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Is Icing the Kicker Really a Thing?

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NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The scenario seems made for TV with dramatic patter and suspense and ends in elation or abject disappointment, depending on which team you’re cheering for.

A field goal attempt at the end of the game, whether to send it into overtime; take a small lead; or, most dramatically, make a walk-off kick, is one of the most dramatic moments in sports. An almost-mandatory part of that drama is the opposing team’s use of a time out or two or three to ‘ice’ the make him feel the the pressure a bit long in hopes he will psyche himself out and miss the field goal.

To answer the rhetorical in the article’s headline...yes, of course icing the kicker is a thing. It happens every Saturday. In 2017 and 2018 (so far) it has happened 196 times. The real question is “does it work?” A like so many other questions that advanced analytics tries to answer, the answer is “it depends.”

Let’s dig into it.

Looking at only 2017 and 2018 because I don’t have granular data on field goals prior to 2017, I separated out all the field goal attempts and noted whether they were immediately preceded in the play count by a time out. I’m making a few assumptions here that need to be considered.

  1. I’m assuming that a time out prior to a field goal attempt is an attempt to ice the kicker. This ignores the times that a team calls a time out in order to set up a field goal attempt. Anecdotally this is a pretty small number but it happens and my analysis can’t account for this because I don’t have data on who called the time out.
  2. I’m only looking at field goal attempts in the 4th quarter or in OT. Anecdotally, again, I don’t recall an attempt to ‘ice a kicker’ earlier in the game. I don’t think most coaches would burn a time out earlier in the game to do this. But it’s possible, and my analysis doesn’t account for it.
  3. I’m looking at success rates for field goals given the condition of iced or not iced. “Iced” only occurs about 20% of the time, so the smaller number of ‘iced’ attempts would be more impacted by a few made or missed field goals than the ‘not iced’ condition.

Looking at all field goal attempts in Q4 and OT, there were 1070 attempts. 761, or 71% of them were good. Given the condition of whether a kicker was iced or not does seem to make a difference. For kickers who were iced, the number of made field goals drops to 123/196, or 63%, while the kickers who were not iced was 638/874, or 73% were good.

Breaking this down by the distance of the attempt muddies the waters a bit.

Considering only field goal attempts of distances < 25 yards there is no significant difference in whether the the kicker was iced or not. Kickers at that range made 143/169, or 91%, of attempts. Icing the kicker at that range reduced the rate to 26/29, or 90% while kickers who were not iced were successful on 143/156, or 91%, of attempts.

For distances from 26-35 yards the results are similar, though there is some increasing evidence of an icing effect.

Kickers were successful on 277/357, or 78%, of attempts at this distance. The rate drops to 46/63, or 73% for iced kickers while kickers who were not iced connected on 231/294, or 79% of attempts.

For distances from 36-45 yards the icing effect is there, but is still not overwhelming.

Kickers were successful on 236/353, or 67%, of attempts. The rate drops to 25/42, or 62% for iced kickers while kickers who were not iced connected on 195/287, or 68% of attempts.

Generally, from distances up to about 45 yards, icing the kicker appears to reduce the chances of a successful kick about 5% or so.

Things begin to get interesting at distances beyond 45 yards. What is already a long field goal attempt appears to be highly susceptible to influence by an icing effect.

from 45 yards or more, kickers made 79/175, or 45% of attempts. Kickers who were iced, however, were only about half as successful, connecting on only 10/38, or 26% of attempts. Kickers who were not iced connected on 69/137, or 50%, of attempts.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that icing the kicker can impact the kickers probability of success at distances greater than 25 yards, with an increasing impact as the distance increases. If an opposing coach has a time out to use, using it to iced the kicker is a smart thing to do.