Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Go For Nine? For Who? For What?
Go For Nine? For Who? For What?
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

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.


59 comments, Last at 27 Mar 2015, 6:02pm

2 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

One slight nitpick with your analysis. Presumably, the 50-yard extra point would be center-aligned on the field. I would think this would affect the likelihood of making the XP (positively) -- thus further increasing the benefit for teams choosing to take this option.

3 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

"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."

Isn't the argument that even if your chances of converting are lower than your opponent you should still do it because your opponent is likely to settle for a PAT if you fail?

30 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Nope. If your chances of a two-point conversion are 40% and the opponent's 50%, if you kick the XP you will win 50% of the time and tie 50% of the time after a TD by the opponent. If you go for two, you will win 40% of the time and tie 60%. So you only want to go for two if your chances are higher than the opponent's.

4 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Personally, I like it. It'll definitely lead to more interesting scores at end of games, puts in another incredibly tense play in a late game scenario.

I'm sure when the two-point conversion was initiated it was met with a lot of pushback as well (enough so that the NFL didn't carry it over when the AFL, who used it, merged).

There's no chance it passes, but why not throw some strange ideas out there?

5 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

From the 5y for 1 point, from the 10y for 2 points.
That would make it interesting. No one cares about the XP, except when the Saints play the Jaguars.

6 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Dwindling 2-point conversions?

Yes, there are fewer attempts. But the success rate is going up (slightly). 2014's 47.5% success rate is a half standard deviation above the average over all the data, but smack on the linear trend line.

17 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Those botched numbers may be slightly off. We have three last year, not one. Also one by PIT in Week 9, and one by GB in Week 11.

We have zero for 2013.

We actually have FIVE for 2012. ATL in Week 3, BAL and KC Week 4, CLE Week 7, and BUF Week 14.

To figure out the botched attempts, you have to go through the play-by-play, sometimes it won't say anything and you have to check the video. Also sometimes they aren't actually noted as a failed two-point conversion, it will just say "extra point is aborted." Some scorers mark things one way, some mark it the other way.

18 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

The 2012 BAL Week 4 and CLE Week 7 were considered aborted/no kick by the NFL, not as 2-point attempts, since the holder didn't try to advance. They don't show up anywhere on the NFL's official two-point attempts table.

I can't speak for the two missing 2014 attempts - my original data ran through 2013, and I quickly scanned PFR for missing two pointers to see what could be missing.

I'm confident in the 1994-2013 numbers, though.

20 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

For the record, aborted/no kicks by year (these DO NOT show up in the official totals for two-point OR extra point attempts):
1994: 3
1995: 5
1996: 2
1997: 5
1998: 6
1999: 4
2000: 5
2001: 4
2002: 5
2003: 3
2004: 2
2005: 3
2006: 5
2007: 4
2008: 5
2009: 3
2010: 3
2011: 1
2012: 2

27 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

nat, you're misinterpreting "dwindling" here. It's not about success rate, but about how often teams even try the 2PC. NFL has used it for 21 years. The top 10 years (using percentage of TDs that had a 2PC attempt) were all before 2005. If you look at the bottom 7 years, it's six of the last seven seasons.

28 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Or perhaps you are. You should reread comment #6. I clearly state that attempts are going down.

But now that success rates are approaching 50%, the number of attempts may increase. Or maybe teams have become better at knowing whether they are good at 2-pointers, and the attempt counts will stabilize. Either way, there is little reason for the attempts to drop any more.

7 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I dislike any proposal that puts even more emphasis on kicking. We already have too many games get decided long field goals, outcomes of games and seasons riding on a guy for whom it is a stretch to use the term "football player". I would love to see them kill the XP, as they've been considering for a few years, and I think a NFL Blitz-style "free point" (which you would risk double-or-nothing if you line up for 2PC) would be the way to go with that. I also wouldn't mind narrower goalposts, as 50-55 yd field goals being made at a 65% rate makes for boring football--get past the 40, then turtle and take the FG.

Of course, there's no sense in getting too worked up about the 9 pt TD either way since this is a pill-fueled nonsense idea from Irsay that no one is going to take very seriously.

9 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

If you accept the idea of running two untimed plays after a TD, why not this?

