The Year the NFL Went Insane and Gave a Kicker the MVP Award


When I wrote about sub-replacement MVP candidates in baseball two weeks ago, my brain naturally considered the possibilities for unlikely MVP candidates in football. There’s virtually no chance of a replacement-level player receiving that sort of attention in the NFL because the voting structure for the two awards is different; while baseball voters each pick a top 10, the 50 media members who vote for the Associated Press’s MVP1 award in football only name a single player.

Given that MVP candidates are almost always star quarterbacks or players at other positions producing freakish seasons, there’s virtually no chance of even an average player receiving an MVP vote, let alone a replacement-level player. And yet, in 1982, something really weird happened. Washington kicker Mark Moseley didn’t just pick up a stray MVP vote from a misguided writer. He won the damn award. A kicker. MVP. It really happened.

It’s unfair to say Moseley was a replacement-level talent; he was, as you might expect, a very good kicker that season. But the idea of a kicker being literally the most valuable football player in the NFL seems downright insane in 2015. Some of that is hindsight, but it’s worth using what we know now to go back and put Moseley’s shocking season in context. How good was he? Why did the electorate back him? And could any of this ever happen again?

The Story

Outside of perhaps Kurt Warner in 1999, it’s hard to find an MVP who would have had longer odds when the season began than Moseley in 1982. The league’s highest-paid kicker came into the season on shaky ground. After making his first Pro Bowl in 1979, Moseley’s performance was brutally bad in 1980 and 1981; he hit just 37 of his 63 attempts (58.7 percent). Of the 23 kickers who attempted 30 combined field goals over that two-year stretch, 18 were more accurate than Moseley.

Washington coach Joe Gibbs used an 11th-round pick that offseason on University of Miami kicker Dan Miller and brought him into training camp for a competition with Moseley. The extent of the competition is probably inflated by the way it shapes the story to come, but Washington seriously considered trading Moseley. Miller hung around through the preseason and was only cut after missing a pair of field goals during the team’s final exhibition game.

Moseley proceeded to have what was certainly one of the most notable kicking seasons of all time during what was very likely the weirdest campaign in NFL history. The league was shut down by a two-month players’ strike after Week 2, picking up again in Week 11 in what ended up as a nine-game regular season. That run preceded a 16-team, four-round postseason that NFL executives must surely fantasize about repeating to this day.

Washington, a middling 8-8 team the previous year, dominated the unlikely season. They posted an NFC-best 8-1 mark during the abbreviated regular season before coasting through the playoffs, winning each of their four games by double digits. Led by a top-ranked defense that held its opposition under 20 points in 11 of 13 games, Washington’s 27-17 victory over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII gave the franchise its first NFL championship in 40 years.

The defense deservedly received a large amount of credit for Washington’s run, but the player who received more attention than anybody else was Moseley. The 34-year-old set an NFL record by hitting 23 consecutive field goals, nearly going the entire season without missing. He would eventually miss a meaningless attempt in Week 17, but by then, Moseley had already made his mark; he was named league MVP the day after the season ended.2

Moseley finished an impressive 20-for-21 on field goals, but as you might expect, his MVP candidacy was about more than sheer numbers. He made those 20 kicks count. In Week 1, Moseley tied a thrilling game with the Eagles with a 48-yarder at the end of the fourth quarter before hitting a 26-yarder in overtime to win it. One week later, he hit three field goals in stormy conditions in Tampa to set up a 21-13 victory.

After the strike ended, Moseley kept his hot streak going before hitting another buzzer-beater in Washington’s biggest win of the regular season, a 15-14 victory over the division rival Giants. That 42-yarder simultaneously clinched a playoff spot for Washington and broke Garo Yepremian’s record of 20 consecutive field goals. The next morning, Moseley was a guest on Good Morning America. Two weeks later, he was MVP.

