You guys might not know this, but I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when coach brought Dustin home, I knew he was one of my own. And my wolf pack... it grew by one. So there... there were two of us in the wolf pack... I was alone first in the pack, and then Dustin joined in later. And six months ago, when Dustin introduced me to you guys, I thought, "Wait a second, could it be?" And now I know for sure, I just added two more guys to my wolf pack. Four of us wolves, running around the panhandle together, in Tallahassee, looking for field goals and touchbacks. So tonight, I make a toast! -
Phil the Foot, Pre-National Signing Day, 2009
With sincere apologies to Zach Galifianakis, Florida State's kicking game in 2008 truly was a one man wolfpack, and the sole and managing member of that pack was Graham Gano . In fact, Gano was first player in Bobby Bowden's tenture at FSU to handle the starting punting, place kicking, and kickoff duties in the same season, and became the only player in school history to make more than 90% of his field goal attempts.
Gano with his trophy, via www.grahamgano.com
To summarize, that article made a couple of predictions concerning the Seminoles' Kicking Game in 2009:
A) FSU will work to limit the kicker's attempts. While this is usually an unspoken goal of any good offense, FSU had the luxury of falling back on Gano, especially in long yardage situations. This should make for more "exciting" football, with FSU going for it more often on marginal fourth downs. A shift toward a more aggressive approach should be compounded by the fact that Gano's punting was a serious weapon in and of itself, which had above average potential to pin opposing offenses deep inside their own territory.
B) All other things being equal, FSU will likely lose at least one close game in 2009 which could have been put in the win column if the place kicker had delivered a clutch field goal. Earlier in this post, three conference games where Gano's perfect kicking was the catalyst to victory were identified (Miami, VT, NCST). The laws of statistics and averages are strongly against this kind of repeat performance, particularly in light of the fact that Gano made field goals of 50 yards or longer in each of those wins.
C) FSU fans heartbeats will once again become dangerously critical on or around Labor Day, 2009.
Note: Ironically, it is possible that in 2009, FSU might be expected to score more points with a similarly capable offense and kicker who is less accurate, since it has been well documented that teams who are aggressive in these situations (i.e., going for it on fourth down in marginal field goal territory) should expect to score more. For a more detailed discussion of this hypothesis, see http://www.econ.berkeley.edu/users/dromer/papers/PAPER_NFL_JULY05_FORWEB_CORRECTED.pdf.
Did those predictions come true? After the jump we explore these areas and more:
Did FSU kick the ball less without Gano?
The answer, at least on the surface, is yes. Dustin Hopkins, the nation's top kicking recruit in 2009, won the starting place kicking job and held it for the entire season. Hopkins had 27 attempts in 13 games, converting on 19, for a 70.4 % conversion ratio. This works out to 2.1 attempts/game. To put Hopkins' accuracy into perspective, Hopkins was, as of the date of this article, 67th in the nation.
In contrast, Gano had 26 attempts in just 11 games, and made 24, for a success ratio of 92.3%, which was tops in the nation. This works out to approximately 2.4 attempts/game. FSU was second in the country in field goal attempts/game in 2008. They dropped into a multi-team tie for 9th in 2009, as of the date of this article.
For reference, here is a list of recent Seminole kickers, their accuracy, and corresponding national rank:
2009: Hopkins, 70.4%/67th nationally
2008: Gano, 92.3%/ 1st nationally
2007: Cismesia, 79.4%,33rd nationally
2006: Cismesia, 70%, 60th nationally
2005: Cismesia, 70.8%, 52nd nationally
2004: Beitia, 64%, 67th nationally
Hopkins averaged fewer attempts per game than Gano, while attempting one more field goal overall. Nevertheless, with 4 attempts in the Gator Bowl, Hopkins boosted his average to 2.1 attempts per game, which actually put him just inside the top ten in the country in attempts per game. This slight decline, however, does not appear to be statistically significant. While Hopkins was less accurate, he had the leg to kick long field goals, and FSU was not shy about letting him try.
All in all, Hopkins did an excellent job in his freshman season, and the future of the place kicking game is extremely bright.
