Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Top 10 NFL Kickers: First 25 Years (1920-1944)

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

Here is a list of the top 10 kickers that played in the first twenty-five years of the NFL (1920-1944). Since the NFL didn’t start until 1920 this list won’t include some pre-NFL stalwarts like Jim Thorpe, Charlie Brickley, Frank Nesser, etc., who had their prime years of kicking before 1920.

The list ranks the kickers for production, consistency, post-season performance post-1933) and accuracy. Although scoring was taken into consideration, touchdowns are included in that stat, it wasn’t the most important criteria.

1) Jack Manders (1933-1940 Chicago Bears). Manders, who was nicknamed “Automatic,” kicked eight consistent years with the Chicago Bears. Manders twice led the NFL in scoring (1934, 1937); led the NFL in FGs made 4 times (1933-1934, 1936-1937); and XPs made 3 times (1933-1935). He kicked over (80 percent) of his extra points.
Manders kicked 23 of his 40 career field goals in the first half of games when the outcome was more in doubt.

Plus, Manders was 7 for 7 on extra points and 5 of 10 on field goals in his 4 career post-season games with the Bears. In the 1933 NFL Championship Game (first one ever in NFL history) Manders converted both extra points and made 3 of 4 field goals- from 16, 40, and 28 yards to account for 11 points in the Bears 23-21 victory over the New York Giants.
Jack Manders, Chicago Bears
2) Dutch Clark (1931-1932 Portsmouth Spartans, 1934-1938 Detroit Lions) Dutch led the NFL in scoring three times, field goals once (1932) and extra points three times (1932, 1935-1936). In 1932 the NFL saw only six field goals made- and Dutch Clark made half of them (3). He was probably the NFL’s best-ever drop kicker.
Dutch Clark, Detroit Lions
3) Ward Cuff (1937-1945 New York Giants, 1946 Chicago Cardinals, 1947 Green Bay packers). Cuff was nearly perfect on extra points during his 11-year NFL career. After not kicking one in 1937 Cuff went on to convert 156 of 162 point after kicks- that’s 96 percent!! He also wasn’t’ too shabby on field goals making 43 of 98 tries.

Cuff led the NFL in field goals four times (1938-1939, 1943 and 1947- although the one in 1947 is after the cutoff). He also made 10 field goals of 35 yards or more.
In three playoff games Cuff was 2 for 3 on extra points and 2 of 3 on his field goals tries (14 and 16 yards).
Ward Cuff, New York Giants
4) Paddy Driscoll (Chicago Cardinals 1920-1925, Chicago Bears 1926-1929). The Hall of Famer was consistently known as the best kicker in the NFL- before Dutch Clark came along- during his ten-year career in NFL (and even pre-NFL years). Driscoll led the NFL in scoring twice (1923 and 1926) and in field goals four times (1922, 1923, 1925 and 1926). In 1925-1926 Driscoll converted 23 field goals and 24 extra points. His best year of 1926 he led the NFL in scoring with 86 points- with 12 FGs and 14 XPs- that would be 50 points accounted for by kicking.
Paddy Driscoll, Chicago Cardinals
5) Armand Niccolai (1934-1942 Pittsburgh Pirates-Steelers) Niccolai, at six-feet-two and 226 pounds, also played on the line as a tackle-guard-end. But he was one of the best kickers in the NFL during his nine years with Pittsburgh.
Twice he led the NFL in field goals made- 1935-1936. He converted 34 field goals, while making 71 extra points in his career. Niccolai converted 8 field goals of 40 or more yards, including a 50-yarder against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1934. From 1938-to-1942 he converted 48 of 49 extra points- nearly perfect.

His 7 field goals kicked for Pittsburgh in 1936 lasted 14 years until 1950 when Joe Geri kicked 8.
Armand Niccolai, Pittsburgh Steelers
6) Joey Sternaman (1922-25, 1927-1930 Chicago Bears; 1926 Chicago Bulls (AFL), 1923 Duluth) “Little” Joey Sternaman, brother of Bears co-owner Dutch Sternaman, packed a big toe on his five-feet-six, 150-pound body for nearly of decade of pro football action. Little Joey led the NFL in field goals in 1924 with 9. He also led the rival AFL (1926) in field goals made with 9 too.

