The Diff: Kickers, running efficiency and the AFC North

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about Chris Perez’s future in Cleveland, stealing off my colleague Jon. Now, I’m sharing some NFL stats as the season begins tonight.

The Diff

Billy Cundiff as a solid kicker

NFL kickers are a strange breed. In essence, it’s the most baseball-like situation in any non-baseball sport. The conceptual understanding that makes baseball so logical to analyze is that each at-bat is an isolated incident. Yes, fielding is an unknown at times and statistical evaluations are just starting to get off the ground in this light. But pitching and batting are mano-a-mano situations. Same with a kicker. It’s very isolated and easy to understand in the aggregate.

This week, the Browns officially signed retread veteran Billy Cundiff. Although he’s one of only three players to attempt a field goal for the team since they returned in 1999, overall, Cundiff wasn’t the most popular choice with Browns fans. Reporters ad nauseam pointed out his 1-for-11 mark in 50+ yard field goal tries since 2009. Or the fact he’s 33 year-old. Or his infamous miss in the 2012 playoffs with archrival Baltimore.

Unfortunately, those items don’t really tell the full story: Billy Cundiff has been a solid and slightly above average kicker in the most common kicking situations. Dating back to 2009 – the year Cundiff returned to the league after not playing for two seasons – only 12.8% of all field goal attempts have been of the 50+ yard variety. That statistic incorporates a whole ton of intriguing layers1.

From within 49 yards over the past four seasons, Cundiff is 78-for-90 (86.7%). Overall, the NFL accuracy is 86.1%. The average team has attempted 27 such field goals per season.

From exactly 40-49 yards, Cundiff is 20-for-24 (83.3%) and the NFL average is 75.3%. From exactly 30-39 yards, Cundiff is 26-for-34 (76.5%) and the NFL average is 87.1%. From within 29 yards, Cundiff is 32-for-32 (100%) and the NFL average is 96.4%.

So yes, whether you’d like to believe it or not, in the vast majority of field goal kicking ranges, Billy Cundiff is fairly adequate. His odd accuracy from the 30-39 yard range is certainly peculiar. But he’s 8% better from 40-49 yards and 4% better from within 29 yards. That lends some optimism to that one range just being a strange fluke.

One could point out Cundiff’s decreasing work load in 2012 and the fact his numbers weren’t as great then with the Washington Redskins. Those are fair points. It’s also fair to consider Football Outsider’s 2006 analysis about the variability of year-to-year kicking accuracy. But to call Billy Cundiff an awful kicker? That’s not fair based on all of aggregate data.

The Browns will know of Cundiff’s one glaring weakness (long field goals of 50+ yards) and will do what they can to make him most effective. Think of him as an average veteran who should certainly suffice for a one-year transition period. A possible baseball comparison might be Brett Myers. Oh wait, that’s not a great example, too soon. Sorry.


Trent Richardson’s efficiency

In our 2013 WFNY Browns predictions, a contentions topic was the final season stat line for second-year running back Trent Richardson. Will he be healthy for all 16 games? How many carries are we talking about with being Cleveland’s only listed running back with NFL experience? But, most importantly as it relates to the degree of his success, we also debated his expected efficiency.

It’s not news to share that Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick in 2012, averaged just 3.56 yards per carry in his rookie season. In the last five years among all running backs with at least 200+ carries, that yards per carry number ranked just 106/111.

Will Burge’s first article at BleacherReport yesterday shared some statistics from One of the items that stuck out to me was how the site had the Browns pass blocking ranked at 12th, yet the run blocking ranked at 25th. Thus, Richardson’s (lack of) success can’t be completely separate from this metric.

But, I felt it was still worthy of additional exploration to see how exactly the Alabama product reached this 3.56 mark on the season. I decided to dig into the rushing play logs of some of the top 14 workhorse running backs of 2012 to share their most common rushing outputs.

trent rush yards

The first three stats are pretty self-explanatory: attempts, yards and yards-per-carry. The one on the far right is Success Rate, a statistic created by the analysts at Football Outsiders to measure an efficiency of successful running plays based on down and distance. The players above are sorted by this intriguing metric.

Among these 14 running backs, Richardson stands out first in this fashion: He had by far the lowest rate of 10+ yard carries. While every other back on this list had nearly 10% or more of their carries travel this far, Richardson had only 5.2%. He had just 12 carries in the 10-19 yard category and only two of 20+ yards. Those are dishearteningly low numbers, especially compared to the Adrian Petersons of the world.

In a related discovery, Richardson also led these players with the highest percentage of 3-5 yard runs: 33.7%. When factoring in his relatively high percentage of runs failing to gain more than two yards (43.1%), that’s a gigantic proportion of the Cleveland star’s overall carries not going a sizable distance.

It’s tough to know for certain, with only one year of a sample, whether these numbers might continue into the future. For me, the most relevant debate might be over whether these are fluky 2012 numbers, set to bounce up closer to the NFL mean this season. But perhaps the Browns blocking just isn’t good enough to promote long runs or maybe Richardson isn’t crafty enough in the open field?

It’s pretty much a given that Richardson is on pace to receive well over 300 carries this season, assuming relative health. Whether he finishes with only 1,000 yards again or perhaps closer to 1,500 will be a matter of how he can improve these rates above, succeeding more often with each carry and pulling off a few more larger runs throughout the year.


