By Mike Carlson
Cold, Hard Football Facts pole vaulter
 
It was a big year for Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team and is heading to Hawaii to kick for the AFC in the Pro Bowl this weekend.
 
Gostkowski is a good kicker who had a productive season. But was he the NFL's best? Was he even the AFC's best? The Cold, Hard Football Facts say no – as does my tried-and-true system to rank kickers: Carlson's Original Calibration for Kickers, Unscientific Program (or C.O.C.K.-U.P. ... for short).
 
The boring old NFL system
The NFL ranks kickers by field goal percentage. Gostkowski's 90 percent (36 of 40) led the AFC. So by the standard used by the NFL, his place at the Pro Bowl could be defended.
 
But was he a first team All-Pro, the best in the league?
 
Consider that over in the NFC, no fewer than five kickers bettered Gostkowski's field goal percentage, led by Detroit's Jason Hanson (95.5%), and including Atlanta's Jason Elam (93.6%), Pro Bowl-bound dinosaur John Carney (92.1) of the Giants, who was also named AP's second-team All-Pro behind Gostkowski, Dallas's Nick Folk (90.9), and Carolina's John Kasay (90.3).
 
So here's the list of the league's most accurate kickers, and Gostkowski's name isn't to be found.
 
Top 5 Kickers (by FG%)
Kicker
Team
Pct.
Jason Hanson
Detroit
95.5
Jason Elam
Atlanta
93.6
John Carney
NY Giants
92.1
Nick Folk
Dallas
90.9
John Kasay
Carolina
90.3
 
If it weren't accuracy, maybe the gross numbers impressed the AP's panel of voters. Here, Gostkowsksi led the league in scoring, with 148 points, edging out Philly's David Akers (144) and Carney (143).
 
So again you might argue the voters were choosing quality: the two Pro Bowl/All-Pro kickers were among the league's top three scorers.
 
But one of the things your basic troll understands, and the media who vote for the AP team may not, is that not all field goals are created equal, and neither are kickers.
 
To put the two points bluntly, accuracy doesn't mean that much if you're missing kicks you "should" make, and points don't mean much when kickers on teams with high-powered offenses pad their scoring totals with lots of extra points and chip-shot field goals deep inside the other team's territory.
 
Gostkowski kicked 40 PATs, Akers 45, Carney 38. Oddly enough, in Philly's goal-line challenged offense, Akers was the only kicker in the league who attempted two field goals inside the 20. But in contrast to these guys, the Greatest Barf on Turf in St. Louis provided Josh Brown with only 19 PAT conversions.
 
Pure genius and better way to measure kickers
Trying to balance these discrepancies between a kicker's skills and the number of opportunities his team affords him was why I devised the COCK-UP system. It provides a rule-of-thumb comparison for kicking efficiency. Simply put, it punishes kickers for short misses and rewards them for long makes.
 
The formula is simple:
  • Inside the 40, a successful kick counts for one point and a miss counts for minus three points.
  • From 40-49, it's two points for a successful kick and minus two for a Scott Norwood.
  • And from the 50 and beyond, you get three points for a successful kick and lose one point if you do an imitation of Mike Vanderjagt in the playoffs.
Yes the distances are arbitrary, but that's the way the stats correlate them, and when you think about it, the scoring corresponds, more or less, with expectations of players, coaches, and fans.
 
So what does COCK-UP say? Amazingly enough, the league's highest COCK-UP score belongs to Brown in St. Louis, who racked up 45 points, including 6 of 8 beyond 50.
 
In the AFC, Tennessee's Rob Bironas scored 38 points, just one better than Gostkowski's 37 (Gostkowski was hurt by having missed two of the amazing 28 figgies he attempted inside the 40, a sign that New England's offense wasn't always firing on all cylinders in 2008.)
 
Top 5 Kickers (by COCK-UP)
Kicker
Team
Points
Josh Brown
St. Louis
45
Jason Hanson
Detroit
40
Rob Bironas
Tennessee
38
Jason Elam
Atlanta
37
Stephen Gostkowski
New England
37
John Kasay
Carolina
37
 
Taking my genius one step further
OK, you argue, fair enough for the AFC. But surely Brown's score (five points better than NFC runner-up Hanson) was a result of the lack of touchdowns in St. Louis: Brown was called on to kick long field goals more often than other players.
 
And I would say yes ... to a point.
 