In 1925 when the Bears went on the famous Red Grange barnstorming tour Joey converted 17 extra points that season.
Joey Sternaman, Chicago Bears
7) Ken Strong (1929-1932 Staten Island Stapletons, 1933-1935, 1939, 1944-1947 New York Giants, 1936-1937 New York Yanks (AFL). Strong led the NFL in Field goals made twice (1931 and 1944)- including in 1944 when he was 38 years old.

Strong converted 38 career field goals and 166 extra points. In five post-season games he was perfect on all 9 extra points and was one of two on field goals.
Ken Strong, New York Giants
8) Ralph Kercheval (1934-1940 Brooklyn Dodgers). Kercheval didn’t kick as often as the previous names but was just as good. From 1938 to 1940 Kerchaval made 15 of 37 field goals; and 13 of 15 extra points. In 1936 he booted a 50-yard FG.

In 1938 Kercheval led the NFL in field goals made with 5.

The following year (1939) he led the NFL in FG accuracy, making 6 of 13 (46 percent). He might be higher on the list if he was a little more accurate but the Dodgers simply didn’t score as much as the other teams in the NFL.
In his first four seasons in Brooklyn, the Dodgers averaged just 7 points a game- compared to the Chicago Bears who scored around 18 points per game.
Ralph Kercheval, Brooklyn Dodgers
9) Glenn Presnell (1931-1933 Portsmouth Spartans; 1934-1936 Detroit Lions) Presnell, just like Kercheval, didn’t have as many opportunities (mainly because of the presence of teammate Dutch Clark), but was a very consistent place kicker. Presnell led the NFL in scoring in 1933 (although Clark missed the season coaching basketball) and in 1934 he set an NFL record with a 54-yard field goal, a mark that was not broken until 1953 by Bert Richichar.
10) Don Hutson (1935-1945 Green Bay Packers) and Clarke Hinkle (1932-1941 Green Bay Packers).
Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers
Clarke Hinkle, Green Bay Packers
Throughout the mid-1930's through the mid-40's the Packers had a two-headed kicking monster.

Hutson was the extra point specialist. During his 11-year career with the Packers, he made 172 of 183 extra points- 94 percent success rate. Twice he led the NFL in extra points (1941-1942).

In 3 playoff games Hutson was a perfect 4 for 4 in extra points.

Hinkle was the field goal specialist with 28 career FGs in his 10-year career. He led the NFL twice in FGs made- 1940 with 9 and 1941 with 6. Hinkle was also 15 of 31 in extra points- only half- so that’s why Hutson kicked the conversion.

Hutson made just 7 of 17 career field goals. The two future Hall of Famers worked perfectly together to be number ten on the list.

Best of the Rest
Red Dunn; Benny Friedman; Hank Gillo; Pete “Fats” Henry; Jack McBride; Ernie Nevers; and Bob Snyder.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Another Underrated Kicker—Jeff Wilkins

By John Turney

Jeff Wilkins, like Horst Mühlmann, is a kicker who flew under the radar (in our view), at least relative to other bigger name kickers of their time. In the 1980s-2000s the kickers most recognizable on the national stage were perhaps Adam Vinatieri, Morten Andersen, Gary Anderson, Nick Lowery or John Carney and all for good reason. Wilkins only went to one Pro Bowl, in 2003, and that same season he was Second-team All-Pro, his highest honor of his career.

However, when compared to all of the bigger-named kickers Jeff Wilkins is right with them on all measurables and in the "clutch" category as well. Wilkins, nicknamed "Money", had his share of important kicks that won games or put them into overtime. And as an aside, he was the last barefoot kicker in the NFL which he did in 2002.

We're not suggesting him for the Hall of Fame or anything, but we are pointing out, given the following data points that he had a fine career, worthy of high praise. He is a player who likely wasn't the best in anything, but he was very good in EVERYTHING.

