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Of course Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is the best in the NFL

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But what does that mean exactly?

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Shockingly, Thursday night’s Los Angeles-San Francisco tilt turned out to be an exciting, dramatically entertaining affair. (All those who had Rams-49’ers as a Game of the Year candidate raise your hand? No...no one? Not surprised). The Rams’ victory featured 80 points, 800+ yards, numerous big plays, a successful onsides kick and (of course) dubious official decision-making.

Perhaps lost among all the excitement, however, is the fact a missed extra point was the difference in the game. Had San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould not missed an early fourth-quarter extra point the 49’ers wouldn’t have been forced to go for 2 with 2:48 remaining and instead would have been in position to kick a game-tying extra point. (Sidebar: first, I had no idea Robbie Gould was still in the NFL. Second, I’m even more surprised to find he’s only 34-years-old; I feel like he’s been kicking forever and retired a while back.)

So, what does Thursday’s drama have to do with Dan Bailey? It reminded me, yet again, that Dallas Cowboys’ kicker Dan Bailey has never missed an extra point and is, in fact, the best kicker in the NFL. This isn’t an opinion, it’s simple math. Unlike other positions in football, kickers can be measured in isolation: either you kick the ball through the posts or you don’t. One outcome logs as a success while the other logs as a failure. Let’s review Bailey’s results since joining Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2011.

The following is the simplest, most concise way I can imagine of measuring a place kicker’s effectiveness. It combines two metrics, both of which are simple:

  1. Total points produced: ((field goals made x 3) + extra points converted)
  2. Total Conversion Rate: this divides the number of points a kicker actually produced by the number he could have produced: ((field goals made x 3) + extra points converted) / ((Field goal attempts x 3) + extra point attempts)

The vertical axis measure’s each team’s Total Conversion Rate (a measure we’ll reference a number of times). Since 2011 Dan Bailey has converted the highest percentage of scoring opportunities among all NFL teams. The Patriot’s Stephen Gostkowski ranks second. All the measurements are based upon team results and not individual kicker results. That means it’s possible there’s a kicker who has outperformed Bailey over the last six seasons. I think that’s extremely unlikely as a kicker of that caliber is likely to have remained with the same team throughout the period analyzed.

The chart shows two things:

  1. Bailey has converted the highest percentage of scoring opportunities among all NFL kickers
  2. Bailey has generated a lot of points (fourth among all teams)

This proves Bailey has been outstanding at the macro level. Let’s look more deeply to see just how outstanding. Here’s the Total Conversion Rate numbers:

Each of the following charts shows Total Conversion Rate by year as well as conversion rates at various distances.

Here we see that Bailey has:

  1. Converted an above average percentage of attempts every season since 2011
  2. Frequently ranked among the best in the league in conversion percentage
  3. Ranks as the best in overall percentage since 2011

One thing that stood out to me as I ran through the numbers is the the difference between an elite kicker and an average kicker isn’t nearly as great as the difference between an average kicker and a bad kicker. Teams with kickers converting at a <80% rate are at a significant disadvantage compared to teams with average kickers and especially with teams with elite kickers. What this illustrates is that having a bad kicker can undermine even an otherwise high quality team.

Here we see that in terms of field goals Bailey is still elite but not quite as elite as he is in Total Conversion Rate. He has best-in-league numbers in both 2012 and 2015 but his 2016 performance was only average. Yet he still ranks best in overall field goal conversion rate since 2011.

This highlights the fact that Bailey’s perfection on extra points since 2011 is rare. Since the NFL switched to the lengthier extra points in 2015 only two teams have remained perfect in extra point attempts: the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens. NFL teams have missed an average of 5.4 extra points since 2011; ten teams have missed seven or more extra points and four teams (Bills, Jaguars, Seahawks and Vikings) have missed 12 or more. Thursday night’s game only reiterated that a play most fans take for granted can in fact be the difference between winning and losing.