The "extra point" is two untimed plays, with the ball placed on the fifteen. A kick is worth one point. A "TD" is worth two. A turnover on the first play ends the attempt, as does a kick.

This gives a host of tactics. You can run to get closer. You can kick immediately to take the certain point. You can pass for the end zone and kick if you fail.

I mean, as long as we're getting weird, why not have something interesting.

10 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

A slightly different alternative - which would quite possibly reduce kicking and reduce kick return injuries - would be to allow teams that make a 2 point conversion to kick off from the 5,10 or even 15 yards up the pitch, and so have an even greater chance of a touchback, or a little more reason to try an onside kick.

This seems less arbitrary than having a completely new play type thrown in, and would not extend the real time length of the games like extra kicks would. It might also encourage teams that are behind to go for 2 earlier, which can force the team with the lead to do more than just sit on the ball as well.

12 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I think adding an extra untimed play would be a mistake. That the extra play in this proposal is a field goal attempt where the most exciting outcomes have been taken off the table (a fake for a TD doesn't gain extras points, and blocks/short kicks can't be returned for points) makes it even worse. If you really want to add more excitement to the end of games by tweaking extra points, I would just give the coaches more options for their one play after a touchdown. Instead of just having 1 and 2 point options, you could allow coaches to go for 3 from the 10 and maybe even 4 from the 25 or something (whatever distances make the expected value of each option roughly equal would be the best choice).

14 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

And if this were to be enacted someday, making a 10-point lead the new two-possession margin, how long before someone suggests awarding two points for the bonus figgie?

22 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Actually I think you're onto something here. We need cascading 2-pt conversions. Everytime you make it, the ball is spotted 10 yards back and you get another try. Until you reach your own endzone of course.

Potentially 25 point TDs if I did my math correctly.

25 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I get 26... (6 + 10 x 2 PAT) as there's attempts from the 2, 12, etc, to the 92.

They should also make it like the Daily Double in Jeopardy & have teams gamble the TD + PAT points. After a team scores a TD, they nominate to risk from 1-6 points on the PAT from the 2. Then again from 10 yards further back...

16 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

The only thing worse than ad hoc, harebrained schemes like this one are when such proposals are justified with phrases such as "extra layer of excitement" or the idea that it will give people more to talk about on Monday mornings. Ugh.

21 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

You're discussing in consequentialist terms a measure that will never pass for deontological reasons. It's janky. It's fiddly. It doesn't feel like a play that ought to exist. It feels silly. That's why it won't happen, not because it's not quite perfect for competitive balance or optimizing the number of interesting lategame decisions.

35 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Exactly right. Why is it that the most popular game in the country has by far the most people trying to fiddle with it? Changes to enhance safety make sense, but this stuff is baffling. Meanwhile MLB has declining ratings for a decade and a core demographic that approaches Bill O'Reilly's and it ignites a religious war by asking players just to stop ****ing around so much between pitches.

23 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

For more excitement, why not instead allow either team to score during the untimed period. On a 2-point attempt, if the defense returns it to the other goal line they get two points. Make the following attempt from the 60 and allow the defense to return it, it's a TD for the defense like during a missed FG. The play shouldn't be without risk for the offense.

Actually, I'd like this to be the case even on standard XPs or 2-point tries. Let the defense have a shot at one or two points if they score.

29 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

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's nothing to be proud of.

It was an analysis built on bad data, a broken win probability calculator, and bad logic... now compounded by an inability to learn.

43 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I only criticized flaws in the linked analysis. That's fair play. Going nuclear with ban threats is not.

Are you really threatening a ban because I pointed out data and method flaws in an article that you linked? Or that you hadn't seemed to learn from those earlier analysis problems?

This is nutty. FO was built on solid analysis and robust back and forth comments, working towards better conclusions backed by critical thinking. If you don't want us to reread your earlier article or for it to be looked at with a critical eye and discussed, don't link it.

Back on topic:
The analysis was flawed. It depended on a sample size of three to say that reaching overtime via a 2-point conversion made a win certain instead of a 50% chance. It used a broken win prob calculator that claimed down eight was no worse than down seven, despite the need to make a 2-point conversion to even reach OT. You even said that earning a 2-point chance by scoring a TD made the conversion more likely, as if teams got such chances some other way, although you ultimately changed that to something about defenses getting tired, if I recall it right.

