The Texans' second foray into unrestricted free agency saw them addressing a spot that bled wins for them last year: place kicker. Kris Brown's tendency to spray footballs outside of his intended target area last year has the lone remaining original Texan on the brink of replacement. Still, the team has promised an open battle to give the embattled kicker one last chance at redemption.
I would caution people who just look at last year's field goal percentages, read "Rackers 90%", "Brown 65%", and circle in Rackers as the winner of the competition that there is more to it than that. For one thing, field goal percentages are notoriously random from one year to the next. Rackers is only a few seasons removed from putting up a 70% line of his own, actually. Secondly, Rackers' season line of 90% is a little artificially inflated due to his two missed games and zero attempts beyond fifty yards. Behind the jump, I'll try to keep this to under 1,000 words knowing full well that I'm already working on shaky ground by actually writing about kickers.
Neil Rackers, in the stat dork NFL circle, is well-known for having one of the biggest legs of any kicker in the game. You may remember him from such articles as "The Best Defensive Player in the NFL is...Neil Rackers?", as he continuously piled up touchbacks for his kickoff units. Last year, 21.5% of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, and in 5 of his last 6 seasons, he's topped 20%, even if he has been off his career peak in 2004 and 2005 when he was at the otherworldy rates of 32.9% and 36.1%, respectively.
Over the past two seasons, Rackers' numbers have started to get downright pedestrian. 21.5% may seem high, but it's actually only good for 11th (among kickers with 30+ kicks) in the NFL last season. Brown was within hailing distance at 15th. Some of those spots are taken up by the growing number of touchback specialists, and if you take out punters and those guys, they end up at 6th and 10th. In 2008, Rackers' 16.7% was only 12th. You have to go back to 2007, where he's 5th, to find him near the top of the league. Rackers did have a groin injury last year, but the fact that he was equally unimpressive in 2008 leads me to believe that this wasn't much of a factor in the decline.
I have a not-so-hidden hypothesis in that paragraph: I don't think Rackers has premium leg strength anymore. The Cardinals didn't seem terribly bothered that he wasn't accepting their initial offer and they moved right on to Jay Feely. In 2004 and 2005, Rackers built a reputation as one of the best distance kickers in football. In fact, prior to 2005, Rackers was 70% for his career on kicks longer than 50 yards. In 2006 and 2007, Rackers went just 4-16 from beyond 50 yards, and it only took Ken Whisenhunt one season of that to figure out "hey, lets not go overboard with this guy's leg strength." Over the last two years, Rackers has attempted just two 50+ yard field goals, both of them coming in end of half situations. Hell, if you want to get technical, he attempted just two 45+ yard field goals last year.
Now why is that important? Well, it's a lot easier to hit 94% and 89% of your field goals when you take out the hardest set of field goals from your data set. Brown went 4 of 7 on 50+ yard field goals the last two years, and if you include 2007, he's 9 of 12 for his last 3, versus Rackers' 4 of 11.
Which isn't to say that Rackers will be a worse kicker than Brown, or that this was a bad signing. No, this was a great signing because it showed the same message that the Dunta Robinson non-signing and the DeMeco Ryans signing showed: We reward performance. If you don't perform, don't expect to keep your job.
But, Rackers is no sure thing to unseat Brown. If you ask Rackers to take the kicks that Brown has taken over the past two years, I think his accuracy takes a hit. If you buy that field goal percentage is random from year-to-year, Brown has a 77.3% career rate to Rackers' 78%. Rackers' touchbacks have dipped to the point that while he has an advantage over Brown, he's not a huge upgrade there either.
I like Rackers to win the competition, as he's just a little better at everything, but I think the odds are a little closer than you might think on first glance. Either way, the important part of this signing is less about the players and more about the message: we won't settle for last year again.