Kicker Billy Cundiff Had 20 Sacks This Year

Last Sunday Baltimore's kicker Billy Cundiff tied the NFL regular season record for the most touchbacks with 40. That's over a 50% touchback rate. How big of an advantage did this give the Ravens? Well, the title says it all. I could also say he would be as valuable as the 7th best running back in the league.

The occasion seemed like a good excuse to repost part of an article from last year that measured the value of a touchback:
"...Keeping a kickoff specialist on the roster has become somewhat fashionable in the NFL. It's an expensive thing to do, not just in terms of salary, but in terms of a roster spot. If you've read John Feinstein's Next Man Up, you know how precious every spot is for the coaches, and how difficult the weekly decisions are about who to dress for each game. A kick-off specialist is a costly luxury.

But maybe we're thinking about this backwards. Maybe we should ask whether it's worth it to have a field goal specialist....

The Value of a Touchback

About 10% of all NFL kickoffs (not including onside kicks) are touchbacks. Forcing the opponent to start at their own 20 doesn't exactly seem like a death blow, but it is modestly valuable.

The average starting position following all kickoffs (including penalties on the play) is the 30 yd line. But the average starting position for all non-touchback kickoffs is the 32. The difference between a touchback an non-touchback is 12 yds. If the 32 seems a little far down the field to you (like it does to me), it's because the median starting field position for non-touchbacks is the 27 yd line.

Here is the distribution of starting field position for non-touchback kicks.

[A couple of interesting notes. First, the spike at the 60 (a team's own 40 yd line) is from kicks out of bounds. Second, I think it's interesting that of long returns, there are many more that make it to the opponent's 30 or 20 or so than make it only to just past midfield. Then, if a returner makes it past the 20, he's probably going to make it all the way to the end zone.]

Back to touchbacks. Using the concept of Expected Points (EP), the average point value of a first down at each field position(see graph below), we can estimate the nominal value of a touchback. The 20 yd line represents 0.1 EP, and the weighted average of the distribution of non-touchback field position is 0.9 EP. That's a value of 0.8 EP per touchback. (This includes turnovers and penalties.)

Sacks are worth (on average) 1.7 EP, so a touchback could be considered the equivalent of about half a sack.

An alternative way of thinking of those 12 yards is to think of them as one additional first down required for a team to score. It's one more first down the offense will need to either score a TD or get into FG range. The average first down conversion rate in the NFL is 67%, so a touchback turns a TD drive into a FG drive or a FG drive into a punt 33% of the time."

So Cundiff's 40 touchbacks, at 0.08 EPA per TB, were worth 32 EPA, or about 2 points per game. That's equivalent to about 20 sacks. But the average NFL kicker this season had about a 15% TB rate, which was higher than in recent years. Cundiff had 28 more TBs than you would expect from the average kicker, worth 22.4 EPA over 16 games, still nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Cundiff's EPA from TBs alone would rank him 7th among all NFL running backs in terms of net points added.

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12 Responses to “Kicker Billy Cundiff Had 20 Sacks This Year”

  1. Joe Regan says:

    I should show this post to anyone who ever argues for awarding an RB the MVP award.

  2. Mike G. says:

    Bill Simmons made an interesting observation: Cundiff's sacks rocketed this year. From basically never, to much of the time.

    Simmons wondered: 'Roids?

    From a statistical perspective, has any kicker in NFL history ever inflated their touchbacks so dramatically from one season (actually several) to another? I.e., would you use numbers to create a Sosa-like question here?

  3. Anonymous says:

    It seems like this would understate Cundiff's contribution. I would assume that the ~50% of KOs that were non-TB would also have a mean starting position well ahead of the League average.

    However, comparing his production to that of a 20 sack defender is not really fair. Sacks accumulate from persistent pressure in excess of the actual plays that result in sacks. That defender probably disrupted 50 to 100 pass plays in addition to the actual sacks.

    I suppose it's more fair to compare Cunliff to a hypothetical defender who recorded 20 sacks, but performed completely average in all other plays all year long.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Mike G,

    Do some research. The Ravens put a lot of resources into their special teams this year. Harbaugh was a former ST coach with the Eagles and he brought along a lot of kicking specialist with him. The NFL network did a whole special on the kicking mechanics coach that worked with Billy. He kicks the ball very differently then previous year.