Consider:  When Wilkins retired in 2007 he was eighth all-time in field goal percentage, ahead of many of his more famous peers:
In addition, currently, he is one of the best long-distance kickers in history, ranking fifth:
Add to that his ability to kickoff deep, ranking 14th currently:
Further, he was excellent at executing onside kicks, ranking second currently:
Here are his career stats courtesy of Pro Football

MMQB All-Time Draft Computer Simulation

By John Turney
Last week Sports Illustrated's MMQB published the results of it's 12-man draft of the participants who were:
The Participants (in draft order)
1. Joel Bussert. Former longtime head of the NFL’s player personnel department.
2. Ron Wolf. Hall of Fame NFL executive.
3. Rick Gosselin. Longtime Dallas Morning News football writer and Hall of Fame voter.
4. Dan Fouts. Hall of Fame quarterback and Hall of Fame voter.
5. John Turney. Highly respected football historian from Pro Football Journal.
6. Gil Brandt. Pioneering scout and personnel executive.
7. Bob McGinn. Packers beat writer for 38 seasons.
8. Joe Horrigan. Vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
9. Peter King. Editor-in-chief of The MMQB and Hall of Fame voter.
10. Bill Polian. Six-time NFL executive of the year and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
11. John Wooten. Longtime player, NFL scout and director of The Fritz Pollard Alliance.
12. Ernie Accorsi. Former GM of the Colts, Browns and Giants.

One fan from Twitter, John in CA ran a simulation of the teams picked by the above participants. He sent these notes in an email to explain his process.

1.  The game used is called "Second and Ten"   I just play the game.  I have no financial interest.  The developers could probably do a much better job than me.

2.  All the player ratings are from the game as created by the developers.  The players are rated for the year/era they play.  However, the stats used in ratings are the real stats.

3. I took the best version of each player.  So the ratings and stats are not an overall summary of a players career.  These are the best players, using just their best years.  "Best" as in how the game AI rated them that its.  I didn't go through and compare to real life.  The game calculates rating(s) on factors other than just stats.  I don't know how they rated OLs. I'dd assume it's based on how well the real life team they were on ran and passed the ball.  For DLs and sacks.  Again Im not sure.  It seems they have stats for everyone.  Even the pre-1982 guys.  I did take a look and all the guys who would be good at sacks (Deacon Jones, etc) all have very high ratings.

4.  Interceptions will seem high.  But that is because nearly every CB and S has an incredible Int rating.

5.  I played 11-game schedule with each team facing each other once.  Home and Road determinations were random.

6.  The game has some min requirements on KR and PR.  In some cases, I had to increase the amount of returns for players to meet the min.  However, I kept the same yards per return the same so it should be negligible.

7.  QB comp % is important.  So QBs like Bradshaw, Unitas and Staubach who played when mid to low 50s% were normal will reflect that.

8.  All teams were played by AI coach.  How much they decided to run/pass is based on stats/ratings.

9.  This is just one simulation.  You will get variations every time.  Especially with each team being loaded with talent (high ratings)

10.  Dan Fouts team is clearly the weakest though.  His team will lose a lot no matter what.  Lots of reasons, but a QB with low comp % is a big one.

11.  I put the teams (people) in locations that seemed to be connected from where they are most connected and used old school, outdoor stadiums.  At least from my research.

12.  There are three or four game results which will look a bit odd with high scores, but......its a game.

13.  There are probably a few tweaks which could make it better, but I'm not aware of them.

So, with all those caveats here are the results:

And no, I had no idea I'd have the best regular-season record, but I do 100% recognize that the qb stats are important and Johnny Unitas underperformed. This game, and no other game I am aware of can make adjustments to passing stats. They are what they are.

Here are the leaders in statitical categories:
So that was the regular season. Here are the results of the playoffs:

The 4 teams were:
1. Turney
2. McGinn
3. King
4. Wolf
Round 1
Wolf 31
Turney 28

King 20
McGinn 7

King 28
Wolf 17
So Peter King, the designer of the MMQB draft takes the crown. Well done, Peter.

Monday, July 24, 2017

FORGED IN STEEL: The 1947 Steelers Earn a Playoff Berth

By T. J. Troup
Beginning in 1972 to the present day the Pittsburgh Steelers have earned a playoff berth 29 times. Success is almost an expectation for Steeler Nation but it has not always been that way.

Next week the Steeler hopefuls begin training camp with thoughts of another playoff berth yet when entering the 1947 season Dr. Jock Sutherland hoped to bring a first division championship to Art Rooney.

So let us return to yesteryear—70 years ago. Line coach Frank Walton, and end coach Joe Skladany are in their only year as Steeler coaches, while backfield coaches John Michelson and Mike Nixon will continue to coach the next season. Dr. Sutherland had success at the college level at the University of Pittsburgh and during the 1946 season, with league MVP Bill Dudley, the Steelers were contenders for most of the season.

