The Extra Point How Luck Plays a Role in the Success of NFL Teams

How Luck Plays a Role in the Success of NFL Teams

November 10, 2022

At the end of last season’s Baltimore Ravens at Detroit Lions Week 3 game, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker nailed a 66-yard game winning field goal as time expired. Had Tucker missed – which according to the Next Gen Stats team, he had a 90% chance of doing – the game would have ended with a Lions victory. So, Tucker’s near-impossible kick cost the Lions 90% in expected win probability (or 0.90 wins).

Although NFL game outcomes are far from random, teams still get lucky. We identified four key scenarios where teams benefit from actions in a game that are almost entirely derived from opponent performance or lucky bounces.

  • Dropped Interception (dropped by opponent): When an opponent drops an interception, you get lucky. We assume that the intercepting team keeps possession at the spot of the drop. 
  • Dropped Pass (dropped by opponent): When an opponent drops a pass, you get lucky. We assume the offense would gain yards after catch using the Next Gen Stats Expected YAC model.
  • Field Goals and Extra Points (attempted by opponent): When an opponent misses a kick, you get lucky, and when your opponent makes a kick, you get unlucky. Field goal make probabilities are based on the Next Gen Stats Field Goal Probability model.
  • Fumble Recoveries (by either team): When a team recovers a fumble, there’s a chance the luck of the bounce was involved. Fumble recovery probabilities are based on observed recovery percentages by when the fumble occurred (i.e., after a catch, during a rush, fumbled snap, muffed punt). 

The chart below shows wins added by various categories of “luck” in Weeks 1-9 of the 2022 season. These values are measured by calculating the win probability of the observed outcome and subtracting the expected win probability based on the likelihood of each luck outcome. Win probability is calculated using the time remaining, point differential, down, distance, yard line and timeouts remaining. Expected wins added is calculated by summing the win probability of each outcome weighted by the chance of the outcome occurring. Thus, an opponent missing a game-winning field goal with a 90% chance of being good is measured as considerably more lucky (+0.90 wins) than an opponent missing a game-winning field goal that had a 10% chance of being good (+0.10 wins).

According to our analysis, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the highest total statistical luck in Weeks 1-9 of the 2022 season. This includes benefitting from one of the luckiest opponent field-goal outcomes of the season when the Cincinnati Bengals missed a game-winning 29-yard field goal in overtime in Week 1 (+0.58 wins), and the luckiest dropped pass of 2022 when the Bengals dropped a game-winning touchdown near the end of regulation (+0.36 wins).

On the other hand, the Carolina Panthers have benefited the least in 2022. The Panthers lost to the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 on a 58-yard game-winning field goal (-0.61 wins), and to the New York Giants in Week 2 on two field goals over 50 yards in the fourth quarter (-0.27 total wins).

It’s important to note that our estimates of luck appear to be, indeed, luck. For example, when comparing the split-season correlations of luck (i.e., a team’s luck in Weeks 1-9 versus Weeks 10-17), each of our four components of luck are uncorrelated. So, there’s nothing to suggest that over the course of the rest of the season, the Steelers will remain lucky while the Panthers remain unlucky.

Here are the highest wins added outcomes of 2022:

  • Dropped Interception (dropped by opponent): Week 1 Indianapolis Colts at the Houston Texans – Texans dropped an interception up by 7 with 1:05 left on the clock (+0.31 wins).
  • Dropped Pass (dropped by opponent): Week 1 Pittsburgh Steelers at the Cincinnati Bengals – Bengals dropped a pass in the endzone down 6 with :09 seconds left on the clock (+0.36 wins).
  • Field Goals and Extra Points (attempted by opponent): Week 1 New York Giants at the Tennessee Titans – Titans missed a 47-yard field goal down 1 with :04 seconds remaining (+0.66 wins).
  • Fumble Recoveries (by either team): Week 2 Arizona Cardinals at the Las Vegas Raiders – Raiders fumble recovered by the Cardinals and returned for a game-winning touchdown in overtime (+0.28 wins).