A fake and a miss, a six point swing makes all the difference
Much has been made about Pete Carroll’s decision to attempt a fake field goal at the end of the first half instead of taking a shot at the field goal which, depending on kick placement, would’ve been a 35-36 yard field goal attempt for Blair Walsh had the Seattle Seahawks decided to kick it.
Over the course of his career, Walsh has made 86.7% of field goals in the 30-39 yard bracket and is six of eight on the year from the same distance. So, looking at his yearly and career rates, the field goal was anywhere from 75% to just under 87%; not guaranteed, but certainly a high percentage.
Kicking it to end the half means we don’t need to evaluate expected points on the kickoff leading us to a lower bound on expected value of 2.25 points. But, you cannot simply tack on those 3 points and assume all else is equal in the game. Atlanta plays their last drive very differently if they are tied rather than trying to hold a narrow lead. It’s easy to say “if x happens we don’t lose” but most of the time it’s wrong and reductionist.
I don’t need to tell you this loss was frustrating, that much is obvious. There were a lot of things that went right last night on Monday Night Football, but quite a few that didn’t. Imagine, if you will, that you’re in Atlanta on holiday to visit your future in-laws. You’re at a sports bar after your plane lands right before halftime. You see Seattle driving the field not once, but twice. You start thinking that Russell Wilson magic is going to happen again. Walsh lines up for a 52 yard attempt, his first attempt from beyond 50 all season, the kick is up, it looks centered, the sky-cam perspective makes you think it went in.
But of course as the referees signal no good the mass of Falcons fans around you erupt in cheers that mean your team, and the kicker you write about every week, have lost. So, my Monday night was less than ideal. Shout out to the good people of Atlanta and Stats sports bar though, you all were gracious hosts to me and my Seahawks jersey wearing family.
Let’s air some grievances, this was the first game all year in which Seattle lost where Jon Ryan punted fewer than 6 times. This was a game where Walsh made kick after kick despite the wet turf, despite the dropping temp. Up until the last kick, everything seemed to go well for him. His long of the game, 46 yards, looked like it was good for another 10 yards if need be. In previous articles I have been waiting loudly for weeks for the team to finally get an attempt outside of 50 yards, and from all of Walsh’s kick history the end of the game kick seemed like a legitimate try. It’s hard to imagine the exact reasoning for why the kick fell short for any other reason than 52 yard attempts just aren’t a guarantee. But let’s look at the factors, other than the unknowable workings of Walsh’s mind or physical state, that contributed to the final kick.
According to Brian Burke here, a 52 yard attempt, noted by scrimmage line of 34 on the x-axis of his chart, a kick at 43 degrees from the 34 yard line is going to be good around 55% of the time, slightly better than an unbiased coin flip. In general, for every 10 degrees you drop, you lose about a yard of kicking distance. This is obviously averaged over all stadiums, so it will vary from location to location on its total impact. But while temperature is the single biggest factor in weather affecting a kick, it is not the only one.
With a elevation of 16 feet above sea level, Century Link stadium is one of the lowest in the NFL. Which, by itself isn’t a deal breaker. However, stadiums at lower altitudes tend to have lower field goal completion percentages from long range. Combine this with humidity and temperature and you get a more complete picture. Using atmospheric data last night: elevation 16 feet, dew point 39f, temp 43f, and altimeter setting of 30.07 we can calculate the density altitude and relative density at the time of the kick. The relative density when Walsh attempted to tie the game was 103.3% for an overall density altitude of -1122 feet. Because of the inverse humidity curve of Seattle, the Seahawks kick in a location where humidity increases in the winter, unlike most of the country. What does this all mean? The air in Seattle, in the winter is thick. Especially when it rains, and especially last night. Thicker air means it’s harder for the ball to travel. All of these factors add up, 2% here, 5% there and combine into contributing to a miss. They aren’t excuses, simply how the environment can change one kick from another.
I don’t write all of this to excuse Walsh of kicking short. I’m not trying to apologize on his behalf nor for Coach Carroll’s decision to not go for the halftime field goal, a decision I actually defended on twitter along with Fieldgulls’ own Ben Baldwin. I simply want to drive home two points to end this article. The first is that not all 52 yard attempts are created equal, had the game been in Atlanta Walsh likely makes that kick.
The stadium is 800 feet higher, temperature controlled, and has lower humidity this time of year. The second, is that no kick is ever a guarantee. Not the 35 yard attempt at the half that was faked, and certainly not the 52 yard attempt to end the game.