentum and routine, give him time to think about how the next few seconds are going to shape the course of the rest of his life. It's a reasonable enough idea, but it rests on a flawed assumption: namely, that a kicker in the NFL is subject to the same loss of nerve that would afflict the rest of us.
It's a variant of that old mind game about walking on a sidewalk. We have no problem walking on a sidewalk that's ground level, but you raise that same sidewalk 100 stories in the air, and most of us will freeze up or, at best, start crawling. But a dedicated high-wire artist, who's done this kind of thing for a lifetime, could dance along the edge with no fear.
Kickers have spent their entire football lives preparing for these moments. Their rituals and routines are important, yes, but so too is the ability to screen out the crowd and the immensity of the moment. Those of us on the outside can't understand how the kicker doesn't just drop to a fetal position and quiver right there on the 40-yard-line. But then again, we're mentally vaulting from ground level to 100 stories high. These guys have been climbing all their lives.
"I think when you're at this level, nothing like [icing] should matter," Bryant told the Tampa Tribune a few years back. "If it does, you probably don't belong here."
A pre-kick timeout can obviously have a strategic purpose unrelated to the psychology of the kicker; the coach may want to set a particular formation or prepare his team for a specific scenario. And that's certainly reasonable enough.
But consider this: There's no moment in football where the defense is as powerless to stop the offense as the waning moments of a game while the offense sets up to kick. The seconds tick down as the defense anxiously twitches. NFL head coaches must rank among the world's greatest control freaks; calling a timeout is a way of regaining control, even for just a moment, of an uncontrolled situation.
In practical terms, icing can backfire. In the Falcons' case, Carroll's late timeout gave Bryant the opportunity for a free kick; this, in fact, was what Carroll was protesting.
But here's the question: Does icing actually work? And here's where statistical experts part company.
"Scorecasting," a 2011 book on sports and statistics by Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, challenges conventional sports wisdom on a variety of fronts, and icing comes under their microscope. The verdict? Icing has no significant effect on a kicker's success. The authors examined data from 2001 to 2009, and found that there is a statistically insignificant difference between iced and non-iced kickers.
Examining from four slices of time – less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime, less than one minute, less than 30 seconds, and less than 15 seconds – the authors found less than 4 percent difference between iced and non-iced kicks.
On the other hand, academic studies have also demonstrated that icing does have more significant benefits. Statisticians Scott Berry and Craig Wood analyzed kicks in the 2002 and 2003 seasons and adjusted for "pressure" – in other words, kicks in the final three minutes of regulation or overtime that would have tied the game or put the kicking team ahead. Their work, published in the journal Chance, found that kicks from between 40 and 55 yards were, on average, 10 percent less successful when the kicker was iced. (From shorter distances, there was no measurable difference.) The question, as posed in "Scorecasting," is whether their sample size was sufficiently large enough; the difference involves four kicks of a total of 39 attempts.
More recently, Goldschmeid published a study in the journal The Sport Psychologist which analyzed the same question, focusing on kicks from 2002 to 2008. Again using the "pressure kicks" metric, Goldschmeid found that 273 kicks (with a mean distance of 39.71 yards) met that standard. Of that total, 109 involved no time-out, 110 involved the opposing team calling a timeout, and 54 involved the kicking team calling a timeout. In this scenario, the kicker converted on 66.4 percent of the "iced" kicks but 80.4 of the "un-iced" (no timeout, or kicking team calling a timeout) kicks.
That, as it stands, would suggest that icing does indeed have an impact on performance. Goldschmeid further suggests that it is the added preparation time, not the negative thoughts, which causes difficulty to kickers, particularly when a kicker has to wonder if an opposing coach will actually call a timeout or not.
So why the discrepancy between the studies? Goldschmeid doesn't have an answer, noting that all studies draw from the same data. He doesn't believe the two extra years included in the "Scorecasting" study would be sufficient to skew the data so significantly. He does note that his data is archival rather than observational, meaning that he used the numbers rather than observing how events played out in a game. (A field goal where the kicking team had to rush into position has, obviously, a much lower expectation of success than one where the team has time to set up and simply lets the clock run down.)
"It's a fascinating question, and there should be more research done," Goldschmeid says. "Twenty years of NFL data would give better evidence." Statisticians of the world, your task lies before you.
Bottom line, though, icing offers opposing coaches something unquantifiable: hope. While the statistical impact may be negligible, and the physical effect detrimental if a kicker gets a practice attempt, the fact remains that there's always the possibility of getting into a kicker's head. And that alone is enough to keep coaches calling for that last-second timeout.
"As long as everyone's doing it, everyone's going to keep on doing it," Moskowitz says. "The coach knows that everyone's expecting him to do something, so he does something."
But Moskowitz does believe there's a way to truly get inside a kicker's head.
"Randomize it," he says. "Deviate from whatever he's expecting. If a coach stood on the sidelines and flipped a coin where the kicker would see it, the kicker wouldn't know what to expect. That's how you do it."
We now expect to see a coach doing theatrical last-second coin flips next season. Our money's on Rex Ryan.
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