Dudley has been traded to Detroit; yet Sutherland as head coach and undeniable leader truly believes he can teach his young team how to play football HIS way and win. There are only a handful of veterans on this team led by captain and starting center Chuck Cherundolo.

The campaign begins at Forbes Field on a very warm September Sunday against the Lions. The first touchdown of the year is scored by former Steeler Bill Dudley. The "Bluefield Bullet" releases out of the backfield up the left sideline and takes Zimmerman's well thrown pass over his shoulder on the six and trots in. Pittsburgh with 15 rookies making the team has without question the best depth they have ever had, and as the game wears on many of the youngsters are proving they can play quality football.

The Black & Gold ground attack will gain only 89 yards today, but the passing attack gains 194 yards to keep the chains moving. Rookie tailback Walt Slater throws three interceptions, and rookie wingback Bob Sullivan one as the Lions hold off Pittsburgh for most of the game.

The hard-nosed defense has kept the game close, and the pass rush has forced two fumbles already in the game, but the third forced fumble is the turning point. Lightning-quick right defensive end Bob Davis thunders in uncontested and knocks the ball loose. Rookie tackle Joe Repko picks up the ball and trundles 48 yards for the winning score.
Pittsburgh is humiliated at home on a Monday night game against Los Angeles 48-7. The Washington Redskins lost an exciting high scoring close game to contending Philadelphia to begin their season, and are looking to even the slate in their home opener. Ray Didinger captures the essence of this game in his outstanding book Great Teams' Great Years. Rookie Joe Glamp misses four field goals in a 27-26 defeat. There are bright spots in the loss though as tailback/wingback Johnny "Zero" Clement shines both running and passing. He gains 92 yards rushing (including his season long run of 43), and gains 157 passing on his 9 completions.

There are plays in the Sutherland wing where Johnny lines up as a traditional tailback and either runs or passes, but he also lines up as a wingback and when the ball is snapped to the fullback (usually Steve Lach) he takes the ball from Steve on a reverse and drops into a protective pocket to pass (most of the time from left wing since Johnny is right handed).

The Steelers are in Boston for week four and come away with a 30-14 victory. Wingback Bob Sullivan was injured during the loss to the 'Skins and taking his place in the lineup is the man who came in the trade for Dudley—Bob Cifers. One of the best punters in the league; Bob has the best game of his career running the ball as he gains 97 yards on just 11 carries (the Steelers gain 276 as a team on the ground). Clement is pinpoint in completing 8 of 13 as he is now the centerpiece of the offense. Walt Slater plays very little tailback, yet proves his worth to the team as a fine safety in the Steelers 5-3-3 defense, and ranks among the league leaders in punt returns.

Next up the 2-1 Philadelphia Eagles who are coming off a loss to the Bears 40-7. The Sutherland Wing runs the ball 52 times for 229 yards against a very tough and talented Philadelphia defense, and now is an appropriate time to detail the men who opened those holes. The tackles are Jack Wiley, Frank Wydo,  Paul Stenn, and Ralph Calcagni. The guards are veteran John Perko (the oldest player on the team at 33), Nick Skorich, John Mastrangelo, and outstanding rookie William "Red" Moore.

These men all go both ways though of course some see more playing time than others. Mastrangelo is a fine pulling guard, and plays both left linebacker and defensive guard. Wiley and Calcagni both play left defensive tackle and are adept at shedding blocks, and creating havoc. Wydo is strong at the point of attack on defense, and a powerhouse drive blocker on offense; the rangy lad just needs experience.

Red Moore earns some All-Pro recognition as a guard and he is also very effective at middle guard. This youngster has a very bright future in the Steel City. All-Pro Val Jansante is by far the best receiver on the team(35 catches for 599 yards), and does a fine job at left defensive end when called upon.

Bob Davis has his moments on offense at right end, yet he is by far the best pass rusher on the team and pursues the quarterback with a vengeance. Charley Mehelich rarely gets the ball thrown to him, but he is asked to play left defensive end (usually the strong side) and also earns some All-Pro recognition.

Rookie Elbie Nickel earns his letter on both sides of the ball, but needs experience. Old pro Tony Bova fills in when called upon, but has seen better days. Paul White plays very little offense, but is the starter at left corner in his only season in the league. Tough as nails Tony Compagno starts at right corner; and he is a force against the run and during the campaign returns two interceptions for touchdowns. Tony also rotates in at fullback to give Steve Lach a breather. They combine to gain 498 yards rushing on 154 carries.