To a point, until we turn to COCK-UP Per Attempt, or COCK-UPPA. It creates a level playing field for all kickers, whether on good teams or bad, by dividing the number of COCK-UP points by the number of field goal attempts.
 
Most years, a score around 1.10 to 1.15 will be enough to top the league, and anything around the 1.00 level indicates a fine season (as you get below .90 you start to see flaws jump out at you).
 
And the winner by this measure is Hanson of the 0-16 Lions. He registered his 40 COCK-UP points on just 22 attempts, making his COCK-UPPA a phenomenal 1.82.
 
It's by far the highest score any kicker has received since I had the wisdom and spark of creative genius to create the COCK-UP system a few years ago.  
 
Hanson was helped by going a perfect 8 for 8 from beyond 50, exactly what an offensively challenged team like the Lions would need (in fairness, the Lions were defensively challenged too).
 
So why no love for Hanson from the Pro Bowl voters? Is it because he kicked for a lousy team, or that he attempted only 22 kicks (the fewest, with Folk, of all regular kickers)?
 
I can't say.
 
But if we eliminate Hanson and Folk, whose 1.32 COCK-UPPA score was second, we then come to St. Louis's  Brown, at 1.25 (45 points off 36 kicks). Still well above an average year's best, and way ahead of second-team All-Pro Carney's score of 0.92, which ranks the Giants kicker a mere 10th in the NFC.
 
Over in the AFC, the clear winner is Bironas, with 38 points off 33 kicks, for a 1.15 COCK-UPPA.
 
Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed, at 1.00, was the only other kicker in the AFC at 1.0 or better. All-Pro Gostkowski's score of 0.93 ranked sixth in the AFC.
 
Top 5 Kickers (by COCK-UPPA)
Kicker
Team
Points PA
Jason Hanson
Detroit
1.82
Nick Folk
Dallas
1.32
Josh Brown
St. Louis
1.25
Jason Elam
Atlanta
1.19
John Kasey
Carolina
1.19
 
Other factors
Again, not all kicks are equal. When scores are close in this system, you can look at marginal factors, such as "clutch" kicking or weather conditions: Gostkowski and Carney both kick in extremely tough conditions; kickers in Denver get extra distance; kickers in domes don't have to battle wind, rain, or snow.
 
Sadly, neither of those factors is measurable with a reliable statistic. But a third tie-breaker, kickoff distance, is measurable. For example, it would be hard to send a kicker like Kasay, who doesn't handle kickoffs, to the Pro Bowl over a relatively equal kicker who does.
 
But again, the award-winning kickers aren't helped by the stats. The best distance on kickoffs belonged to Brown (68.1 yards) in St. Louis, followed by Carolina's Rhys Lloyd (67.8), who's booming kicks are the reason Kasay doesn't kick off for the Panthers. Bironas (67.2) was third in kickoff distance. League-leader Brown, remember, kicks in a dome. Hanson was fifth (among regular kickers) with 65.9.
 
Top 5 Kickers (by kickoff distance)
Kicker
Team
Distance
Josh Brown
St. Louis
68.1
Rhys Lloyd
Carolina
67.8
Rob Bironas
Tennessee
67.2
Olindo Mare
Seattle
66.6
Jason Hanson
Detroit
65.9
* Atlanta's Michael Koenen averaged 66.9 YPK this year, but a primary punter, we've excluded him from this discussion of kickers.
 
Touchbacks are also a fairly useful measure of kickoff effectiveness, and Lloyd led the league in this category, with a touchback on 34.1 percent of kickoffs. The rest of the top five included Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski (32.8%), Mare (31.0%), Bironas (25.9%) and Denver's Matt Prater (22.9%).
 
And where do our Pro Bowlers stand?
  • Gostkowski averaged 64.0 yards per kick (22nd) and produced  touchbacks on 17.9 percent of his kickoffs (11th).
  • Carney's average distance (60.4 yards) was the second-worst in the NFL (behind KC's Connor Barth) and produced only three touchbacks on 79 kickoffs (3.8%) all season.
So it's as clear to me as it was to those two identical bar-maids who refused to serve me one last Jameson's at 3 o'clock this morning: the Cold, Hard Football Facts of COCK-UPPA say the wrong guys made the All-Pro team and will be kicking in the Pro Bowl on Sunday. Instead, Jason Hanson and Rob Bironas were the best all-around kickers from each conference this season and deserve to be on the plane for Hawaii.
 
As for the Associated Press, their All-Pro voters apparently have something else uppa somewhere else.