When the NFL decided to move the extra point line of scrimmage back from the 2 yard line to the 15 yard, line there was an immediate impact to the game. Missing an extra point was such an anomaly in the past that even a casual fan could see that a major shift had occurred, but there are questions that remain. How much did the game change and what does it mean for the future of the NFL?
The NFL wanted to make a change with regard to extra points because converting extra points prior to 2015 was almost automatic. Spectators would not pay attention to the play because they already knew the outcome.
In fact, in the 2013 and 2014 regular seasons, NFL teams converted 2,463 of 2,476 or 99.5% of extra point attempts. In the two regular seasons since the rule change took effect (2015 & 2016), NFL teams have converted 2,259 of 2,405, or 93.9% of extra point attempts. This is a drop off of 5.6%, which equates to roughly 67 points per season. Because converting an extra point is no longer a given, fans pay attention and save their bathroom breaks and beer runs for later.
As you would expect, the decrease in extra point percentage has led to an increase in the number of two-point conversion attempts. Since the extra point rule change went into effect, there has been a 55.5% increase in the number of two-point conversions attempted.
While this is a substantial increase, we have seen only a small statistically irrelevant increase in the success rate of two-point conversions. The success rate went up from 47.7% in the two regular seasons prior to the rule change, to 48.2% in the two seasons since the rule change went into effect. Given that there are still only about 100 attempts per year, a 0.5% is a difference of one play.
Since 1994 when the two-point conversion came to the NFL, there have been those who have argued that going for two every time is the best strategy. This argument has become stronger as the likelihood of making an extra point has decreased. The scenario below provides a simplified example.
Team A scores 100 touchdowns in a season, and having an ever so slightly above average kicker, converts on 94% of extra points. The team scores 94 points on these conversions.
Team B scores 100 touchdowns in a season and having decided not to kick extra points, attempts 100 two-point conversations. Despite the fact that they attempt more two-point conversations than the rest of the league combined, they are ever so slightly below average at scoring on two-point conversions and are successful on 48% of their attempts. The team scores 96 points on these conversions.
Team B outscores Team A for the season. This is not to say that teams should never attempt an extra point, but the statistics show that if you are average at both, over time it will be more beneficial to repeatedly go for two.
In order to out-perform Team B in the above scenario, a team would need to convert on at least 96% of their extra point attempts. In 2016 only twelve teams achieved this task. For those twelve teams, kicking extra points makes sense. The remaining twenty teams may want to consider an alternative strategy.
The above example neglects to mention how hard touchdowns are to come by and that no NFL team is coming anywhere close to scoring 100 touchdowns in a season. While this argument makes sense over the course of 100 attempts, the scenario changes as that number declines.
For instance, if a person were to flip a coin 100 times odds are that they would end up getting heads roughly 50 times and tails roughly 50 times. However, if a person were to flip a coin 2 times or 4 times, the sample size is much too small to produce the expected result.
This example is simplified as the odds of flipping a coin heads is 50% while the success rate of two-point conversions is 48%. It was used to demonstrate that whether a team has a prolific offense that provides 4 opportunities a game to go for two, or an average offense that provides only 2, the number of attempts may not be enough to produce the desired result. The sequence of the results can cause problems on a short-term basis. A team may be able to convert on close to 50% of their two-point conversion attempts, but if they happen to go 0 for 2 or 0 for 4 in a given game, it could cost them that game.
Obviously the scenarios discussed above are based on overall league statistics. Football is not played in a vacuum and the skills and preparation of coaches and players play a major role. It is likely that the first team, to go for two every time, would score on more than 50% of their attempts, at least initially, but the number would level off as defenses catch up. In the end, the situation will always dictate what the right call for a coach to make is.
In football, it is important to adjust to the situation. Because the rate of converting an extra point will always be higher than the rate of scoring on a two-point conversion, going for two every time does not make sense. What would make sense is changing the default.
Currently, teams elect to go for two because it makes mathematical sense in a certain situation. If a team scores a touchdown and is now trailing 9 to 14 with only two minutes left, the team should go for two because a successful two-point conversion would put them down by only a field goal. Similarly, if the default is to go for two, a coach may choose to take the points if it puts them at an advantage.
For instance if a team scores a touchdown giving them a 14 to 6 lead late in the game, they would kick the extra point. This would give them a nine point lead and ensure that the other team has to score twice to take the lead.
In football, the terms “extra point” and “point after touchdown (PAT)” are used somewhat interchangeably. You could make a case that prior to 2015, NFL teams attempted extra points, as the name seems to imply that it is something they get for free. Now they attempt the much more difficult PATs. In any event, the game has changed, and with it, so must we. It is time for coaches to seriously consider going for two more often. If a team cannot find a kicker who will make a certain percentage of his extra points, it may be time to figure out if going for two makes more sense for them. For teams who have tall jump-ball receivers or are highly successful scoring on the goal line by other means, it could be the right call.