You cannot run the single wing without a fullback willing to run hard up the middle or lead block. Lach catches a few short passes, but Tony proves to be a valuable asset in the passing game with 9 catches for 190 yards (usually on screen plays).

The game at Forbes Field against Philadelphia is a turning point as the Black & Gold gain 406 yards in total offense in the 35-24 victory. Pittsburgh has won only 3 of 13 against the Giants in the Polo Grounds, but today Sutherland's boys storm to victory 38-21. For the first time in team history the Steelers have scored over 100 points in a three-game stretch, and head to State Fair Park in Wisconsin to take on the 4-1 contending Packers.

Green Bay jumps out to a 7-0 lead on their first possession as Clyde Goodnight scores on a 69 yard pass from Indian Jack Jacobs. The Steelers respond with a 59-yard drive culminating in Joe Glamp's 17-yard field goal. The Packer come right back and score again on Ward Cuff's 15-yard field goal.

Late in the second quarter the Steelers are denied on 4th and one at the Green Bay one. Jacobs punts on first down, and with 38 seconds left in the half Johnny Clement pitches to Jansante for 22 yards and the go ahead score. Clement completed 7 of 12 for 122 yards in the first half against the best pass defense in the league.

The Packers take the second half kick-off and drive 58 yards, but are stopped on 4th down. When the Steelers punt Green Bay takes over on their own forty-seven. Second down and seven at midfield when Tony Compagno makes the key play of the game: he swipes Comp's pass and dashes 63 yards to score a touchdown.

Ralph Calcagni then sacks Jacobs in the end zone for a safety in the 4th quarter to put the Steelers up 18-10. Jacobs throws to Luhn for 26 to close the gap to 18-17 with seven minutes left, but gets the ball back just once more, and Jacobs is again sacked, and the Steelers run out the clock. The Black & Gold return home and exact revenge on Washington 21-14 as Johnny Clement runs and throws for a score. He now ranks among the leaders in the league in both rushing & passing.

Can the Steelers win six in a row? They have never done this, and here comes the Giants into a smoke filled, hazy Forbes Field with folks lined up all around the field in anticipation. The Steelers lead 3-0 at the half, but an interception by Tarzan White of the Giants puts New York on the nineteen yard line, and they punch it in to lead 7-3 late in the game. The young Steeler defense has reached a new level today as the longest run by a Giant is five yards, and they complete only three passes.

Due to New York's "A" formation and big line splits; the Steelers must adjust their defense, and adjust they do—going from the 5-3 to a 6-2, and even align in the old 7-diamond. The key man again today is the middle linebacker Charlie Seabright. Though listed as a quarterback in their offensive alignment; Charlie is basically a blocking back. He carries the ball once all season, but on defense he shines repeatedly all season. Instinctive, quick, and a fine tackler Seabright has his best game today.

That said, let's take a look at the Steeler linebackers for the 1947 season. Left linebacker is handled by Al Drulis, John Mastrangelo, and Bryant Meeks. Chuck Cherundolo begins the year as the right linebacker, but as the season wears on Bill Cregar, and Frank Sinkovitz get plenty of playing time. Seabright is the lynch pin of the defense, as he moves before the snap into different alignments.

There is less than two minutes left in the game, but the Steelers score twice, and that leaves New York with no choice but to pass. The errant throw is pilfered by Seabright, and he dashes 39 yards to clinch the victory. The first place 7-2 Steelers head to Wrigley for a showdown with a team they have never beaten. The Bears also must win to stay in contention with the Cardinals. The Bears wallop Pittsburgh 49-7 and inflict pain, as more than one Steeler is not only knocked out of the contest, they will not heal in time for the showdown with the Eagles. The key injury is to Johnny Clement. Can he be replaced? The second half of the year Gonzalo Morales has earned some playing time at safety, but can he do the job at tailback? Steve Lach and Bob Cifers gain 78 yards rushing (rest of the team loses 3 yards), while Morales gains just 1 yard in seven carries, and completes only 4 of 14 for 24 yards.
Watching the film of this debacle the better team is Philadelphia as they make all the plays in the 21-0 victory. The Cardinals knock off the Eagles on December 7th . . .thus with a victory today against Boston the Steelers will clinch at least a tie for the eastern division title.

