Fooled by Randomness in the Punting Game?

For my guest post at Big Cat Country I looked at whether it made any sense to take a punter in the third round of the NFL draft.  Go check out that post if you’re interested in punters at all.  In the comments of that post a number of people suggested that I had ignored the value that a punter might have in pinning the other team deep in it’s own territory.

I thought I would look at that issue.  First I had to create a formula to figure out whether a punt should or should not be a touchback.  I used results from 2000-2010 to create this graph that breaks down punts by likelihood of becoming a touchback, depending on field position.

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I can then use the formula from that graph to analyze actual punts and see whether punters have repeatable ability to avoid touchbacks (when controlled for field position).  When I do that, I am basically calculating Expected Touchbacks vs. Actual Touchbacks.  Doing that, I get the following graph.

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The trend line explains about 60% of the variance in touchback results, which is to say that field position explains about 60% of the variance in touchback results.  But that’s not 100% either.  So is the actual punter responsible for causing or preventing the touchbacks that can’t be explained by field position, or is it randomness at play?

It’s probably randomness.  The graph below shows an X, Y scatter where prior ability to prevent touchbacks is the independent variable.  It doesn’t have any explanatory power over future ability to prevent touchbacks.  Just because a punter may have had less touchbacks than you would expect based on field position in the past, doesn’t mean that will continue.

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This is something of a “fooled by randomness” issue.  Sometimes it’s easy to mistake randomness for skill.  Some might remember the performance of San Diego punter Mike Scifres in the 2009 playoffs.  Scifres was lauded for his performance against the Colts.  Below is an account from the game:

Scifres, passed over again this year in Pro Bowl voting, booted the ball six times last night for a 51.7 net average – an NFL playoff record for a punter with five or more punts. All six were downed inside the 20-yard line, also an NFL playoff record. Five times Scifres pinned the Colts inside 11 yards, and Indy had 6 yards in returns. Scifres had one booming drive of 67 yards.

But over his career, Scifres has about as many touchbacks as you would expect, based on field position.  Over the long term he hasn’t shown any increased ability to pin the other team deep and avoid touchbacks.  I have Scifres calculated for 44.05 “Expected Touchbacks” and he has 44 “Actual Touchbacks”.  The skill he showed in the playoff game against the Colts may have just been randomness.

In all of this analysis, I only found one punter whose results looked like they deviated from expectation significantly.  That was Shane Lechler, who causes touchbacks a lot more often than should be expected.  Based on field position you would expect that he would have caused about 75 touchbacks in his career.  He’s actually caused 129.  The interesting thing is that Lechler is really bad at that part of the game and yet he’s the highest paid punter in the league.

  • TheReddestMeat

    Shane Lechler can punt touchbacks from further than other punters. Field position is relative to leg strength.

    • FantasyDouche

      Sure, but a lot of punters could punt touchbacks from the 50 also. But they’re throttling their punts so they don’t do it. Lechler seems not to throttle his punts at all. Like he seems unaware that his longer kicks might result in touchbacks. He should take something off those punts.