How Does Matt Stover Measure Up?

Street Talk How Does Matt Stover Measure Up?

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About a week ago, the official Baltimore Ravens site released their full list of the Top 50 Ravens of all time. The article listed Matt Stover at #4 overall, which among some Ravens fans seems to be a controversial ranking.

The ranking triggered a somewhat heated discussion between me and another fan about how good Stover was in comparison to other kickers. This, to me, is a more interesting question than where Stover ranks on the all time Ravens list. An argument over the value of a great kicker compared to a great starting position player could be endless.

So I set out to rate Stover in relation to his peers, in response to hearing him called “overrated” and “not much better than an average kicker.” These two statements caused me to react sharply, as I believe Stover is one of the best kickers ever to play the game.

And so I set out to look at Stover from a pure statistical perspective to get an idea of how good he really was in comparison with the rest of the NFL kickers. I grabbed 30 years of kicker data from Pro Football Reference to evaluate this question. I looked at four major categories, and will cover each below.

Field Goal Percentage

Take the total # of FG made divided by total # of attempts and you get “FG%”. Stover sits at 83.66%, good enough for eighth on the all time list. Interestingly, if you look at the top 25 kickers on this list, all but three of them are active. The three that aren’t all played as recently as 2007. Clearly there’s some sort of “recency” bias that should be accounted for. How good is Stover in comparison with the kickers he’s playing with and against?

I looked at the full set of NFL kicking data for both the whole of Stover’s career, and the years ’01-’09. The latter is a bit of an arbitrary data set, but it was brought up in discussion so I looked at it just the same. The data are as follows:

Category 
All Kickers 
Stover
Last Decade
6,872 for 8,527 (80.6%)
234 for 270 (86.7%)
Full Stover Career
19,943 for 25,993 (76.7%)
471 for 563 (83.7%)
Over his career, Stover is seven points better than the league average, and six points better over the final nine years of his career. Fairly impressive numbers, but how do they stack up to other players above him?
I didn’t spend significant time evaluating everyone against their peers – only their careers. However, using the league-wide data for Stover’s final nine years, we get a decent proxy. For instance, the top guy on the all time FG% list is Nate Kaeding, an 86.5% kicker from ’04-’10 (kickers in ’10 made over 82%). Stover’s ’01-’09 is better. Shayne Graham, #3 on the list, is 86.0% from ’01-’10. In fact, if you run down the list of kickers in front of Stover on the list, all but #2 – “idiot kicker” Mike Vanderjagt – started their career in ’01 or after. And Vanderjagt started his in ’98. Given Stover’s 86.7% accuracy in this time, there’s an easy argument to be made that Vanderjagt is the only one that stacks up to him.
One of the criticisms Stover faces is his short leg, and how he had accuracy issues from 40+ in the final years of his career. I’ll address this later.
Field Goals Made
Stover sits at #4 on this list, unlikely to be passed by many if any over the next few years. At some point as offenses continue to move the ball more efficiently and attempts go up, with the increased accuracy we see in the game, he will be passed. But compared to his peers, he more than holds his own.
To compare him with his peers, I considered all kickers who attempted more than 15 kicks in a season. An arbitrary number, but about one boot per game should be good enough to indicate who were the primary starters over the course of a season. These kickers averaged 22.0 FG made per season, compared to Stover’s 25.7 FG made for all but his final season (where he didn’t record 15 attempts). Stover averaged nearly 17% more FG made than the “average” NFL starting kicker.
Purely for perspective, I looked at the top 25 QBs in passing attempts in 2010. This gives us QBs with > 350 attempts on the season. Take their average completion, attempts, yards, TDs and INTs. The stats for this “average passer” look like these:
306/492 (62.1% comp) … 3,546 yds … 23 TDs … 13 INT
I then inflated the critical numbers – completions, yards and TDs – by the 16.8% that Stover’s been above average in FG made for his career. The stats now look like these:
357/492 (72.5% comp) … 4,141 yds … 27 TDs … 13 INT
Aaron Rodgers is the closest comparison. For 18 of his 19 years, was Stover the Aaron Rodgers of kickers? It’s debatable, but a case can be made.
Longevity
An argument has been made that it’s difficult to evaluate the value of Stover’s 19 season tenure, since kickers and punters tend to last longer than other position players. This article states the following:
“Punters, kickers and long snappers are more likely to have the longest careers in the NFL. … Four of five players with the greatest longevity (>18 yr) were punters or kickers (the other, a rare quarterback).”
While not surprising kickers have the longest careers due to lack of impact on players at their positions, what we don’t see is a lot of difference in the average tenure of the kicker vs. the average tenure of all NFL players. This article, using NFLPA data, shows the average career length of a kicker is 4.9 years vs. 3.3 years for all NFL players.
Stover isn’t the most seasoned to played the position. There are three kickers who have 20+ years – Morten Anderson, Gary Anderson and John Carney. John Kasay is poised to pass him this year, and Jason Hanson to tie him. But only Adam Vinatieri remains as a recent threat to Stover’s 19 seasons. Others may pass him at some point, but it’s far too early to say they will.
And Stover’s performance held up very well over 18 of his 19 years. The 19th year was also not bad. Playing spot-duty for a Colts team with a hurt Vinatieri that punched the ball in the end zone most of the time, he made nine of his eleven kicks.
Outside the Forty
Two of Stover’s biggest criticisms have been that he doesn’t have the leg to kick from 40+ yards and that he faded badly in this category toward the end of his career. However, the numbers refute the argument that he doesn’t have a good leg outside the 40, and the dip toward the end of his career was driven by the final two years in Baltimore.
Across Stover’s career, using the same 15 attempt criteria, all NFL kickers – from 40+ yards out – were on average making 6.97 FG in their 10.92 att. per season (63.8%). Stover averaged 7.72 FG per 11.67 att (66.2%). He’s clearly better than the league average in all measures here.
I then plotted Stover’s FG attempts and FG% from 40+ through his years (lopping off his Indy tenure, where he didn’t have 15 att.), and added a trend-line for both. One should expect the trend lines to dip, or at least have no slope if he truly was getting worse. Instead, the trend lines slope up, showing that not only were the Ravens trusting him to kick from 40+, he was also validating that trust for all but the final two years of his time in Baltimore. For 16 years, Stover was both trusted to kick from 40+, and was getting the job done at that distance.
Conclusion
Overall, I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be made that Stover is either “overrated,” or “not much better than an average kicker.” The numbers all argue he is significantly better than average, and clearly deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time best at his position. Whether he belongs at #4 on the all time Ravens list could be an interesting debate. But where he belongs in relation to his FG kicking peers does not appear to be a controversial topic.

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Chris Berney

About Chris Berney

Chris is a Richmond resident with strong family ties to the Baltimore area.  As an analyst by trade, he focuses on statistics and trends to tell the story.  He writes columns for 24x7, is a regular contributor on 24x7’s Ravens board as psuasskicker, and blogs at oblongspheroid.com. Chris grew up watching Orioles and Colts games, and has been a football fan since elementary school.  He’s a Ravens season ticket holder and gets to as many games as he can – no easy chore with a young family and living three hours away.  He participates in several fantasy football leagues, and is studying sports betting and in particular football betting strategies.  He looks forward to some day working in football, as an analyst, writer, or in some other fashion. More from Chris Berney

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