Go For Nine? For Who? For What?
by Scott Kacsmar
This week the NFL owners are meeting in Arizona where they will vote on proposals for new rule changes. Any team can make a proposal, but in past years we rarely saw anyone besides Washington and New England consistently take advantage. However, this year there are 28 proposals with perhaps the most attention-grabbing idea coming from Indianapolis.
The Colts want to introduce a nine-point touchdown. If a team follows a touchdown with a successful two-point conversion, then they can try a bonus field goal from the 32-yard line (50-yard field goal) to score a maximum of nine points on one drive. Note that a fake field goal for a touchdown from the 32-yard line would still result in one bonus point. The play is dead if the defense gains possession of the ball, so defenses are still unable to score in these situations.
So… that's interesting. Is this a radical change to scoring or just a pipe-dreaming gimmick? Is this something the game is really lacking? Maybe the Colts want to make sure Andrew Luck notches the most 18-point comebacks in record time, but let's give this some thought before laughing it off like a few owners undoubtedly will.
Likelihood of success
First, just how likely would a successful nine-point touchdown be? In 2014 teams were 28-of-59 (47.5 percent) on two-point conversion attempts, although a more accurate stat would be 27-of-56. There were three aborted extra-point kick attempts, and one of those was actually converted for two points, with Pittsburgh holder Brad Wing throwing to Matt Spaeth for two against Baltimore in Week 9.
It's a cliché to talk about these conversions as a 50/50 proposition, but only four seasons since 1994 have actually produced a conversion rate of at least 50 percent. We also have to go back to 2004 to find the last time teams attempted at least 70 two-point conversions in a season.
From NFL Record & Fact Book, the dwindling 2-point conversion. 2014: 28 of 59 (47.5%) pic.twitter.com/fNoQtzmIvD
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) March 23, 2015
The 50-yard field goal is more interesting. Since 2011, kickers have made 63.3 percent of all field goals that were at least 50 yards. In each of those four seasons the percentage was above 60 percent and at least 90 field goals were successful. Before 2011, there was never a season with more than 66 made field goals from 50-plus yards, so this has been a huge increase. In 2014, field goals from a distance of exactly 50 yards were 18 of 32 (56.3 percent). Field goals from 50-55 yards were 89 of 137 (65.0 percent), which might serve as a favorable average for expectations of success.
Even if we drop the averages to 45 percent for the two-point conversion and 55 percent for the 50-yard field goal, that's still going to produce a better expected value than the near-automatic extra point. You have to drop both percentages to just under 42 percent to get an equal expected value, but do we really expect most coaches to think about this in that way? The numbers will say to go for this nine-point touchdown often, because the 50-yard field goal is not hard enough. A fairer proposal would be a 60-yard field goal.
If sweetening the two-point conversion with a bonus kick is the incentive coaches need to open up more strategic scoring, then let's go for it. That will surely increase the excitement and importance of what happens after a touchdown, but we know that coaches are already very conservative with these calls, especially early in games.
Last year, all 56 actual two-point conversion attempts (i.e., not the three aborted kicks) came after the six-minute mark of the third quarter. Forty-seven of them came in the fourth quarter. This is common practice in the NFL.
The truth is most teams will hold off on trying to score nine until late in the game when they absolutely need to score nine or 18 points. In a tied game, this change has no value, because the only teams that would go for a nine-point play probably have an injured kicker (2000 Rams) or are playing in crazy snow conditions (2013 Lions-Eagles). In both cases, a 50-yard field goal is not feasible.
Based on past trends, teams already in the lead will find very little use for this rule.
Leading by one point
I have argued for years that a team that scores a late touchdown in a one-point game should go for two to push the lead to nine. That has never been tried in the fourth quarter, so why would we expect anyone to try pushing the lead to 10? Realistically, if you like your chances of converting a two better than your opponent, then you should go for this, but we know that won't happen.
Leading by two points
When you can kick an easy extra point to take a nine-point lead, no team is going to gamble that away to take a lead of 10-11 points. Any failure here on the two-point conversion and you are stuck with an eight-point lead, which could now be very dangerous if this rule was passed.
Leading by at least three points
At this point the team will just focus on pushing the lead to 10-plus points and not try anything cute. Frankly, you probably prefer to lead by 10 points rather than 12 points late in the game. Down 10, the opponent will play for the tie first. Down 12, the opponent is going to try to score two touchdowns to beat you in regulation.
There are few current situations that bring up a nearly automatic two-point conversion. Trailing by five, teams are pretty smart at knowing they need to go for two to extend to a crucial three-point lead. With a nine-point touchdown, they would now have the chance to extend to a four-point lead, requiring the opponent to now score a touchdown of their own. That's fairly significant.
NFL teams are wired to play for the tie when possible. Down by seven points, you can still count on a regular extra point for the tie, but the big changes start with an eight-point game if this rule passes.
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Trailing by eight points
With a nine-point touchdown now a possibility, even Packers coach Mike McCarthy can see this becomes an automatic call in the fourth quarter. Not only can you tie the game with a successful conversion, but nearly half the time we will see the team get a shot at taking the lead with the bonus kick. Remember last season when Peyton Manning led the Broncos 80 yards in the final minute in Seattle and hit Demaryius Thomas for the game-tying two-point conversion with 18 seconds left? Denver lost in overtime without touching the ball again, but under these rules, kicker Brandon McManus would have had a 50-yard kick for the probable regulation win. That's a big change.
Trailing by nine points
Well, this is right up my alley. How many games would qualify as an offense being within one score in the fourth quarter with a nine-point touchdown? Last season, that number was 17 games, or about one per week. That does not account for the fact that 14 of those 17 games ended up closer than nine points in the fourth quarter, so you're really only adding three more close finishes to the season total while making a portion of 14 games slightly more interesting. The numbers are even smaller for past seasons like 2013 (14 games), 2012 (13 games) and 2011 (10 games).
This proposal would actually add more bang to the eight-point game (25 of those in the fourth quarter last year) than it would the nine-point game as far as exciting finishes go. Even more than both of those combined, a nine-point touchdown would make things more exciting for games where a team is trailing by 14-18 points with possession of the ball. That happened 80 times in 2014.
Trailing by 14-15 points
This should make Chase Stuart happy. In this dire situation, why not give yourself two cracks at the two-point conversion and possibly win the game in regulation? Even if you fail on the first attempt, you can still tie the game or even take a one-point lead on the second attempt. Rarely does a team win after trailing by 14-15 points in the fourth quarter, but this would definitely make it easier.
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Conclusion: Don't expect this to pass
It would not be shocking to see the Colts lose this vote 31-1, and for someone on the internet to blame Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson for the bad showing. However, I think if the league starts pushing to make extra points more difficult, then that will only make the numbers more favorable for experimental point-after attempts like this. I think the Colts have something worthwhile here if they increase the bonus kick to 60 yards or so, but I would reject their 2015 proposal as it currently reads.
We need a movement that wants to replace some of the boring, non-competitive extra points with more of that battle of offense versus defense that we all love. Coaches still have to show they are willing to utilize these changes so that they don't just impact a small number of games per season.
In a game that is simply about scoring more points than your opponent, we are still waiting for that maverick coach that shows everyone it is okay to try to score as much as possible. That in itself is weirder than any nine-point touchdown.