Indeed, the story was that Washington couldn’t have done it without Moseley’s impressive hot streak. Moseley even said as much after being awarded the honor. “I don’t want to pat myself on the back,” Moseley said. “But I was put in a position this season where I gave the team the three points that we absolutely had to have. If I missed any one of those field goals in the first five games, we wouldn’t have won and we wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl.” Other arguments from writers at the time imply a similar logic.3

I’m not really sure I see Moseley’s case there. You can look through the box scores to see why I’m skeptical. Nobody can argue that Washington needed Moseley’s kicks to come through and win in Week 1. In Week 2, a late Moseley kick gave Washington some breathing room, but Washington led through the entire second half, won by eight, and wouldn’t have lost if Moseley had missed one of the field goals. They won by 10 points in the following game (Week 11) and by four the week after, leading throughout the entire second half both times. Then they lost the fifth game of the season, 24-10, to Dallas. The only game of the bunch that came down to a perfect performance on field goals was the opener.

Moseley needed to kick well to keep his team comfortably ahead in a couple of those games, and he did. The margin, though, was hardly as tight as he suggested at the time.

The Stats

Whatever issues you might be able to raise with that last argument, 20-for-21 with a couple of key game winners is pretty hard to argue with. Moseley had a good season. How good was it? There’s no cut-and-dried WAR stat for football players like there is in baseball, so it’s impossible to compare Moseley to the quarterbacks and pass-rushers of the era with an empirical stat.4

What we can do instead is start with a simple assumption and go from there. It’s fair to say the typical quarterback is far more valuable than the typical kicker, right? To make any sort of case that Moseley deserved MVP consideration over any of the league’s quarterbacks, we have to start by proving that Moseley was way better than the league’s other kickers. That alone isn’t enough to make the case, but without that proof, there’s no argument to be had.

Moseley’s 95.2 percent accuracy rate on field goals that year was the best in the league, and it’s even more impressive when you consider the context. Kickers are far more accurate these days than they were in the early ’80s. Indeed, while Moseley set a league record by hitting 23 consecutive attempts, the current record is 42, set by Mike Vanderjagt during the 2002-04 seasons. Kickers connected on an even 84 percent of their field goal tries last season; in 1982, during Moseley’s career year, kickers only hit 68.2 percent of their attempts.

There are plenty of reasons why kickers are better these days, with improved field conditions and the advent of the K Ball coming to mind, but it’s ironic that one of the biggest improvements in field goal accuracy has come with the move toward soccer-style kickers. Every current NFL kicker would be considered a soccer-style practitioner, and the last notable straight-on kicker in league history just happened to be … Mark Moseley.

So, given the context of 1982, Moseley’s 20-for-21 performance is even more impressive. Was it significantly better than the rest of the league? That’s where we can get some slightly more advanced numbers involved. It’s relatively easy to build an expected points model for modern-day kickers because we have access to play-by-play data, something Football Outsiders has developed with its special teams framework.

That’s impossible to do for 1982, simply because the play-by-play data doesn’t publicly exist. There are a few gamebooks floating around, and we know how long each successful field goal traveled because it appears in the box score, but there isn’t much public information available about the misses. All we know is the 10-yard range from within which each kick occurred. We know, for example, that Moseley went 5-for-6 in 1982 on kicks from 40 to 49 yards; those five makes are listed in the box scores, but finding that lone miss is much harder.

As a result, to figure out how many kicks Moseley “should” have made, we can compare his success rate in each 10-yard bracket to the leaguewide accuracy for kickers from the same range. In 1982, we know that kickers were a combined 91-for-146 (62.3 percent) from 40 to 49 yards. Given six tries, we would have expected Moseley to hit 3.7 kicks, leaving him 1.3 successful conversions (or 3.9 points) above expectation. Pull that out for each of his ranges and you get the following:

To be 13.6 points above expectation on field goals over a nine-game period is pretty impressive. That’s the best number in the league in 1982, but not by a ton. Detroit’s combination of Eddie Murray and Bob Thomas went 16-for-17 and were 10.9 points over expectation. Chiefs veteran Nick Lowery was 19-of-24, but three of his five misses came on relatively low-likelihood attempts from 50-plus yards, leaving him 9.5 points above expectation. Moseley didn’t even attempt a 50-plus-yarder all season.