Note: AFC North struggles

During the last 11 seasons, since the NFL implemented its new divisional structure, the Browns have failed to gain any traction and momentum from the opponents that make up 6/16ths of its regular season schedule.

Since 2002, the Browns are just 16-50 (.242). Only twice have they ever even finished at .500 (2007 and 2002) and only three more times did they manage to even hit the two-win mark (2012, 2004 and 2003).

Overall, the three other AFC North teams have a record of 117-101-2 (.537) outside of the division over the last 11 years. These teams aren’t just beating up on the Browns – as combined, they’re obviously 34 games above .500 in division play – but they’ve also been among the best in the AFC because of their consistent play throughout the season.

This year, many fans do expect the AFC North to start its downswing. The Ravens lost a historic number of defensive starters after their Super Bowl victory. The Steelers finished just 8-8 last season. Only the Bengals are considered to still be on the upswing.

The worst record for the AFC North in out-of-division play over the last nine seasons was 19-20-1 back in 2008. Will this be a year the AFC North falters below that mark again for the first time since 2003?

Say that the AFC North finishes the year with an 18-22 record against all other teams. Then, adding in the obvious 12-12 inter-division record – six times four – and you have just 30 wins to distribute among the four teams.

The point of this exercise was just to show how the divisional record stands out for the Browns over a long duration and what exactly the win distribution might look like for the division as it falls a bit on the NFL totem pole.

  1. Two such factors: The historical field goal accuracy toss-up from this distance anyway and the growing trend of NFL coaches to shy away from field goals. []

  • mgbode

    “From exactly 30-39 yards”

    uh oh, I feel Harv entering this thread.

  • mgbode

    Richardson – yes, the Browns OL run blocking is subpar especially compared to it’s pass blocking. but, the hope was that Richardson would run more like a Marshawn Lynch where he doesn’t need to be crafty in the open field but would run through/over those that got in his way. He did at times, but was too timid for much of the year (hopefully, the ribs, we’ll find out in a few days).

    AFCN – agreed. been harping on it for years. we need to win the divisional games to have any chance at being consistently good.

  • MrCleaveland

    Fewer 50+ FGs means either more punts or more going for it on 4th down. I’d like to believe the latter, but NFL coaches being as stiflingly conservative as they are, I’m afraid we’re just going to see Chud punt more.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Looking at those predictions for Richardson in the other thread leads me to believe many of those people didn’t look deeper into the numbers that they so much love. Either that or my “special” Chris Perez sponsored batch of Kool-Aid hit the spot!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    We’ll see on T-Rich he needs to be 100% to run the way so many expected. I just can’t see it. Therefore I don’t see the numbers that so many predict being realistic.

    As for the division, winning in your own division is basic to every professional sport. Unfortunately I don’t see the upcoming season being any different then the past for the Browns. They still lack the overall talent required to think they can beat divisional foes. I’m predicting 1-2 divisional wins this season.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I’m high on Richardson, but not because he’s healthy at the moment. I’m high on Richardson because I think the Browns have a competent offensive coordinator (finally) who has a history of coaching really successful running backs.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It should definitely help having an actual offensive mind as compared to last years dynamic duo of Childress/Shurmur. That being said Weeden will have to have some success to help Richardson otherwise I predict you’ll see a lot of 7-8 men in the box. Stop Richardson force Weeden and his unproven WR corps to beat you. Weeks 1 and 2 with no Gordon I’m expecting to see that a ton. Maybe Cameron will be the cure, I don’t know.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I think that’s true about loading the box… because of that, I’d be shocked if Travis Benjamin doesn’t torch the Dolphins for at least one big gain on Sunday. And I agree, I think you’ll see Cameron exploiting those seams where the safety has cheated up.

  • Natedawg86

    Childress/Shurmur otherwise known as Mr Noodles/Napoleon Dynamite

  • Vindictive_Pat

    For me, the only number that matters is Cundiff’s overall FG%, which is crummy. Yes, he will kick a lot more field goals under 50 yards than over 50 yards, but in the end you still have to count those field goals into the total, and what’s maybe more damning is the fact that if you miss them, you are giving the opposing team very good field position. The Browns may counteract this by either going for it on 4th down in those spots or punting, but in my opinion I’d rather have a guy who can hit a long field goal when you need it. I also think we should consider that a not-insignificant number of field goals come right before the end of either half where the alternative to kicking a long field goal is throwing a hail mary.

  • Natedawg86

    Watchout this year for the RB helmet penalties. The new rule says that the RB can’t dip his head? That will be interesting.
    Also, not related, but did you see that new rule in college where if the players helmet comes off, he has to stop or he gets 15 yd penalty? Happened last week to the Bucks.

  • MrCleaveland

    Harv’s busy pistol-whipping some guy who used the phrase “going forward” six times in five minutes.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I think the player has to sit out next play as well. The Ohio State player was Grant.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I just heard two interesting kicker statements on MS&LL:

    First, Cundiff is rated in advanced statistics #33 in the NFL behind Bogotay.

    Second, when the Browns had that so-called kicking contest earlier this week instead of having it at Browns Stadium they had it at Berea. Why? Because it was to windy at Browns Stadium!


  • Kildawg

    Bogotay was put on IR and Cundiff is his replacement. Disappointing, really. I wanted to see how well Bogotay would do; then again there’s always next year…

  • Natedawg86

    Yeah I don’t know about that rule. I guess buckle your helmet tighter but sometimes the force pops them off