Kicker Corner: The Money Badger Cometh

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  • Dan Campbell
    American football player and coach

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Watching an NFL broadcast, one might be fooled into believing there remains widespread, intransient resistance to going for it on fourth down. In the glow of an NFL game with announcers bemoaning the slightest hint of fourth down aggressiveness, one might believe NFL coaches are as content as ever to punt the ball away on fourth and three from midfield.

The reality -- the on-the-field stuff -- tells a different story, one that (strongly) suggests the analytical dominoes have fallen in fourth down decision making. NFL coaches in 2021 have been more aggressive on fourth down -- more driven to score points -- than ever before.

Through Week 17, coaches have tried to convert on fourth down 729 times, up from 658 attempts in 2020 and 595 tries in 2019. That’s a massive increase and one that can’t be entirely credited to a few young, nerdy guys landing head coaching gigs in the past couple of years. This is a league-wide trend with the exception of Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, the last holdouts for Baby Boomer football.

Dan Campbell, our high-testosterone analytics overlord, leads the league with 38 fourth down conversion attempts, seven more than anyone else. Campbell has pulled out every stop to make his Lions competitive with superior teams all season. In short, he trusted the process. Imagine that. When going for it on fourth down would increase the Lions’ win probability by at least two percent, only the Ravens were more aggressive than the Lions. Campbell was fearless as the leader of a team with a bottom-three roster. Analytics extremist Ben Baldwin's Fourth Down Decision Bot, which uses score, time remaining in the game, projected success rate, and field position to quantify a fourth down call, ranks Campbell as the league's best fourth down decision maker.

“I want to send a message that we’re playing to win and we’re not playing to lose and there is a time to be conservative and there is a time to be aggressive,” Campbell said in response to a recent question about his burning desire to keep the football and score points. “And so it’s just, I think, a little more in my nature to roll the dice, if you will. But I still feel like it’s calculated risk.”

It’s an approach we can only hope holds up when the Lions get an influx of talent in the coming years. Us nerds can only hope Campbell remains aggressive when he has something to lose, the ultimate test of one's trust in the process, or the roll of the dice, or however you want to put it. That Detroit has converted only half of their fourth down tries -- the 12th lowest rate in the NFL -- shouldn’t stop Campbell from continuing down the path of the One True Analytics King.

The fourth down shift isn’t happening. It’s already happened. Consider the 2016 NFL season, when three teams -- the Eagles, Texans, and Rams -- went for it on fourth down more than 20 times. Five teams had fewer than ten fourth down conversion tries. Skip to 2021 and we have 25 teams -- 78 percent of the league -- attempting more than 20 fourth down conversions. No team had fewer than ten fourth down tries, with Caveman Pete Carroll and the backward Seahawks posting the fewest fourth down conversion attempts (11).

Ignore the old-school commentators griping and moaning on your TV every Sunday. Most NFL coaches understand the importance of scoring points in an offense-driven league; the fourth down attempt stats bear that out. No more is it acceptable to boot the ball away -- a turnover -- on fourth and short around midfield. No longer is it OK to lose in a traditional way. That’s a good thing.

Sorry, Troy.

Week 17 Results

Robbie Gould (SF) vs. HOU
3/3 field goals
11 fantasy points
Rank: t-7th

Jake Elliott (PHI) at WFT
2/2 field goals
10 fantasy points
Rank: t-11th

Dustin Hopkins (LAC) vs. DEN
2/2 field goals
10 fantasy points
Rank: t-11th

I’m done doling out kicker notes for this season. A man can only dole so much. I do, however, have a quick review of how the process may have led us to every-week kickers in 2021.

-Ten of the top 12 fantasy kickers this season play for winning teams. That’s a higher rate than usual, and it makes sense if one trusts the ever-loving process. Good teams usually generate plenty of neutral and positive game script, which leads to field goal attempts throughout a game, not just the first half.