I feel comfortable saying Moseley was the best field goal kicker in the league in 1982, albeit not to an extent that would justify MVP consideration. That’s only part of a placekicker’s job, though, and in the other aspects of the role, Moseley was well below average.

That starts with extra points. We’ve taken extra points for granted in recent decades (to the extent that the NFL has now gone and changed the rules), but they weren’t quite as guaranteed in 1982, when kickers only converted 95 percent of them.

The third-least-accurate kicker on extra points that year? Believe it or not, it was Mark Moseley. Even as he produced a nearly perfect season on field goals, Moseley missed three of his 19 extra point attempts during the regular season. You might assume they were blocked (as I did), but looking through the wire reports that year reveals that Moseley pulled all three misses wide. No such excuse here.

They were all in meaningful games, too. Moseley missed two extra points in that stormy Week 2 game against the Buccaneers and missed a third in that critical playoff-sealing win over the Giants in Week 15. Moseley’s argument above (which echoes the MVP stories that were going around, per newspaper archives) fairly suggests that his field goals were critical to the victories, so it also seems reasonable to include the extra points as black marks on his record. Stories and arguments at the time seemed to ignore them; one quote in the New York Times from Washington tight end Rick Walker after the Giants game blissfully notes, “There are very few sure things in life. Mark Moseley is one of them,” just before the recap gets to Moseley inexplicably (per his own thoughts after the game) missing an extra point.

Those missed extra points eliminate much of Moseley’s advantage in field goal accuracy. He was 2.1 points below expectation on extra points, and when you factor that in, Moseley was actually outkicked by the combination in Detroit:

You could say Moseley was individually better than either Murray (who was 6.8 points over expectation on his own) or Thomas (5.0 points), but that looks past the point. Even if you throw out the Lions, Moseley’s only the best kicker in the league by a mere 1.2 points over Lowery in Kansas City. Sure, the Chiefs were 3-6, but Lowery’s defense was 18th in the league in points allowed; Moseley’s was first. You have to give Moseley credit for the clutch kicks he hit, but how much credit for winning close games should go to the Washington defense?

There’s one other thing a kicker usually does in the NFL: kickoffs. This was really before the era of kickoff specialists, and while kickoff and touchback data is sparse for the 1982 campaign, we don’t need it for Moseley’s MVP case. Why? Because Moseley didn’t even handle kickoffs for Washington! According to the few gamebooks that do exist for Washington for the 1982 season, punter Jeff Hayes handled kickoff duties. Given that a kicker can derive consistent, significant value from his ability to create field position advantages with kickoffs, and given that Lowery had exhibited a notably stronger leg on kickoffs during the previous season, it’s likely that Nick Lowery was the most productive all-around kicker in football during the 1982 campaign, not Mark Moseley.

While it doesn’t diminish Moseley’s feat, his season probably amounts to nothing more than randomness over a small sample. Per the binomial distribution, the likelihood that a kicker who we would expect to hit 15.5 of 21 kicks would hit 20 or 21 of those attempts by sheer chance is 1.4 percent. That’s not especially unlikely, and we have a lot of evidence saying it was sheer chance. Moseley had been struggling mightily before the season, and while there may have been some injuries affecting his play, it seems notable that he followed his incredible regular season by missing four of his eight field goal attempts in the postseason. He was 33-of-47 (70.2 percent) on field goals the following year and never again made it above 80 percent in a season.