  5. Ian Simcox says:

    Is another way of comparing kickers to look at what yard line they kick to, and calculating an expected points for a return team from there?

    Touchbacks are good, but are also thaaks in part to the coverage team. If you're a returner and you get the ball 3 yards deep in your end zone, the choice of whether to come out or not will depend in part on whether you like how your blocking is lined up against their coverage.

    I haven't looked at the PBP, but the reason Cundiff might be getting so many TBs is because the Ravens coverage is getting downfield well, rather than he's kicking deeper. This method seems like it would correct for coverage and value the actual kicker.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In an interview this week, Cundiff credited his coaches for giving him the green light to kick for distance rather than hang time or direction, saying that most special teams coaches are so paranoid about long returns or out of bounds kicks that they don't allow their pickers to swing away aggressively.

    I'be always wondered if this is a good trade off. Does kicking high into the corner reduce the risk of a long return at the expense of a few yards of field position?

  7. bmoore_ucla says:

    Brian, why not add individual stats for kickers, using the weighted average EP?

  8. Anonymous says:

    "Sacks are worth (on average) 1.7 EP, so a touchback could be considered the equivalent of about half a sack."


    What do you think about the theory that EP analysis doesn't capture the true value of sacks. Why? As you've worked out the average run play is a ~0 EP and and the average pass play is a ~0.2 EP, right? So basically every foregone pass attempt is worth +0.2 EP. What EP analysis fails to capture is foregone passes dictated by a good pass rush ... pass plays the offense doesn't run because they're concerned with sacks.

    I started thinking about this because I was thinking about the value of pass defense vs run defense. Let me give you an example. The difference between allowing a 3 yard gain and a 5 yard gain on a 1&10 from the 50 is 0.3 in EP. If a sack is only worth 1.7 then it's also equal to holding a team to 3 yards instead of 5 yards five times. Does that seem right to you (it doesn't to me)? Just gut feel it seems like a sack is worth much more than holding a team to 2 less yards on 5 plays.

    What do you think?

  9. Anonymous says:

    That seems reasonable to me.

    Using your example from midfield, would you prefer...

    -6 chances at 2nd and 7?


    -5 chances at 2nd and 5 plus 1 chance at 2nd and 17?

    The EP model says these two scenarios are close to equal and my I agree.

  10. Brian Burke says:

    Anon-That's true. There's actually a school of thought here at Advanced NFL Stats headquarters that running plays and passing plays should have their own independent EPA models. That way we can better compare RBs to other RBs and QBs to other QBs. Zero EPA would be the theoretical average for both.

    bmoore-Great suggestion. The reason is that I'm not fully satisfied with how the model captures special teams. I think it does ok, but I haven't had the time to test and make sure. It's definitely in the plans at some point. There are so many cool things I'd like to do, and that's one of them.

  11. James says:

    Back in September on the commmunity site someone posted an article about PK salaries and performance and I chipped in with the comment below about the value of a good KO man. With Buehler of the cowboys being worth nine points in 2009 based on his large number of TBs although I assumned a Tb was worth 0.5 points if it is worth 0.8 then his value was 14 points above average which is in the same ball park as cundiff's 22 points in 2010.


    "Off the top of my head I think a touchback is worth about 0.5 points as the average start after a KO is the 27 yard line and 14yds=1point.

    In 2009 the average TB% was 15% so if your kicker does better than that he is valuable. Using this approach David Buehler of Dallas comes tops as he had 29 TB in 77 KOs which is 38%, an average kicker would only have had 11.5 so those extra 17.5 TBs are possibly worth about 9 points if you assume a TB is half a point. Which is comparable with the best FG performance in your study and if KO performance is more consistent then FG year to year this may justify having a KO specialist. And I am ignoring any effect that good KO guys have on KOs that aren't TBs which could also add to their value. Because I cant find any data on where KOs are fielded rather just TB rate and Avg return."

  12. Anonymous says:

    This one guy told me that billy cundiff stinks. But he is a bengals fan and also not the brightest and also a hater. Billy cundiff is an awesome player and any team would be lucky to have him! Thanks for this great info. Appreciate someone who is smart enough to know how valuable he really is :) #7 go ravens

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