The goal of this post is simple: answer the question posed above. Do kickers just "lose it" forever? With Pro-Football-Reference.com's season finder, kickers were sorted by the number of seasons they had a field goal percentage over 85%. That percentage was chosen arbitrarily. It would have split the NFL's 2012 kickers into a near equal division of 16 in the top half and 17 in the lower half. While being placed in the top half might not seem like much of an accomplishment, being repeatedly in that top half is most certainly one - as you will see in the data below. Without further ado here is the long list of kickers to have multiple seasons of over 85% field goal kicking since 2000. Their name is linked to their PFR.com page. Here is the initial link to the list. Now we'll see how many kickers just 'hit a wall' and never recovered.
Super Sixes - Kickers with 6 Seasons of >85% FGM
Phil Dawson - While Cleveland has struggled since re-joining the league, the same cannot be said for long-time kicker Phil Dawson. This most recent season he hit 93.5% of his field goals, including 7/7 beyond 50 yards (at the age of 37!). At this point he has not had a huge drop-off in production, though it is interesting to note that in 2011 and 2010 his ~82% accuracy was a large decrease from the year before.
Jason Elam - The former Denver Bronco was known as one of the game's top kickers for most of the early decade and his stats back it up. In his last year (as a Falcon) he only connected on 63.2% of his kicks, a huge drop from the 93.5% the year before. He did only play in 11 games his last season and part of his inaccuracies may have resulted from some nagging injury woes. Regardless, his production did drop his final season.
Rian Lindell - Lindell probably doesn't get the praise he deserves playing in Buffalo but he's been a consistent kicker for them the past ten years. His last two years the trusty vet has held steady at 86% and 87%. Worth noting again though is that his average plummeted in 2010 (76%).
Ryan Longwell - The wheels fell off for Longwell in his last season as a Viking, hitting only 78.6% of his attempts. Apart from that season though Longwell was remarkably consistent as both a Packer and Viking. Over his long 15 year career he did post two seasons where he made only 65% and 74%. Those were not the norm though and in Longwell's case it does look like he experienced a steep drop his last season in the league.
Matt Stover - Stover was fairly erratic as a Cleveland Brown but much better as a Baltimore Raven. In fact looking at his numbers it's easy to see that he came very close to being far atop this list, coming very close to the 85% threshold to have PFR count the season. He 81.8% of his attempts each of his last two years and almost 85% the year prior to those. From those numbers it doesn't look like Stover had a huge drop off in production, though his final season he did only play in 10 games.
Fearsome Fives - Kickers with 5 Seasons of >85% FGM
Jay Feely - With an 89.3% accuracy rate in 2012 Feely is still going strong after a 12-year, five-team career. Surprisingly his 2011 numbers weren't very good (79%). That was his lowest average since 2004. Still this is an open-and-shut case, as Feely has certainly not suffered a decline that he hasn't recovered from.
Robbie Gould - After a sub-par rookie season Gould has seen his named mentioned as one of the game's premier kickers ever since. This is another easy one. Still in the midst of what is becoming a very successful career, Gould has remained a consistent kicker.
Shayne Graham - Finally we come to a kicker that seems to have hit a bit of a drop-off in his career. He connected on 81.6% of his attempts as a Texan this season. Looking closely at his numbers, we see the number is dragged down by several misses from 50+. One of the problems with Graham, and one we will likely see more as we continue down the list, is that since his career is not over it's hard to tell if his decrease in production is merely a blip or a long-term issue. Stay tuned for more on that below.
Jason Hanson - He is 42. And still hit 88.9% of his attempts. In his illustrious career he has experienced some poor seasons (including one that saw his percentage fall from 95 to 75) but he rebounded from those.
Sebastian Janikowski - Seabass continues to play at a high level for the Raiders, finishing with the sixth-best number this past season. Interestingly enough the well-known kicker experienced a three year drought in terms of performance from 2005-2007 but he has increased his play as he's aged.
John Kasay - Kasay is one of the few on this list no longer active in the league. In 2011 he made 82.4% of his kicks, down four percent the year before. It's hard to know if that would have been the start of a downward trend, but this will go into the books as a drop-off.
Adam Vinatieri - With only a 78.8% rate in 2012 it does indeed look like Vinatieri is on the downslope of his career. We'll see if he rebounds this season but for now it goes down as a decline. (It'll get sorted better down below).
Fantastic Fours - Kickers with 4 Seasons of >85% FGM
*Rob Bironas is in this category, but he will get his own segment later in the post.
John Carney - It's hard to make sense of Carney's career. His career spans three different decades and the numbers don't seem to follow much of a pattern. In 2009 he hit only 76.5% of his attempts but one year later, in his final season, he made 83.5% of his kicks - on only six attempts though. Going back a little further in his career, he made 92.5%. Due to the erratic nature of Carney's season-by-season totals it doesn't look like he experienced a decline, though you can disagree.
Nate Kaeding - This might be the best example of a kicker who just lost his touch. In Kaeding's career he was a great kicker for a fiver year stretch, only to drop from 91.4% to 82.1% and then to 80%. Mark this one down as a sharp decline.
Olindo Mare - As we move down the list the numbers and trends are a lot more messy, and that is evident here with Mare as well. In sixteen seasons half of them resulted in sub-80% accuracy. Consider that Bironas, with an 80% rate this season, was amongst the worst kickers in the league statistically and it's easy to see where Mare would have fallen on the list each season. This will get marked down as a sharp decline only because he posted several strong seasons before faltering at the end of his career.