The Race

That small sample worked both ways in sending the MVP award to Washington. Moseley was hugely helped by the fact that the season only lasted nine games in terms of crafting a notably impressive streak. It’s far easier to put together a nearly perfect season over nine games than it is over a full 16-game campaign. Take Moseley’s nine games from the 1982 season, add the first seven from the 1983 campaign, and Moseley’s line over a 16-game season becomes 36-for-41 (87.8 percent). That’s well above average, but it’s not the sort of extreme effectiveness that’s going to inspire MVP votes for a kicker.5

It also helped by eliminating the sort of milestones for cumulative performance that usually make skill-position players stand out in MVP voting. There weren’t many players who were able to force their way ahead of the pack in 1982. No running back managed to make it to 800 yards, let alone 1,000. The league’s leading pass-rusher, Doug Martin, only had 11.5 sacks and failed to create any sort of separation between himself and the league’s other pass-rushers.

The MVP probably should have come from San Diego’s passing attack. Wideout Wes Chandler had an incredible season, even while missing one of the league’s nine games. In eight weeks, Chandler’s performance was Odell Beckham–esque: He caught 49 passes for 1,032 yards and nine touchdowns. His average of 129.0 receiving yards per game that season is still the best in league history among guys who played eight games or more. I suspect that he wouldn’t have kept that up over 16 games, but given that the second-place wideout (Dwight Clark) averaged 101.4 yards per game and the third-place guy (Kellen Winslow Sr., Chandler’s teammate) was down at 80.1, it’s fair to say that Chandler dominated his position in a way that Moseley did not.

The compromise candidate was Dan Fouts, Chandler’s quarterback. While Chandler wasn’t necessarily regarded at the time as a dominant wide receiver, Fouts was a superstar. He had made three straight Pro Bowls and held the (entirely arbitrary) Quarterback Championship Belt heading into the year. Nobody would have suggested that a great season from Fouts would be a fluke, and indeed, he led the league in passing yards, touchdowns, and yards per attempt. He led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt by 1.2 yards, an enormous gap. His Chargers led the league in points scored and went 6-3 with a defense that ranked 24th in points allowed.

Fouts would have been the right choice. And he very nearly won the award. Moseley won the voting 35-33 in an era when the AP used more than 50 voters. Marcus Allen (who led the league in rushing touchdowns), Joe Theismann, and Danny White combined to receive 11 of the other 16 votes. You can sympathize with Fouts, who never had a realistic shot at winning the MVP again, as he struggled to stay healthy and was saddled with one of the league’s worst defenses for the remainder of his career. Fouts deservedly made his way to Canton when his career was over, but an MVP award would have been the icing on the cake. Mark Moseley stole his icing!

It’s not Moseley’s fault, of course. By all accounts, he’s a great guy who was one of the executives involved in franchising Five Guys, which deserves its own MVP award. It’s not his fault the season only lasted nine games, and while the extra points take off some of the luster from his streak, going 20-of-21 as a kicker in 1982 is really impressive.

In looking back at Moseley’s victory, though, it’s difficult to imagine any kicker repeating the feat, barring a drastic shift in kicking context or another shortened season. Kickers are too good these days; when Vanderjagt went 37-for-37 in 2003 for a 12-4 Colts team, nobody even thought about giving him an MVP nod. If the league moves to 18 games, it will only become harder for a kicker to stay perfect and easier for a quarterback or running back to approach record-setting cumulative milestones.

It would take some sort of freakishly high-leverage season — a year when some near-perfect kicker wins eight games with last-second kicks — for a kicker’s name to ever again come up in the discussion. And even then, he’d have to hope for a year when no offensive players stood out. If J.J. Watt couldn’t come close to winning the MVP for what he did as a defensive player in 2012 or 2014, what chance does a kicker have of overcoming the likes of Aaron Rodgers? 1982 was certainly a year of weird football, and no award vote in NFL history was — or likely ever will be — weirder than the one that ended with a kicker as league MVP.

Filed Under: NFL, Washington Redskins, Mark Moseley, NFL MVP

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell