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History tells us Dan Bailey will likely return to being an elite NFL kicker

Will Bailey become elite again and haunt the Cowboys?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

How surprising was the Cowboys’ decision to cut the NFL’s second-most accurate all-time kicker, Dan Bailey? I imagine if we had polled all of BTB on predicting the final 53-man roster there would not have been a single vote for cutting Bailey. None of BTB’s writers saw the move coming. Neither did any of the beat guys following the team. It seems the only group of people who gave any thought whatsoever to even contemplating this decision was the Cowboys’ leadership.

Looking at all the facts regarding the decision one can come up with good reasons why it was made. Specifically, that Bailey has indisputably declined in performance the last couple seasons.

The following charts use what I call Total Conversion Rate to measure a kicker’s performance. Total Conversion Rate is a simple percentage of points (both field goals and extra points) available to a kicker that are converted into points. The math:

((FGM * 3) + XPM) / ((FGA * 3) + XPA)

The following charts show how Bailey has declined in recent years in total conversion rate:

Bailey’s variance to the NFL shows how steep the decline has been:

Declining performance, recent injury concerns and salary cap considerations no doubt played a role in the Cowboys’ decision-making. But that doesn’t really matter when the team needs a 47-yard field goal to win on the road against a division rival.

I wrote about Bailey last season:

Victory 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.

Do the Cowboys’ simply not have the confidence that Bailey is still that guy? Do they think he’s simply never again going to be the elite kicker he was? Apparently so.

To test this idea I looked at six elite kickers by age, using the Total Conversion Rate and compared them to Bailey.

Two key things I was looking for:

  • Did these elite kickers ever experience significant decline in performance at age 31 or less?
  • How did these kickers perform into their mid-to-late 30s and beyond?

Here’s how Bailey compares to Adam Vinateiri:

We see that at age 31 Vinateiri had his worst season in his career then rebounded with one of his best. We also see that in general Vinateiri got better as he aged.

Here’s Stephen Gostkowski:

We see Gostkowski has never had a real bad season, but we also see that in general Bailey was better early in his career than Gostkowski. Gostkowski is only 34 so we can’t really know if he’ll age well into his late 30s.

Jason Hanson:

First keep in mind Hanson played in a different era when average conversion rates were lower than they are now. We’re not really comparing how he did versus Bailey but looking to answer the two questions outlined above.

Hanson was elite at age 27 then suffered declining performance over the next four years, bottoming out at age 31. He also aged very well in his mid-to-late 30s, like Vinateiri.

Jason Elam:

Between age 29 and 38 Elam had one (relatively ) bad season but otherwise his career is one of continuing improvement until his final year.

Here’s Gary Anderson:

Again, Anderson played in era when conversion rates were lower, so keep that in mind. We see that from age 23 to 27 Anderson got progressively worse, bottoming out at age 27. He then rebounded to show general improvement and solid production well into his forties.

Morton Anderson:

Morton Anderson’s early career looks quite similar to Bailey’s. Note the two poor seasons at age 28 and 29 before rebounding to (then) elite performance. Note he also aged well into his late forties.

Summarizing we see two pretty consistent trends:

  1. Elite kickers have some poor seasons early in their career
  2. Elite kickers actually improve over time and get better in their mid-to-late 30s than they were in their 20s.

Dallas has bet that Dan Bailey, who has been an elite kicker his first seven seasons in the NFL, will not be one moving forward. History tells us that’s probably a bad bet.

I will touch on one thing, though, that hasn’t received much attention. The following is speculative on my part but may play a part in both the Cowboys’ thinking and, perhaps, general NFL thoughts regarding kickers.

The analytical guys have for years been telling anyone who would listen that team’s are too conservative in fourth down situations. The basic gist of their argument is statistically teams are more likely to score more points by being more aggressive in fourth down situations than they have been historically. This would mean eschewing field goals more often in order to go for a first down in situations from inside and around midfield.

Well, Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson finally took the analytics guys at their word and started doing exactly what they suggested in 2107, to great success. The NFL is, if nothing else, a copy-cat league so I would expect more teams to follow the Eagles’ example and start doing what they always should have been doing: going for it on fourth down more often.

If teams are going for it more often near midfield, this lessens the value of elite kickers who will see fewer opportunities. I’m not sure the Cowboys will be more aggressive in such situations under the robo-conservative Garrett but it’s possible this played into their thinking.

This is a bet by the Cowboys’ front office that is going to play out throughout the season. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where it’s mid-November and the Cowboys have questions at the kicker position with people speculating whether Brett Maher is going to get cut and Dan Bailey is in the league’s top five in terms of efficiency while playing for another team.

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