I'm okay if you personally don't want to discuss that earlier article. People can follow the link. Or commenters can revisit the topic here, since you brought it up. It would be disappointing to ban discussion, even criticism, of an article you linked and extended here.

44 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

You've been warned in the past about your comments. This isn't something new. In fact, it's pathetically old by now.

I'm really not up for debating a 2013 article if you're going to fabricate what was written in it like this. A sample size of three? I compared 173 drives to 63 drives. Furthermore, I showed teams down 9 in the final two minutes had a record of 1-204. God forbid I suggest a strategy that puts your opponent in a 1-204 situation.

Take the WP thing up with Burke if you want. Real data shouldn't just be discarded or ignored. And I can't be bothered with someone that doesn't see the difference between 7 and 8 is nothing compared to the difference between 7/8 and 9.

45 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

You posted a link. You restated an idea. I commented on the idea and the supporting argument from the link. So please quit with the constant threats. I mean "You have been warned"? Who do you think you are, Roger Goodell?

As for your specific points:

The sample size of three: The table I am referencing was called "Do-or-Die Two-Point Conversions Since 1994". It showed just six such attempts in almost 20 years. Only three were successful. All three led to OT wins. What I said: ...they show an OT success rate of 100% for teams that are down eight but make it to overtime. On a sample size of three... I think that's a fair criticism, when you were relying on OT win/loss counts being other than 50% to make your point.

The win probability calculator thing isn't on Burke, and we don't need to "take it up with him". He doesn't claim it's 100% accurate on edge cases that have tiny samples. The problem was using it without applying a common sense test to the results. In this edge case it was spouting nonsense. I gave another example of obvious nonsense results. It's a great tool, but is weak on rare cases and some edge case situations. It must be used with common sense and care.

And your third comment (made here, at least) about up nine being a very good result, is almost a non sequitur. It's a red herring, at the least. The question was never whether being up nine was good. The question was always whether the risk of giving your opponent an easier path to OT when you failed on some conversions offset the benefit of giving them an almost impossible path to OT when you succeeded on others. You cannot logically just assume that you will succeed.

"Real data" is what it is, including its flaws which must be considered before using it uncritically. In this case, central results - such as the OT win/loss record after extremely rare events - were such small samples as to be useless for advising strategy.

51 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

You're going to deny being sent an email about your comments on here? "IP ban" is only a click away, because we don't go through this with any other user.

You clearly misread the do-or-die 2PC table. How can three successes lead to OT wins when those three teams all won by one point in regulation? The whole point was to show teams down 7 are almost guaranteed to play for OT instead of going for two to win in regulation. The relevant sample size isn't 3. It's the hundreds of TDs that were scored by a team down 7 that only tied the game with an extra point.

Everyone's WP calculator works differently. All of them would show the jump to a 9-point lead is more significant than 7 vs. 8. You're in good shape in all three cases in the final minutes, but going for two is worth it if your team is built for it (offense > defense).

53 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Oh, for goodness sake. You keep making threats. We're talking about a piece of analysis that you linked. Chill. This is exactly the right place for discussion about football analysis. Please stop with the threats.

You ARE right that I pointed to the wrong table. It was the next table after that showed teams going 3 for 3 in OT after tying with a 2-point conversion, compared to teams tying via a kick going 5 for 11. My mistake. But still tiny sample sizes. Sorry for the confusion.

The other samples are also important. In the end, we're mostly talking about 5 wins in 104 tries versus 3 wins in 41 tries. (That's using the table that restricted itself to more comparable drives, which strengthens the data a bit.) A lot of the difference is the OT results, which we should not consider predictive at all given the tiny sample there. The rest is a small number of TDs in a relatively small number of comparable drives by a lot of different teams in a lot of different situations. It's asking a lot to say that the difference was caused by the 8 point or 7 point leads, and not small sample sizes, disparate field position and time left, different teams and opponents, random events, refereeing calls, etc.