Joe Nedney - A familiar name to Titans fans, Nedney finished off his career with an 84.6% season for the Niners. No decline for Nedney, though another case with a blip (or two) over his tenure.
Neil Rackers - There was no sharp decline for Rackers either but he did have a rough patch with Arizona in the middle of his career.
Jeff Reed - A consistent veteran for the Steelers, Reed's game crashed halfway through his 2010 season, costing him his job. His numbers for San Francisco the rest of the way were strong, but Reed could never rebound after that.
Jeff Wilkins - This is another career that's hard to figure out. Wilkins' playing time ended with a 75% season but he also posted several sub-80% seasons along the way. It'll go down as a decline since the back half of his career was very strong.
Terrific Threes - Kickers with 3 Seasons of >85% FGM
David Akers - Outstanding in Philadelphia, Akers is another example of a kicker who just "lost it." Posting a putrid 69% rate for the Niners last season, a sharp nose-dive in play seems likely. He did also have some dips in play through his career.
Matt Bryant - Bryant is still an extremely reliable kicker for Atlanta, posting outstanding numbers there with the exception of an injury shortened season. As we get to the bottom of the list we're seeing more kickers with a season (or several) or poor results over their career. Bryant is another example of this.
Mike Vanderjagt - His career just fell off the rails.
There are several kickers with 2 seasons >85% but I stopped here since the numbers are becoming more and more muddy. The players remaining on the list would be even harder to figure out.
This was too long. What have we learned?
Well at first glance, not a heck of a lot. Twenty-two kickers were looked at, and exactly half of them remained consistent throughout their career. The other 11 experienced what was considered a sharp drop-off.
Still if we dig a little deeper we notice a few other things.
At least 20 of the 22 kickers had a down year (or several) during their lengthy careers that was not up to the level of play. The exceptions? Matt Stover who struggled during the early part of his career only to be very solid for the later half of it, and Nate Kaeding, who had a stretch of strong years followed by several poor ones.
What this indicates is that "blip seasons" are normal for kickers. Consider that the names on this list are the most consistent kickers to play football since the turn of the millennium and yet even they have posted rough seasons in the midst of extremely successful careers.
While the perfectly even split of kickers who had sharp declines compared to those who didn't seems frustratingly inconclusive, we have to go a little further and separate them a little more.
One of the "drop-offs" was Jason Elam, who fought injuries his last season. When healthy he repeatedly proved that he was one of, if not the best, kicker in the game.
Two kickers, Shayne Graham and John Kasay remained accurate from close range but had their percentage drop from 50+ yard attempts.
That leaves Longwell, Vinatieri, Kaeding, Mare, Wilkins, Akers, Reed and Vanderjagt as the kickers who experienced sharp declines (that's eight).
Vinatieri, Kaeding and Akers are still playing. In the case of Kaeding and Akers, it seems unlikely but not impossible to rebound and skew these stats a little more. Vinatieri has at least a decent chance of rebounding, which again would alter the totals. If we eliminate the currently active players, that leaves five players right now that we can classify as players who "just lost their game." (Admittedly I am 'playing' more with the stats now).
Okay, can we get to Rob Bironas please?
First things first: Rob Bironas from 2007 to 2011 was one of the best kickers in the NFL. He narrowly missed the 85% cut-off in 2009 (84.4%) which would have vaulted him to the higher tier.
Looking at his totals, it's easy to see the noticeable drop in 2012. He went from repeated seasons of >90% to 80.6%. Looking at the yardage breakdown, what clearly hurt the numbers were the misses from 40-49 yards. Robbie B was only 5/10 in that section and certainly would have to get better at that distance again if he wants to stay here through his two-year deal.
From the above sample of kickers, two (Akers and Reed) struggled from that 40+ distance. While that may not bode well for Bironas' future, one only has to look at his 2011 season to see if he has the leg to do it (6/7 from 50+).
What appears likely (from both Bironas' numbers and the other 22) is that kickers are attempting such a small number of field goals each season that 1-3 additional misses greatly drops their average. This means that to be certain a kicker has hit that career-ending wall, we must have as much information on them as possible. Essentially, you need to keep playing Bironas.
Last year Bironas got a new snapper and battled injuries - injuries he is still battling right now in camp. That's a wild card in this situation. If he's lost his health, all bets are off. Right now though considering all these factors (snapper, injuries, distance of misses) it is too hard to know whether Bironas will rebound. With someone as consistent as Bironas the Titans are going to have to take the gamble that 2012 was a blip on the radar and Bironas will be back to form this season.
A little note here. You will notice that I haven't defined the rules for measuring whether a kicker hit a "drop-off" or a "blip." When looking at the numbers it was near-impossible to set boundaries that would help separate the data neatly. For that reason, this post is highly subjective, though I have tried my best to remain as consistent in the evaluation as possible. For the most part I just had to trust that I would be able to see the difference. One of the reasons this post was so lengthy is that I tried to express as much as what was going through my head at the time so that you could see my rationale. If some of the totals at the end are confusing, it's likely because I didn't do a good enough job of explaining things about. You don't have to take my word at face value though - every single link I used to make this post is included. I would encourage all of you to click through the individual kickers links and draw your own conclusions if you so choose. To me, their variances were extremely surprising. Hopefully you have enjoyed the post, despite it's shortcomings.