Cowboys might be handling kicker situation the right way after all
Quick poll of the class: Who here feels good about the kicker situation in Dallas? Anyone? No one?
That’s not surprising. After watching the previously reliable Brett Maher come down with a chronic case of “the yips” late last season (he went 1-for-7 on his last batch of extra point attempts), the Cowboys are back to the drawing board at kicker.
Tristan Vizcaino is on the Dallas roster, but there’s no telling if he’ll even make it to training camp, let alone be the answer at kicker. Special teams coach John Fassel has stated all options are on the table this summer, indicating tires will be kicked and competition will be added at some point.
With all of the unknowns, it’s understandable there’s consternation within the Cowboys fanbase. The thought of a season coming to a premature end because of a shanked kick is enough to keep anyone up at night. The peace of mind fans in Baltimore have with Justin Tucker (who might be the best kicker ever) must be priceless.
Dallas has no ideal solution or even a competition in place. Options on the market are limited (although Brandon McManus just became available) so there’s no clear and obvious move staring them in the face.
Yet, the more we learn of the kicker position, the more we realize there is no such thing as peace of mind. And at the end of the day, the Cowboys may be playing this whole thing correctly.
Some things, like passing numbers and pressure rates, are stable year-to-year. Other things, like pass-coverage and turnover differential, are unstable year-to-year.
Kicking numbers fall into the latter category.
Pro Football Focus previously studied kicker performance and determined year-to-year stability is virtually nonexistent for kickers. PFF found the R 2 value is just 0.003 (which is about as close to zero as it comes) for kickers year-to-year.
I’m not loving the kicker situation in Dallas this year, but the reality is, no one (not named Baltimore) should feel good about their kicker. It’s an extremely unstable position in the NFL pic.twitter.com/BBcZmArPW4
— Reid D Hanson (@ReidDHanson) May 24, 2023
Just because a kicker was a Pro Bowler one season, doesn’t mean he will even be above-average the next. Performance is generally stable over the course of a career but just about everyone has a couple unexplainably poor seasons on their resume.
This explains why Dallas saw kickers like Dan Bailey, Greg Zuerlein, and Brett Maher fall off seemingly overnight. It also explains why nearly every team not named Ravens should feel unsure about their kicker situation in 2023 (Tucker somehow defies all odds).
Nearly every season there are well-regarded kickers doing poorly and out-of-nowhere kickers excelling. It’s a volatile and unpredictable position and the numbers largely back that up.
Overinvesting is not the answer
Teams that have invested in their kicker (either through contract or draft picks) may feel good about their kicker situation at the time, but the numbers show it’s probably a false sense of security because even they can be unpredictable.
Most recently there were calls for the Cowboys to consider top kicker, Jake Moody, in the 2023 draft. The logic behind it was the security and stability Moody would provide is worth the cost of a mid-round pick.
The reality is, drafted kickers have historically not been outperforming undrafted kickers and as the distance of the kick increases, undrafted kickers have actually performed better than their pedigreed counterparts (see also: PFF’s study).
When half the league’s kickers hover around “replacement level” and year-to-year stability is almost nonexistent, it’s difficult to justify much of an investment in the position.
Kicker is an unavoidable gamble
As mentioned before, the Cowboys have played the kicker situation both ways. They paid big money to keep Bailey in Dallas and Bailey was good until he wasn’t. They paid big money to add Zeurlein and he was no better than replacement level his entire time.
In 2023 they took a replacement level flyer on Maher and he performed like one of the best kickers in team history. . . until, of course, he didn’t.
The point is even well-known kickers who make teams feel safe and secure, often fall short of expectations. And kickers with little-to-no track record often exceed expectations. Everyone, not just the Cowboys, should feel uneasy about their respective kicker situation.
There’s no way of knowing how kicker will end up for Dallas in 2023. Their final solution could be among the best in the league or he could fall flat on his face. Whether or not he has name recognition doesn’t really matter.
The Cowboys should feel uncomfortable about their kicker situation heading into the new season. But so should everyone else.
At least Dallas didn’t create a false sense of security by over-investing in such a volatile and unpredictable position.