Reporting Grant Paulsen
On Monday it looked like Graham Gano was in line to begin his fourth season with the Washington Redskins. The veteran kicker he was competing against throughout camp, Neil Rackers, was released, and Gano was being interviewed about winning a battle that has been ongoing since mini camp.
But one day after Rackers was waived, Gano was also cut by the Redskins. The team opted instead to sign Billy Cundiff, who will now enter the season as Washington’s place kicker.
The timing of the news was surprising, but maybe it shouldn’t have been.
When Mike Shanahan met with the media after releasing Rackers yesterday, the head coach was asked if the Redskins would be bringing in any more kickers. His response? “Obviously I’m not going to go through the possibilities. There’s always a lot of possibilities that could occur before the first game with everybody at every position.” While that comment can’t be deciphered to mean, ‘we’re going to sign Billy Cundiff,’ it certainly wasn’t an endorsement of Gano on the day he was chosen over Rackers.
Cundiff, 32, is an eight-year NFL veteran with a strong track record as an ace on kickoffs. But his conversion percentage on field goal attempts has been inconsistent throughout his career.
But is the Drake University and former Dallas Cowboy, Baltimore Raven, and Cleveland Brown better than Gano?
He certainly was when he earned a Pro Bowl nomination in 2010. That year the journeyman kicker led the NFL with 40 touchbacks on kickoffs and connected on 26-of-29 field goal attempts. It should be noted that he attempted just one field goal of 50+, and he missed it, but Cundiff was seven-of-eight on kicks from 40 to 49 yards out.
If you look at the stats from 2011, however, it’s harder to make the case that Cundiff is a dramatic upgrade. He missed nine unblocked field goals while Gano missed on just five attempts that weren’t blocked. He was also 1-for-6 on kicks from 50 or longer yards while Gano made good on four of his six attempts from 50 or more. Cundiff’s longest kick of the season was from 51, while Gano connected on a 59-yarder.
There’s no disputing that Cundiff has been more productive at delivering touchbacks when kicking off. In 2011, 58 percent of Cundiff’s kickoffs were touchbacks. The year before that 51 percent weren’t returned. He’s kept teams from returning 84 kicks in the past two seasons, the highest total in the NFL.
But comparing that number to Gano’s touchback percentage (which was 43.8 percent last season) may not be a fair statistical analysis. Gano isn’t always asked to drive the ball through the endzone for touchbacks. It’s clear that Cundiff clearly was.
The Redskins had a great coverage unit that allowed just 20 yards per return last season on kickoffs while Baltimore’s struggled and yielded 29 yards a return. Washington liked using that coverage unit by asking Gano to kick the ball with hang time, but shallow enough that it could be returned occasionally. The Ravens may not have had that luxury.
The kickoff advantage still goes to Cundiff, regardless of why the stats are skewed the way they are. But whether or not he’s a better place-kicker is debatable coming off the season he just had.
Gano made 31-of-36 field goals that weren’t blocked last season, missing just one time from inside of 49 yards, and that miss came in the first week of the season. He also made 14 of the final 15 kicks he attempted in 2011.
But after missing 11 field goals in 2010, Gano was on the field for 10 more botched three-point tries in 2011. Failing to convert on 21 chances over two seasons is far too many, and while the blocks weren’t on Gano and it’s clear that he’s improved — Washington’s coaching staff clearly made up its mind that it was time for a change.
I’m surprised that Rackers wasn’t the choice if a veteran was going to be taken over Gano.
But perhaps the Cundiff addition is a signal of a change of philosophy on the Redskins’ special teams unit. You can’t bring in a pitcher with a devastating slider and not let him throw it, and similarly you can’t sign a kicker who is a touchback ace and not tell him to boot the ball through the endzone.
I just don’t think kickoffs were the problem the past couple seasons. Converting field goals was. If last year is any indication, this isn’t a substantial upgrade.
Listen here to what Mike Shanahan & Billy Cundiff had to say following practice today on the transaction.
Mike Shanahan Practice Audio
Billy Cundiff Practice Audio