Morales again plays tailback, but coming through when needed most is Walt Slater. He gains 70 yards rushing on 18 carries, and completes 5 passes for 68 yards. He also contributes on defense with his 4th interception of the season. Final—Pittsburgh 17 Boston 7.

The analysis of stats sometimes tells the story of a team, and the 1947 Steelers are no exception. In the eight wins opponents averaged only 100 yards rushing, but in the four losses 200 a game. Though the Steelers played adequate pass defense during the six game winning streak; for the season they ranked 8th in the league in efficiency with a mark of 63.7. Opponent passers completed many a long pass during the campaign. Pittsburgh set a team record for rushing yards gained in a season with 1,948; with an average of 132 a game when they lost, and 177 when they won.

This was by far the best passing team in Pittsburgh history, but in the four losses they completed just 29 of 81 for only 378 yards, with just 3 touchdowns, and 8 intercepted. The eight victories show marked improvement with 57 of 128 for 1,032 yards with 7 touchdowns, and 11 intercepted. The Eagles beat Green Bay in their final regular season game and again took care of Pittsburgh 21-0 in the playoff.

Johnny Clement was just not the same player that he was earlier in the season. Quarterback Tommy Thompson of the Eagles picked apart the Steeler secondary. Art Rooney knew his team was finally headed in the right direction. Right? No, it all came apart so quickly. Dr. Sutherland dies of a brain tumor in the off season, and many of the fine young players have very short careers. Clement is injured early in 1948 thus ending his promising career, and Walt Slater retires because he cannot get a $500.00 raise. Pittsburgh will continue in the single wing through the '51 season, but without Jock Sutherland's guidance and ability to teach it is just not the same. This is the saga of the FIRST playoff team in Steeler history.

Jan Stenerud—The Rest of the Story

By John Turney
Credit:  Merv Corning
Earlier we looked at Morten Andersen's  career kickoff statistics and through research surmised that he was the best kickoff artist in the NFL for the 1974-93 era, which was the era of kickoffs being from the 35-yard line. Prior to 1974 they were at the 40 and in 1994 they moved to the 30-yard line. (And were moved to the 35 again in 2011). Anderson also was top-notch after the 1994 rule change but wasn't the top kickoff man in the game, that honor for those first several years of the 30-yard line mark was likely Brad Daluiso.

Since Morten Andersen will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the weekend after next we thought we'd take a look at Jan Stenerud, the first pure kicker to be inducted into the Hall.

When Stenerud was inducted the argument was that Stenerud, for his time, was a weapon, a player who was enough above average so was to warrant the Hall of Fame. By and large, that is true and holds up to this day.  Stenerud was a five time First-team All-Pro selections plus had two more Second-team All-Pro picks plus six Pro Bowls and an addition Second-team All-NFC selection in 1981 gives him nine seasons of "honors".

At the time of his retirement in 1985, Stenerud ranked 14th in field goal percentage among qualifiers however quite a few ahead of him were newcomers, players who were part of a new generation of kickers that for whatever reason were more accurate than those of the 1970s and 1960s.

However, at one point Stenerud himself was one of the newbies who flew to the top of the field goal percentage chart the moment he hit the number needed to qualify.

Here is Stenerud's field goal chart, courtesy of Pro Football

And like we did with Andersen, here are the estimated kickoffs that were touchbacks:
As can be seen Stenerud was one of the top kickers for having kickoffs not returned (presumed touchbacks). He was tops as a rookie and was usually in the top five through 1973.

However, when the line was moved back five yards he was only in the top five one more time (1976 when he was 3rd). After leaving Kansas City he was usually in the bottom third, but at that time he was in his early forties so it's completely understandable.

He and Morten Andersen give the Hall of Fame voters a good baseline to compare kickers who have Hall of Fame aspirations. 

Horst Mühlmann—Perhaps the 1970s Most Underrated Kicker

By John Turney
Sometimes NFL players play their entire career and never seen to get any recognition or honors even though their skills and accomplishments are very good. In the case of Horst Mühlmann, who we think is one of those unsung type players, it may be that his career was not overly long at a position that allows for really long careers.
Mühlmann entered the AFL in 1969 with the Cincinnati Bengals at the age of 29. Yes, 29. His late start is the more than likely reason for him playing just nine seasons.

He got his late start due to playing soccer in Europe and later in the United States in the North American Soccer League for the Kansas City Spurs. He was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs but couldn't make the team, who happened to have their own soccer-style kicker by the name of Jan Stenerud. He was traded to Paul Brown's Bengals for Warren McVea and held that club's kicking job through 1974 when he was traded to the Eagles.

However, in those years Mühlmann was quite an effective place kicker, though not the best in the NFL. Those honors, for the span of his career, usually went to Stenerud or Garo Yepremium or Chester Marcol.

A year after his last season of 1977, Mühlmann was was most accurate long-distance kicker ever. He was 9 for 23 in field goal attempts of 50 yards or further for a percentage of 39.1% (minimum 8 attempts).  He was also the fourth most-accurate kicker ever, behind only Don Cockroft, Yepremian and Stenerud.

Soon after a new breed of kickers began entering the NFL and the players of the 1960s and 1970s quickly lost their places in the lists of field goal accuracy the same way players like Stenerud, Mühlmann, and others took the place of the great kickers of the 1950s.

However, Mühlmann's performance in kickoffs, particularly in the pre-1974 era which was impressive.

From 1969-73 41.9% of Mühlmann's kickoffs were not returned and we presume those to almost all be touchbacks. After the rule change in 1975 when he began with the Eagles Mühlmann was still in the top ten but then did drop dramatically in 1976 and 1977 at the age of 36 and 37 respectively.

We don't suggest Mühlmann is a Hall of Famer or even a candidate for the PFRA Hall of Very Good, though he might be, we do think he had a worthy career that deserves a blurb no and then. He kicked about as accurately as most of his peers, he was the best long-distance kicker of the 1970s, a decade that included Tom Dempsey and he was a good kickoff artist. 

Morten Andersen—The Rest of the Story

By John Turney
Morten Andersen was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February and next month he will be the second pure kicker ever to be enshrined. He played 25 seasons and was a member NFL All-Decade teams in both the 1980s and 1990s and he still holds many NFL records, including most career points (2,544), most career field goals (565).

He also got better with age in terms of field goal accuracy. In the 1980s his field goal percentage was 77.0 percent. In the 1990s it was 79.3 and in the 2000s it was 83.7 percent.

He was a five-time First-team All-Pro and was a Second-team selection once and was a 7-time Pro Bowl selection. Andersen had a leg that was ahead of his time, being able to kick 50-yard or longer field goals regularly when most good kickers couldn't reach that distance as often or as accurately. In the 1980s Andersen was 13 for 31 in 50-yard attempts or longer.

However, a big part of the kicker's job is on kickoffs and it's not often reported on. Since 1991 the NFL has been tracking kickoff statistics and Andersen fared well in those, but what was never tracked were the kickoffs prior to that, from 1982-90 in Andersen's case.

At PFJ we've attempted to get a read on his kickoff prowess in the 1980s by estimating the number of kickoffs and the number of touchbacks. We couldn't get a handle on the yards since the raw data is not found in the gamebooks. However, we can estimate kickoffs by adding the number of seasonal games (16) plus the number of touchdowns scored and adding in the number of successful field goals. We ignored opponent safeties since free kicks are usually handled by the punter. (This is why it's an estimate).

We then subtract the number of kickoff returns (which is a known quantity) and get the number of kickoffs that were not returned. This is our estimate of presumed touchbacks. However, a small percentage of kickoffs that are not returned are not touchbacks. They could have gone out of bounds or they may have been a botched onside kick attempt. Again, we ignored those and just accept that there is a margin for error in the numbers.

However, we think the numbers we derived for presumed touchbacks is close enough to tell who the kickers were that were getting the most distance and the most touchbacks even if our numbers might be off by one either way.

Based on that date we've created this chart:
The numbers from 1982 through 1990 in dark gold are our estimates. The numbers in black are actual numbers from NFLGSIS.

From 1982-90 Andersen ranked first in touchback percentage 7 times and was second twice. (He lost out to Lee "Thunderfoot" Johnson in 1986 and 1989 the Oiler and Bengal punter who was also their kickoff specialist.

In the "official era" Andersen was first in touchback percentage in 1991 and 1995 and was second in 1992 and third in 1993 and 1994. As can be seen in 1994 the numbers dropped dramatically. That is the season the kickoff tee was lowered and the kickoff line moved back from the 35 to the 30.

After checking these numbers back through the 1960s it is clear that Morten Andersen was the most proficient at kicking touchbacks in the 1974-93 era. (In 1973 kickoffs were from the 40-yard line making touchbacks a bit easier). And even though he was 35 years old when the 1994-2011 era began he was still one of the best until age caught up and he wasn't kicking off anymore.

