December 9, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Leonard Johnson (29) reacts after Philadelphia Eagles kicker Alex Henery (6) missed a field goal during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. The Eagles won 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Hidden Danger: How The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Benefited from Opponents' Poor Special Teams in 2012, and Why it Might Be Much Different in 2013

In baseball, a sport so heavily driven by numbers, averages, and advanced metrics, the phrase “regression to the mean” is used in almost every discussion by stat-heads and sabermatricians. A player who has always hit .280 for his career will likely hit .280 again, so when he starts off a season hitting .400, he’s due to regress to the mean. At least, that’s the overly simplified principle behind regression to the mean.

It happens in football, too. Players who get fortunate, or who have an incredible hot streak, can outperform their skills and abilities, only to see things balance out in the end. Kevin Ogletree started last season with an incredible game where he had the most catches and yards he’d ever had, but then proceeded to have a pedestrian season after that.

So how might this affect the Buccaneers in 2013? The Bucs have always had the benefit of being fortunate on special teams, according to Football Outsiders. In assigning advanced metrics to special teams, the Football Outsiders’ team discovered that there are things about special teams that are out of the control of the team being judged by the numbers. These things are how accurately the opponent kicks field goals, how far they kick punts, and how far they kick their kickoffs. For the past few years, the Buccaneers have been near the top of the list in terms of benefiting from this “Hidden” (as they call it) advantage on special teams. But in 2012, it went to another level.

August 10, 2012; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter (5) reacts to missing his second field goal attempt during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers enjoyed a 28 point advantage in terms of field position thanks to hidden yards of failed special teams play by opponents that are out of the Bucs’ control. Poor kickoffs, short punts, and most importantly, missed field goals, all contribute to the Buccaneers getting great field position for something they had no control over. The field goals in particular were an area where the Buccaneers benefited, as opponents only made 68% of field goals against the Bucs in 2012, the lowest in the league. Further helping the Buccaneers was the location of many of these field goals, as the teams going against the Bucs did the worst on attempted kicks over 40 yards, missing six of eight kicks from this range! This means the Buccaneers got to start near midfield thanks to the inability of opposing kickers to nail field goals against them.

A primary reason for the failure to kick accurately is the atmosphere in the stadium for most the Bucs’ games. Raymond James is not elevated at all, and as all Floridians know, it’s quite muggy during most of football season. This provides the opposite of the “Denver effect” on field goals, as the heavy, humid air is less conducive for field goal kickers. Kickers who play for the Buccaneers have a better chance to acclimate themselves to the environment, but a visiting kicker may find himself unable to cope with the tougher kicking situation in the Bay area. To further support this idea, the Dolphins were near the bottom of the league in opponents’ field goals in 2012, with Jacksonville just a few spots higher, and still not even at league average. Florida is just not a good place to kick.

But not every game for the Buccaneers was at home, so where do the rest of the missed field goals and short kickoffs come from? Ultimately, things like this boil down to luck. The Buccaneers were lucky in 2012 on special teams, and it set them up with extremely beneficial field position. They could be due for a let down in 2013, as they regress back towards a more normal “home field advantage” and as opposing kickers start to have a bit better luck against them.

How big of an impact this will have is unclear, as the difference in field position for the Buccaneers is worth a point or two per game at most. But in the NFL, sometimes a fortunate bounce or a timely gust of wind to knock a field goal off track can be the difference between the playoffs or sitting at home for January. Let’s hope the Bucs’ improvement on defense will more than make up for their inevitable regression on lucky special teams.

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