Brief Detour: While these statistics are interesting, they obviously tell an incomplete picture and are for information purposes only. A kicker may have a stronger leg, which allows the coach to attempt field goals in more marginal situations, reducing his overall accuracy. A kicker may have several attempts in a game with unfavorable weather conditions, which could also distort his overall accuracy. So, as with any cross year measures of comparison using statistically invalid sample sizes, take these numbers with a healthy measure of skepticism.
Case in point, had Graham Gano's 2008 statistics been compiled in 2009, he would have dropped from 1st to 7th in national accuracy, with Steve Aponavicius of all people (a kid Boston College found a couple of years ago in the student section) missing just one field goal. However, "Sid Vicious" only had 14 attempts all season, and if he had more than 1 attempt from 40 yards or more, I'd be shocked.
Now that we've talked about the dangers of statistics abuse, back to the main article.
Did losing Gano cost FSU at least one game this season?
This part of the hypothesis speculated that based on sheer number of clutch kicks from Gano, the law of averages would create a game where FSU missed a field goal that may have been the difference between winning and losing. Obviously, one missed field goal over the course of the game does necessarily cost a team the game, but let's face it, missed field goals are some of the most obvious points a team can leave on the board, especially if the miss comes towards the end of the fourth quarter. Fairly or unfairly, kickers are easy to single out. With that in mind, we turn to the games themselves:
In the Miami game, Hopkins did just fine. He made two critical field goals, one of 52 yards and one from 45 yards. While he missed an extra point, FSU made those points up on a subsequent two point conversion.
Against USF, Hopkins missed a 44 yard field goal in the third quarter. FSU only managed a late touchdown the entire game, and lost 17-7. While a field goal would have been nice at that point in the game, it was receiver fumbles and a defense that made BJ Daniels look like Vince Young that cost FSU.
Against BC, Hopkins went 2-3, missing a 37 yarder in the fourth quarter that would have put the Noles up 24-21. Again, while the field goal would have been nice, it didn't break FSU. Even with a made field goal, assuming everything else played out, FSU still would have needed a touchdown on their final drive.
Against GT, Hopkins went 1-2, missing from 45 yards out. A make would have put FSU up 10 after the GT fumble. Ultimately, all other things being equal, FSU would have been going for two on their last drive to tie the game. While this game seems easy to extrapolate, since everyone scored on pretty much every possession, again, Hopkins gets a pass. In reality, FSU was only chasing these points after it failed to answer GT's subsequent touchdown and had to settle for a field goal, a kick which Hopkins made.
Anytime a team scores 44 points at home and loses, it seems pretty safe to say the problem isn't your field goal kicker. Nevertheless, even with one of the worst performances that anyone can remember from a Mickey Andrews defense, an automatic Gano might have been enough to at least force overtime. Then again, GT would have gotten the ball back with 4 minutes left after FSU's final touchdown, which would have been ample time to steamroll FSU's defense one last time and crack the 50 point mark.
Against Clemson, Hopkins missed a 58 yarder to close out the 1st half. I'm not even sure Gano would have made this one. Free pass. Even if he should have made it, Hopkins didn't give up 3 touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Against UF, Hopkins went 1 of 2, missing from 41 yards. No issues here.
Prediction B does not seem to have held up. Hopkins really wasn't put in any situations where he had to win the game at the end. In games where FSU had to come back, they almost universally needed a touchdown, and couldn't settle for a field goal to win or tie the game. Correspondingly, FSU had the offensive firepower to score touchdowns and come back in games, thus minimizing the perceived effect of any early game field goal misses.
Reflections on an Improved Scoring Offense with a Less Accurate Kicker (Note):
While most of us at TomahawkNation prefer more advanced metrics to judge offensive competency (which can be misleading), the predecessor to this article did speculate that FSU might be expected to score more points while having a less accurate kicker and similar offense. FSU averaged 33.5 ppg in ACC play, up from 27.9 in 2008. So Florida State did in fact score more with a less accurate kicker, and was less dependent upon the field goal than in 2008. For information purposes, here are the numbers for the last four seasons.
