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Icing the kicker

Does the tactic started by Mike Shanahan in 2007 actually work? Many head coaches apparently think so, but the answer lies in the numbers.

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Why even ice a kicker?

By Stephen J. Dubner

Icing the kicker: Even casual football fans have come to expect that when a game is on the line and the kicker is brought out to try a crucial field goal, the opposing coach might call a timeout just as the kicker approaches the ball.

Makes sense, doesn't it? The coach can "ice" the kicker -- mess with his mind, throw off his routine, make him stand around like an awkward guy at a cocktail party for all the world to see.

But does it work?

The short answer: No. In their book Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim marshal the most compelling evidence to date on the subject, analyzing "pressure" kicks from 2001 through 2009 while controlling for distance of the field-goal attempt. They found that icing the kicker certainly doesn't produce the desired effect, and in some cases might even backfire. The one situation in which icing might confer a slim advantage: When there are fewer than 15 seconds left in the game. Here's their data:

Field goal success whether opponent calls a timeout or not
(Percentage of kicks made)
Situation
All kicks
Iced
Not iced
Less than two minuntes left in fourth quarter or OT 76.2% 74.2% 77.6%
Less than one minunte left in fourth quarter or OT 75.5% 74.3% 76.4%
Less than 30 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT 76.5% 76.0% 76.9%
Less than 15 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT 76.4% 77.5% 75.4%

Moskowitz and Wertheim also looked for the icing effect in "pressure" free throws in NBA games, and similarly found that icing made no difference. Interestingly, NBA players make about 76 percent of their "pressure" foul shots -- the same percentage as pressure field goals in the NFL.

So if icing doesn't really work, why do we still see so much of it?

Here are a few theories. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

» It has become tradition -- and, as Tevye taught us, tradition doesn't get broken easily.

» Coaches are a generally risk-averse group, and find it's easier to parrot an accepted strategy -- even if it's worthless -- than explain why they deviated from accepted tradition.

» Even in the NFL, where coaches arguably have more influence on their teams than other sports, they don't really get to do all that much during a game. Running up to the sideline official at the crucial point in a game and frantically making a T with your hands is an acceptable and laudable form of intervention. Good TV, too.

» Since it's been around for a while now, the novelty effect of icing has worn off; while it may have messed with the minds of the first few kickers it was tried on, once the surprise element has worn off, it no longer harms the kicker and perhaps even helps by giving him more time to set up, assess the wind, etc.

» Icing confirms how the football universe views the kicker -- as a lesser being, not a real athlete, a man (barely!) whose fragile psyche is susceptible to bruising. Think about it: When's the last time you saw a coach try to ice an opposing quarterback?

Coming up next on Football Freakonomics

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Coming Wednesday, Nov. 16