Perhaps the best illusttration of Bailey’s greatness is looking at his misses:

We see that since entering the league in 2011 Bailey has missed only 3 kicks from less than 40 yards. Seventeen of his 20 misses have come from 40 yards or more. We also see that over half of his 20 misses have come from beyond 50 yards. So let’s look at how he compares to the league in these areas:

Here we see that while Bailey has frequently ranked among the best in the league (2012, 2015, 2016) he’s also had a couple of below average seasons (2013, 2014). The reality is this is due to a single miss each season; a single miss is the difference between a 100% rate and an 88% to 92% rate. Overall he’s just a notch below the very best in the league.

Here we see that from 40 - 49 yards Bailey has consistently been among the very best. Only in 2016 did his conversion rate decline to average. Again, overall he is the best in the league.

First, I’m amazed that the overall conversion rate from 50+ yards is consistently above 55%. Second, Bailey has consistently outpaced that 55% number and ranks near the best overall.

So, all we’ve done so far is illustrate what most of us know already: Dan Bailey rocks; he’s the best kicker in the NFL. Next, let’s try to understand what this means in terms of wins and losses.

There’s a couple ways to look at this. The first is to isolate games decided by three points or less. Since 2011 the Cowboys have won 15 games by three points or less. In those games Bailey is 33-of-35 on field goals (94.3%) and of course 100% on extra points for a 95.8% Total Conversion Rate. That’s at least 15 games in six years where Bailey’s excellence has provided the margin of victory.

Another way of looking at it is to compare Bailey’s total points to the team’s margin of victory. Between 2011 and 2016 Dallas has played 96 regular season games, going 53-43. Twenty-eight times in those 96 games Dallas has won and Dan Bailey’s point total has been greater than the team’s margin of victory. For instance, last year in week two the Cowboys beat the Redskins by three points and Bailey provided nine points through field goals and extra points. In other words, Bailey provided the points that differentiated winning from losing.

That’s 28 of the team’s 43 victories where Bailey’s kicking provided the margin of victory; that’s two out of three times. Had Bailey been an average kicker or the worst kicker in the league here’s what we could have expected:

Had Dan Bailey been an average kicker the Cowboys would have likely kicked seven fewer field goals; and had Bailey been the worst kicker in the league Dallas would likely have kicked 11 fewer field goals. Since these were all three-point or less victories each made field goal provided the margin of difference.

Now, we can’t quite say this means Bailey directly accounted for seven more wins than an average kicker, but it’s also not a stretch to make that assertion. We all know there’s a huge difference between winning 53 of 96 and winning 46 or 42 of 96 games. This alone illustrates the impact having an elite kicker can have on winning and losing.

Let’s make some assumptions and take the lower number (7) and round it and say Bailey has accounted for one additional win each of his six seasons with the Cowboys. One win, of course, can be the difference between homefield advantage or playing on the road, a division title or a wild card birth, making the playoffs or not making the playoffs.

Yet another way of looking at results is to compare games where Bailey has been perfect and games where he hasn’t been perfect.

First off, note the Cowboys score almost exactly four points fewer in games where Bailey isn’t perfect compared to when he is perfect. That makes sense, since a missed field goal is basically three lost points. More importantly, look at the winning percentages. When Bailey is perfect the team wins six times out of 10 but when he misses the team wins only four times out of 10.

Victroy margins in the NFL are small and nothing is more demoralizing than having 44 gameday players do enough to win the game only to have your kicker shank that opportunity away (just ask San Diego players). The Dallas Cowboys don’t have that worry. They have the best kicker in the league and if there’s an opportunity to kick the ball through the uprights for a victory players, coaches and fans can be confident Dan Bailey will do so.

For reference, here’s a few more tables. The first shows each team’s possible points (field goals and extra ponts) since 2011, their actual points and their Total Conversion Rate. It also shows how many points they would have showed with an average kicker, their variance to that average and their average points per year variance. By this measure Dan Bailey has generated 6.2 more points than average each year since joining the Cowboys in 2011. If the table is hard to read here’s a direct link.

The following table shows each team’s conversion rate from:

  • Various distances
  • All field goals
  • Extra points

If it’s hard to read here’s a direct link.

And finally, each team’s rank among the 32 NFL teams at each distance (direct link):

So, BTB, what’s your opinion? Dan Bailey is a great kicker? Or Dan Bailey is the greatest kicker ever?