Florida State Scoring Offense- ACC Play Only
2006: 22.5 ppg (5th)
2007: 24.0 ppg (7th)
2008: 27.9 ppg (1st)
2009: 33.5 (technically 3rd, with GT & VT tied at 33.6).
However, it is doubtful that this increase in scoring had anything to do with the decision of whether to go on fourth down or kick the field goal, for several reasons:
1) FSU didn't have too many marginal fourth down situations this season. They were excellent in picking up third downs, converting at a 46.25%= clip, or 13th nationally, even after losing Ponder for the latter part of the season.
2) Scoring in the ACC was up this year, with several teams cracking the 30 point/game barrier.
Additional Observations on the Kicking Game:
1) The Big Hitter Effect:
Mostly because Gano was limited in his kickoff attempts at the beginning of the season, FSU managed only 11 touchbacks in all of 2008. Gano sent 24.32% of his kicks for touchbacks in 2008 (9 total), good for 21st in the country. This average would have been more than acceptable, except that Gano took less than half the kickoffs for the Noles last season. James Esco took 47 out of 87 attempts, managed just 2 touchbacks, averaging 59.54 yards per kick in the process.
On kickoffs, like golf, being a big hitter can be a huge advantage. In Golf, you might be able to drive a short par four, or reach a lengthy par 5 in 2 shots. In football, having a Bubba Watsonesque big hitter to handle kickoffs should theoretically help out your defense (and perhaps mask substandard kick coverage). Over at Advanced NFL Stats, they analyzed this issue using pro data and found that the expected value of a touch back is .8 Expected Points.
The basic idea is that from every yard line on the field, there is an expected point value for the average team whose offense possess the ball in a 1st and 10 down and distance. Finding that the average non-touchback starting field position as the 32 yard line, (with an expectancy of .9,) the writers at Advanced NFL Stats calculated the net worth of a touch back to be .8 expected points. Depending on the quality of your kick coverage team, this value would necessarily move up or down to some extent. Regardless, over the course of a game, multiple touchbacks can start to add up.
If you are more interested in this idea, I'd highly recommend you read the entire piece, titled, The Value of a Touchback.
Regrettably for Florida State, if we plotted a graph of opponent point expectancy by field position using the 2009 defenses statistics, the slope of the line would be far less gradual than the one shown above. In other words, teams scored from all over the field against FSU's defense, and the defense gave up an absurd amount of big plays. So the big hitter effect probably didn't manifest itself in the box score the way one might expect. It would probably look like the controversial hockey stick graph, if that graph were flipped upside down and the hockey stick were superimposed on the expected points graph.
While FSU will likely benefit from the big hitter effect as their defense returns to form (hopefully sooner rather than later), FSU squandered this advantage in 2009.
2) Punting Game:
Exemplified by his 1st half precision display in the Champs Sports Bowl, Graham Gano punted the football like it was a GPS guided JDAM. In 2008, Gano averaged 42.68 yards/attempt (he took about half the punts total, splitting time with Shawn Powell).
In 2009, Shawn Powell
assumed his role in the special teams pack as sole punter, and averaged 41.83 yards/attempt going into the Gator Bowl. Gano's average in 2008 would have put him in the top 22 or so punters that season, while Powell's average in 2009 would have put him in the top 50. However, neither Powell nor Gano had enough attempts/game to actually qualify.
In fact, Powell was 100th nationally in punt attempts per game prior to the bowl game. To be eligible, a punter must have played in a minimum of 75% of their team's games. Apparently, only 100 punters in Division 1 were eligible in 2009, making Powell last in a category that no coach would ever be upset about.
FSU allowed 8.63 yds/return in 2008, and 8 yds/return in 2009. Not a big difference. Then again, I don't believe that statistic speaks to whether or not a return was attempted.
Conclusion: While Gano certainly had his share of highlights in the punting game, Powell has shown himself to be a competent replacement.
Going into 2010, expect the kicking game to be a strength, not a weakness. Hopkins and Powell both appear to have risen to the challenge.
Readers, did FSU's special teams suffer from a post-Gano Hangover?
Vote in the poll, then post your thoughts in the comment section.