Does “icing the kicker” work in football?

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Short answer: In most cases, “icing the kicker” does not work in football.

In the sports of American football or Canadian football, the act of icing the kicker or freezing the kicker is a tactic employed by defending teams to disrupt the process of kicking a field goal just prior to the snap. Typically, either a player or a coach on the defending team will call a timeout just as the kicker is about to attempt a game-tying or game-winning field goal. This is intended to either stop the kick immediately as the kicker is mentally prepared or allow for the kicker to kick immediately after the timeout so that the initial kick does not count, in an attempt to mentally disrupt the kicker for the actual kick. If the tactic is successful, the kicker has been effectively “iced.” Should the kicker make the subsequent kick, then the attempt to ice the kicker is considered unsuccessful.

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 ScorecastingTobias 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 the 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
Noticed
Less than two minutes left in fourth quarter or OT76.2%74.2%77.6%
Less than one minute left in fourth quarter or OT75.5%74.3%76.4%
Less than 30 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT76.5%76.0%76.9%
Less than 15 seconds left in fourth quarter or OT76.4%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?

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