There’s a better than fair chance the first thing Denver Broncos fans thought when they heard about Matt Prater’s $13 million deal was how clutch he was to hit that 59-yarder to send the Bears game into overtime last season, and that it was good to keep a guy like that on the team. There’s also a better than fair chance that at some point after hearing the team solved its kicker cost conundrum, fans also remembered Prater’s near mythic inability to hit a field goal spotted in the 9 yards between the 30 and 40 yard lines.
If the latter of those two sentiments doesn’t describe you, then you probably don’t want to hear the stats. On Tuesday, Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell made a highly statistical case for why the Prater deal is the contractual equivalent of “wide right.” It’s worth a read for Broncos fans/stats geeks, but summing it up for you: Prater ranks below average in accuracy when compared to all kickers the past four seasons, and was right about average in touchback production (Note: That’s not the same as percentage) last season. What the stats basically allude to is that the only thing that prevented Prater from entering the rotation of recycled kickers who bounce around the league, is the perception that he is clutch.
It’s true. Prater nailed four game winners the past season. He also developed a reputation as a guy with a big leg. In all fairness, Prater can boot it, but bring most kickers under the age of 35 to 5,280 feet and there’s a good chance they’ll be shellacking 70 yarders through the uprights during warm-ups as well. Outside of Sports Authority, Prater is still a serviceable kicker but his kickoffs don’t sail out the back of the end zone as regularly, and his field goals can’t be characterized as automatic no matter the setting.
As much as it may pain former pros to admit it, kickers are pretty important for two reasons: they can outright win you games, and they can thoroughly influence a game’s tempo.
Tempo will be a major focus this season after being absent last season. If everything goes according to plan, Peyton Manning will be quickly leading the offense to touchdowns by systematically dismantling opposing defenses. Denver wants to play with leads…big leads that force offenses to look for yardage in large chunks through the air against a secondary of opportunistic, veteran coverage guys and a pass rushing duo that could be unrivaled in the league. What’s also important is the kicking game. If the offense and defense are doing their jobs the real back-breaker for an opposing offense is constantly having to start drives from its own 20.
Given the Broncos new talent, it’s also likely Prater won’t find himself in quite as many game-tying or game-winning field goal situations. If this is the case it means he’ll need to be flawless in high value kicks. A missed game-winner in the playoffs is all it will take for his stock to go from clutch to liability. Unfortunately for kickers, that’s the nature of the industry. Unfortunately for Denver, such a circumstance would leave the team with a pricier-than-it-should be contract for a kicker that’s now been branded as unreliable.
Finally, there’s the one footnote (sorry, had to do it) that also could come into play. Manning isn’t a fan of kickers who mess up off the field…ask Mike Vanderjagt. Another episode that comes anywhere close to last year’s stories of Prater’s auto-mishap isn’t going to sit will with the field general and he’s been known to make his displeasure public. When Manning isn’t happy the organization isn’t happy, and that leads to changes…ask Mike Vanderjagt.
So the Broncos just gave $13 million to a kicker who is below average in field goal percentage, average in kickoffs, and had an off-field issue within the past year. As fans we’re somewhat okay with this because hey, he’s clutch. The team was okay with this for the same reason. For now it’s a good enough reason. Come January, with a playoff game on the line and a 45-yarder for the win only seconds away, it’ll be up to Prater to prove whether or not this was actually a good move by the Broncos.