This post brings up some unique, fairly hidden truths about special teams play but reaches the same conclusion all have reached nevertheless: slapping the franchise tag on Shayne Graham, in effect making him one of the most highly-paid kickers in the NFL, was an idiotic move, parallel with many others made by he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately a long-term contract has not been given to Graham (contrary to the opinions on here and here), but there is still this move to discuss.
To begin with, the obvious- spending a great deal of money on a kicker does not make a whole lot of sense. Special teams as a whole is worth relatively little when compared to offense and defense, and using the money on a player who may not even be an asset in (I'll explain) the less-important unit, rather than one who will increase the strength of the important one like a third cornerback, is ridiculous.
Football Outsiders is one of the best NFL sites online, creating new, better statistics to help us further increase our knowledge of the NFL, as well as giving us somewhat radical discoveries. One of the more interesting ones was described in this New York Times article in November of 2006. Basically, their findings told us that we had been judging kickers the wrong way; field-goal percentage, the most common stat used to assess a kicker's performance, had little year-to-year correlation (for all of the details, refer to the article). The statistic most consistent year-to-year, and therefore the only dependable one to judge a kicker on, was kickoff length.
At this point, some fans not familiar with Football Outsiders might be rolling over on the floor; after all, who exactly appreciates a touchback rather than a game-ending field goal, good field position for the defense over points on the board? Well, no one does, of course. But, it is nearly impossible to argue with the article's math, and although many still have not realized it, I'm convinced that kickoff distance and touchback percentage are more valuable indicators of a kicker's talent and value to his team than the popular field goal percentage.
Using this logic, let's look at how valuable Shayne Graham is. One would think he'd be a whiz at long kickoffs, for all the money he'll be payed in the 2009 season. Alas, he is not. Throughout his long career, Graham has not averaged more than sixty-four yards per kickoff, with a 63.5 average last season. His touchback percentages tell the same story, with all but two seasons ('08 and '06, likely flukes) showing pathetic numbers (the highest being a paltry 9.3%). Using Football Outsider's advanced special team's statistics, the Bengals had a -1.3 DVOA% on kickoffs last season, not exactly awful, but certainly not top-notch.
Plus, Graham wasn't even top-tier in FG/XP DVOA%, with "only" a pretty good 2.2%. By both methods of judging his talent (with the former being the correct, and more extreme one), Graham is not worth the money.
This, along with Kyle Larson's horrendous punts, led to bad field position for Cincinnati's defense, starting at around the thirty yard line, good for twenty-second in the league. This led to the defense giving up more points than they deserved to, and the offense getting less help than they needed (and boy, did they need a lot of help). I will give credit to the Bengal's front office for realizing this in drafting former University of Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber in April's draft, but it doesn't change the terrible move of franchising Graham.
So, to recap: to begin with, franchising Shayne Graham was not smart, as we already know that kickers are less valuable. Putting the tag on him becomes even more illogical when we consider that the only stat kickers really control, how far their kickoffs go, is one Shayne struggles in. He may do well in field goal percentage this upcoming season, or he may not - it's clear from reading that article that even estimations for the future based on his past are fruitless - but this isn't the point. The point is that Mike Brown is overpaying a player at a position that means less and has less divergence from top to bottom who doesn't even excel at doing the only consistent skill kickers can do, a skill that affects both the offense and defense in the form of field position. Not only could the Bengals have a kicker with the same value, or perhaps more, for less in 2009, but the money spent on Graham could be used in shoring up holes on the roster or providing more much-needed depth.
Way to go, Mikey Boy.