We would hope the NFL, at some point, goes back and officially back dates kicking statistics like kickoffs, net kickoffs, touchbacks, onside kick success, and net punting stats. We are not holding our breath but as Andersen's election to the Hall of Fame shows there is a need for such things. It would be a tremendous aid to Hall of Fame voters to find hidden gems among some of the great kickers and punters of the past.

Though many of us remember Andersen's kickoff leg, there are many youngsters who don't. And though we think our estimates get us 99% there in terms of accuracy, it would be even better if all the numbers were there.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Kickers with the Best Kickoff Legs

By John Turney
Starting in 1992 the NFL compiled complete kickoff data and has continued since.  However, over that time the kickoff rules have not been consistent. In 1994 there were kicking game changes.  he NF. moved the kickoff line back to the 30 to generate more returns. Also, a lower kicking tee was required. Then, in 2011 the kickoffs were moved back to the 30 and in 2016 touchbacks were placed at the 25-yard line, rather than the twenty.

Because of all this, it's very difficult to compare kickoffs over the last 25 years. touchback percentages will be vastly different from 1994 through 2010.  However, kickoff distance remained fairly constant, In 1992 the average was just over 60 yards and it peaked in 2011 at 65 and has dropped to about 64.5. Rather than rule changes, this seems to fit the pattern of players training year-round and the evolution of the game.

Here are the players with the highest kickoff average since 1991 (Three of the top four are punters):
Note: Many of these players began their careers prior to 1991 and data is not available for previous seasons.

Update: Thanks to PFRA member Tod Maher the above lists have been updated. Unbeknownst to me the data I was using (from has not been updated with the lastest data. Apparently, touchback yardage had been treated differently by different crews in the early days of these statistics. The NFL went back and made the numbers more uniform one their own internal website but never updated the public website,

The changes were slight and the kickers that made the most touchbacks were affected the most, but the largest changes appear to be no more than a half-yard.

To hat tip to Tod Maher.

Kickers with the Soft Touch

By John Turney
Beginning in 1991 the NFL began to track the success rates of onside kicks. Sadly, no one has gone back to recover data from earlier generations so we could do a full analysis. Hopefully, the NFL, who is not (as we understand it) in negotiations with Elias Sports Bureau for the contract to handle the statistical matters for the NFL, will make backdating kicking and punting statistics part of the deal.

In the mean time, here are the leaders in onside kick success since 1991:
Neil Rackers is at the top and Jeff Wilkins is right behind him. Certainly, we understand a lot of things need to go right for a successful onside kick. Keeping the kickoff team onside is one thing, getting a good bounce is another, some luck in the bounce doesn't hurt. And the "hands" team has to fight for the ball if there is a scrum. But, it does seem some kickers, over the course of their career seem to have things go right about 40-50% of the time while many a great kicker have those things happen about half of that, perhaps 20-25% of the time. Jason Hanson seems particularly unlucky at 6 for 34 (17.6%) and Phil Dawson just below that at 15.6% (5 for 32). But John Kasay seems to be doing something wrong (1 for 29) for 3.4%.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Long Distance Kickers

By John Turney
With each passing year, it seems the NFL's kickers and punters break records for their positions. Fifty years ago a fifty-yard field goal was something that happened maybe a few times a season. Now it happens a few times every week.  Today, kickers have a kicking percentage for 50-and-over attempts that would have been not only acceptable but excellent for all the kicks in a season.

Right now there are nine kickers in the history of the game that have a 70% or better success rate on attempts of 50 yards or more and 46 who have hit fifty percent or better.

For a comparison, Tom Dempsey, who had one of the strong legs in league history was 12 for 39 (30.8%). Jan Stenerud, a Hall of Fame kicker was 17 for 64 (26.6%) and those two were among the very best in long range field goals when they retired.  This is no reflection on them, it's just a fact that the kicking game in the NFL has really upped its game in the last couple of decades.

Here is the list:

This is a list sorted by the most 50-yard field goals made:
This chart shows the top long distance kickers as of the end of the 1979 season, Dempsey's last:
Players with an asterisk played in the 1950s when complete distance data is not available. For instance, Lou Groza had at least 4 kicks of 50 or more, but it is unknown how many he missed.