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Eagles' Defeat Of The Bears Revives The Question: Does Icing The Kicker Work?

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 7, 2019 5:12 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last night, the Chicago Bears fell victim to one of the most debated tricks in the coaching book - icing the kicker. Here's what happened. With seconds to go in their NFL playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Bears kicker Cody Parkey lines up for a field goal. They're down by one, so the game is riding on this kick, OK? The ball is snapped. The kick goes up and sails through the uprights, except that it doesn't count. The NBC announcers don't sound surprised. They know exactly what happened.

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AL MICHAELS: Doug Pederson knowing - yep, getting that timeout just before the snap.

CORNISH: The Eagles' coach called a timeout right before the play. That's icing the kicker. It's supposed to rattle his nerves, get in his head. So Cody Parkey has to do it over again. And this time, the announcers are surprised.

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MICHAELS: And - oh, he hits the upright again. That's impossible.

CORNISH: Ouch - the kick bounces out. Bears lose. Eagles win. A debate is reignited because people keep talking about this idea. Does icing the kicker work? Well, joining us now is Toby Moskowitz. He investigated this question in his book "Scorecasting." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TOBY MOSKOWITZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: All right, so to begin, I try and put myself in the mind of a kicker. Is this something that would, you know, rattle one? It's a high-stakes moment of the game.

MOSKOWITZ: Well, you know what? You would be rattled. I would be rattled. But a professional football kicker shouldn't be rattled. I think nowadays most kickers fully expect to be iced, meaning that they know the opposing coach is going to call a timeout right before they kick, and they're mentally prepared for that.

The other thing is these kickers have kicked thousands and thousands of kicks. I don't even think they're aware of what else is going on in the field. They're just - it's like asking Roger Federer, are you nervous when you hit a second serve? I don't even think he thinks about it. It's just so automatic.

CORNISH: Now, let's get to the numbers. Is it effective?

MOSKOWITZ: So we crunched the numbers several years ago. We added up all kicks over about a decade worth in the NFL, and we looked at times when the kicker in pressure situations was iced versus not iced. And what we found was the success rate was really no different between the two situations. Suppose I hit my kicks from that distance about 70 percent of the time. You'd expect me to miss 30 percent of the time. Well, icing the kicker doesn't cause you to miss. It's just that kickers will miss that kick about 30 percent of the time. And some of those times, about half the time, the coach will call a timeout.

You know, it feels like you're getting in the kicker's head. But at least if you look at the numbers on the field - and again, you're controlling for distance and the difficulty of the kick. Whether or not a timeout is called right before the kick doesn't really make much of a difference.

CORNISH: So why do coaches like it?

MOSKOWITZ: So that's an interesting question, and we thought about this as well. One aspect is, you know, I think at that point in the game - and you take last night as an example - what's a coach supposed to do? Doug Pederson's options are to sit there and wait while the final 10 seconds tick and he sees whether the ball goes through the uprights or not. Or he's got some timeouts left at his disposal. His fans want him to do something. His players might even want him to do something. Even he might feel like he wants to do something. So why not try it, right?

Imagine the ball goes through the uprights and he didn't call the timeout. The Philadelphia fans are now going to be screaming, oh, if you'd only iced the kicker, whereas I think if he does it and Parkey hits it last night - he ices him, but he makes it anyway - no one's going to blame him. There's nothing else he could have done. But leaving something on the table that people feel like you could have done - psychologically, we just don't like that.

CORNISH: Toby Moskowitz is professor of finance at Yale University. He's co-author of "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won." Thank you so much, Toby.

MOSKOWITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.