-Eight of those top-12 fantasy kickers played for coaches ranked among the bottom half of the league in fourth down aggressiveness. The Patriots were hyper-conservative and Nick Folk -- fantasy’s No. 1 kicker -- reaped the benefits.

-Justin Tucker finished as the second-highest scoring kicker despite Lamar Jackson missing significant time and the Ravens being the ninth most aggressive team on fourth downs. I don’t know how he did it. He must be good.

-Tyler Bass went from an elite every-week option to barely a streamer in 12-team formats. His precipitous fall coincided with the Bills’ ugly offensive struggles and inability to create the sort of game script Bass had thrived on early in the season. Bass finished neck and neck with Mason Crosby, who had a miserable 2021 campaign. He should be fine in 2022 as long as Josh Allen is upright and under center for the Bills.

-Evan McPherson, who tied Tucker for second in fantasy scoring, will be a perennial candidate for K1 status for as long as he’s attached to Joe Burrow’s offense. He led the NFL in field goals of over 50 yards and had a mere five games this year with fewer than two field goal tries.

-If the Raiders ever have a head coach who knows what they’re doing, Daniel Carlson’s field goal attempts will take a hit -- maybe a massive one. Vegas was 28th in fourth down attempts in 2021, usually content with short Carlson kicks no matter the score. Hence, Carlson tied Folk for the league lead with 38 attempts. It’s a shame for a Raiders offense that was good on fourth downs: Only four teams had a higher fourth down conversion rate than Vegas. A more sane approach to fourth downs will strip Carlson of some of his fantasy luster.

Plug-and-Play Starters

Matt Prater (ARI) vs. SEA

Matt Gay (LAR) vs. SF

Harrison Butker (KC) at DEN

Greg Zuerlein (DAL) at PHI

Tyler Bass (BUF) vs. NYJ

Nick Folk (NE) at MIA

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Week 18 Streaming Options

Michael Badgley (IND) vs. JAC (29 percent rostered)

The Colts control their own destiny, which, while raising serious existential and metaphysical issues, is important for fantasy purposes. If they beat the worst franchise in professional sports, the horseshoes are in the playoffs.

Badgley -- who has apparently dispatched Rodrigo Blankenship to the dustbin of fantasy football history -- has multiple attempts in six of his past seven games. He’s facing off against a Jacksonville team allowing the seventh most field goal tries (35) and the third most kicker points per game (8.9).

The Colts are favored by 15.5 points and have an implied total of 29.75 points, the second-highest of Week 18.

Dustin Hopkins (LAC) at LV (22 percent rostered)

Our guy Hopkins -- fantasy’s second-highest scoring kicker since Week 13 -- is in another process-positive spot with the Chargers listed as 2.5 point favorites in a playoff deathmatch with the Silver and Black. Not to be dramatic.

Giving up 1.9 field goal tries per game, the Raiders have allowed multiple field goal tries in five of their seven 2021 losses. Vegas’ defense, through a mix of injuries and poor play, has been one of the league’s worst in the season’s second half. Only the Ravens, Jets, and Jaguars have allowed a higher EPA per play than Vegas since Week 9; only the Jets have given up a higher EPA per drop back. Justin Herbert and the Bolts should face little resistance in their must-win Week 18 game, setting up Hopkins for another multiple-attempt outing. He has at least two attempts in five of his past six.

Joey Slye (WFT) at NYG (2 percent rostered)

Slye, kicking in what may be the most meaningless game in NFL history, should be in position to log at least a couple of attempts against a Giants team allowing the eighth-most field goal tries (35) on the season.

Slye has multiple field goal attempts in three of the past four games in which the Football Team wasn’t blown out (I’m throwing out their Week 16 bludgeoning at the hands of the Cowboys). Washington, incredibly, is a 6.5 point road favorite here. While Joe Judge prattles on about players from across the NFL begging to play for the moribund Giants, his team has stunk out loud. They have less than 100 total passing yards over the past two weeks combined; Washington’s serviceable defense should have its way with the G-people.