One of the most accomplished placekickers in the NFL had a bad day on Sunday, and what was the most remarkable thing about it was how surprised everyone was. Gould has been having a bad year when it comes to field goals, and his kickoff ability has inspired a truly poetic fanpost. However, the intent of this article is not to pile on Robbie. He wears navy and orange, he does what the team asks of him, and by all accounts he is a fantastic teammate.
The intent of this article is instead to take a second to reflect on how little we, the fans, take advantage of what can be known about the NFL. For example, even though we might be cynical of television broadcasts and talking heads in general, we tend to grant too much weight to the wrong numbers, essentially buying into what the network graphics people tell us is important. When we hear about a kicker’s accuracy (e.g. prior to Sunday’s game, Gould was the fifth-most reliable active kicker in the NFL, placing it through the uprights just a hair under 86% of the time), we act like this is meaningful.
In fact, even ‘reliable’ kickers aren’t all that reliable, and this is not new information. One thing to keep in mind when considering any given kicker is that most of the time, for most of those kicks, just about any placekicker in the NFL is going to deliver. It is possible to figure out who does better and who does worse than the average kicker, and then to evaluate a given kicker’s performance. When this is done, Robbie Gould’s performance in 2014 placed him 34th in the NFL, which sounds a lot worse than saying he had a 75% kicking percentage. However, even this is an incomplete view, because it has us focusing on the dramatic moments (the winning or losing kick) and not on the moments that slowly add up over time.
Robbie "Good as" Gould missed an easy kick, and it is very possible that alternate kickers will be brought in. Gould might not even be a Bear next year. Still, if we’re surprised that his performance regresses back toward the mean on a December day with a new long-snapper, then we’re not looking at all of the information available to us. If "Any Given Sunday" means that the Eagles can beat the Patriots, it can also mean #9 whiffs on a pair of easy shots.
Gould’s recent struggles remind us to dig a little deeper. If Gould is replaced, it should not be because of Sunday. Chicago is 26th in the NFL in touchback percentage, after being 28th and 21st in the prior two seasons. The Bears haven't broken the 50% mark since 2012 (by comparison, over 20 teams are above 50% this season alone). It's the little things that add up, and giving away field position is really hurting the Bears (just like false starts, return mishaps, and all the rest). This is one of the reasons that Football Outsiders' DVOA places the Chicago's Special Teams as 31st in the NFL.
If a change needs to be made, let's hope the change is made for reasons that make sense in the long run, not due to one heartbreaking game.