As for the 9 point lead being nearly a certain win, you keep saying that like it's important and ends the argument. But teams don't get the 9 point lead without risking only having a 7 point lead instead, and probably more often. Taking the certain 8 point lead puts a 2-point conversion between your opponent and overtime, reducing their chance of reaching OT by a little more than half. It's the tradeoff between an 8-point lead and a mix of 7-point and 9-point leads that matters.

In short, it's about whether you'd like to force your opponent to try a 2-point conversion if he scores, or to force yourself to try one right now. If 2-point conversions are hard, you should make your opponent try one.

As you suggest, if either team is very imbalanced such that 2-point conversions become a greater than fifty-fifty chance for both, then going for the nine point lead might make sense. That would have to be decided based on the two teams playing, not by looking at historical data of low predictive value.

34 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Let's go the opposite direction by eliminating the PAT altogether, making FGs worth one point, and touchdowns worth 2 1/2 points. Safeties can be worth 3/8 of a point. At the end of the 1st and 3rd quarters, points will be rounded down, and at halftime and final, fractions will be rounded up. Except for night games, which will be reversed. Playoffs will revert to the pre-merger scoring rules, and at any time the defensive team can earn a point by the secondary's successful re-enaction of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown during an injury stoppage.

47 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I was being sarcastic. Obviously no one would go as far as reenacting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand! My point is the referees have to clearly announce before the play which reenactment is eligible, so the Patriots -for example- won't try to confuse the opponent by running the wrong one.

Who, me?

56 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I thought it went without saying that the offense could negate the point if the center can recite "I Sing the Body Electric" from Whitman's Leaves of Grass within the time allotted by the play clock, but I guess some people need everything spelled out for them.

41 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

I say we draw an arc on the field and any TD's from outside that range score 8 pts. Call it the 8 pt line. And have teams play for six month seasons but still let almost everybody into the playoffs.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

49 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

There's no other thread discussing the other rule changes being voted on, so I guess this thread is as good as any to comment on them.

NFL has banned ineligible receivers lining up outside the tackle box. (I.e. the trick formation the Patriots used against the Ravens in the AFCCG). This makes me sad. So many neat strategic possibilities will never be realized now. I guess the "old-schoolers" never met a delightful innovation that they weren't scared of.

I'm surprised they didn't ban the Wildcat and the use of bunch formations while they were at it. "From now on, offenses must line up in this exact formation, to make it easy for the defenders to figure out who they're supposed to cover!"

50 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

"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."

If a team is down by 8 points late they don’t know if they need two scores or just one. The correct strategy if you’re down by 7 is to not rush things and score with little time left. If you’re down by 9 you need to pump it, push the ball down the field hard and take risks you wouldn’t do down one possession. Down 8 about half the time your late game strategy will be wrong since you lack this vital piece of information.

If you score to go head 7 before the PAT and you go for two you’re giving this essential information away to your opponent for free. Whether you make it or not your opponent will then know what the right strategy is. You want to allow your opponent to make as many mistakes as possible. You’ll know it too, but it is far more valuable for the team down to know if they need to score once or twice than it is for the team who is up.

For this I’m talking about the current system, not the nine point fantasy play.

52 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

But when you're talking about the final two minutes (which was the context for that 2013 IND-TEN game), every offense is going to move quickly when a TD is needed. And teams down 8 really need to hustle, because you don't know if you're going to need an onside kick should the 2PC fail. Down 8 is a one-score game in theory, but offenses have to leave some margin for error in case the 2PC fails.

59 Re: Go For Nine? For Who? For What?

Ignoring if its a good idea or not at a high level (9 pt TDs), one issue with the extra XP after the 2 pt conversion is there is no downside. With the current system, the downside is giving up an easy XP (which rarely does miss) for a 2 pt try (or kicking an easy 1 pt and giving up the chance for 2). Doing this, why wouldn't they always attempt the 9 pt XP if they got the 2 pt conversion? There's no other choice to make. Sure, they wouldn't necessarily make it, but there's no reason not to try. If the defense could return it, or they lose a pt of the already made 2, or it gives the 'D' a reciprocal chance with their special teams to make an equal length 1 pt attempt, etc etc, then you'd have a downside to weigh against doing it or not.

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