Behind the Numbers: It’s Easier to Kick a Field Goal Today

If Scott Norwood had been born later, the former Buffalo Bills kicker would have had a better chance of being remembered as a hero who won Super Bowl XXV in 1991, rather than the kicker who blew it.

That’s because the odds of kicking a successful field goal in the NFL have improved over time.

Eight seconds remained on the clock. With his Bills down 1, Scott Norwood jogged out onto the field. The ball was at the 29-yard line, the holder 8 yards back at the 37, or 47 yards from the goalposts. The game rested on Norwood’s shoulders but the kick went wide right, and a year later Norwood was out of football for good. The Bills went to the Super Bowl three more times but never did win it. Norwood became as famous as Joe Montana, but in the exact opposite way.

Today, with better training methods, and better surfaces with more indoor fields, field goal percentages have improved, according to the latest statistics compiled up to 2006.

In 1991, NFL kickers succeeded in 1 in 1.34 (75%) attempts overall and 1 in 1.61 (62%) from 40-49 yards, almost 10 percent worse than kickers from 40-49 yards today, based on these statistics.

NFL kickers convert 1 in 1.25 (80%) of their kicks overall and 1 in 1.43 (70%) kicks between 40-49 yards, but the latter part of that range begins to stretch their limits. At 50 yards or more NFL kickers are successful on 1 in 1.94 (52%) attempts.

Field Goal Success Over Distance

The graph above shows the percentage of field goals converted from each distance in 2005—the red line shows the actual numbers, and the black line traces a smoothed curve that was fit to that data.

Both tell us that a 47-yard field goal is far from automatic—the actual data gives us 1 in 1.38 odds (72%); the smoothed line, 1 in 1.5.

Even with an expected success rate of 62%, Norwood could have hit the field goal, perhaps even should have, but it was certainly no lock. And sometimes the amount of pressure on a kicker can influence the outcome (see Field Goals Under Game-Winning Pressure).

With 8 seconds left and a 1-point deficit in the Super Bowl, probabilities tell us what might happen, but the outcome is binary—no matter the odds, the result is either a triumphant success or an abject failure, with nothing in between.

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