Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Inside Slant: An alternative to longer XPs
By Kevin Seifert
Last weekend, the Detroit Lions provided a template for the way a longer extra point can impact an NFL game. They misfired on their first attempt during a preseason game at the Oakland Raiders -- and wound up losing the game by one point, 27-26.
Shayne Graham misses an extra point in the Saints' preseason game against the Rams on Aug. 8.
A similar fate befell the Carolina Panthers earlier this month after punter Jordan Gay, filling in for the injured Graham Gano, missed his first attempt. Coach Ron Rivera felt compelled to go for two points after the Panthers' next two touchdowns. Both attempts failed, and the Panthers lost 20-18 to the Buffalo Bills. Extra points after all three touchdowns, of course, would have added up to a 21-20 victory.
The NFL's now-concluded preseason experiment with 33-yard extra points undoubtedly produced visible results. In two weeks, kickers missed more attempts (eight) than they did during the entire 17 weeks of the 2013 regular season (five). Their preseason conversion rate of 94.3 (133-of-141) extrapolates to about 73 misses over a full regular season, based on the number of touchdowns scored in 2013. That's roughly one for every 3.5 games.
Those figures don't provide a full story, however, and it doesn't seem to me that the NFL has found a permanent solution to energizing the extra point. During a recent training camp tour, most kickers and coaches viewed the 33-yard experiment as a starting point in a larger discussion about the skyrocketing accuracy of place-kicking. If the league really wants to heighten the post-touchdown entertainment level, several of them said, it should focus on making the two-point conversion more inviting -- by moving it to the 1-yard line from the 2.
Before getting to those thoughts, let's first deconstruct what happened this summer. It's important to consider several factors that might not apply in the regular season.
First, as the chart shows, kickers with little to no NFL experience accounted for more than half of the misses. It's difficult to make a regular-season judgment when including the performance of roster candidates who might well be waived before Labor Day. When you more limit the conversation to "established" place-kickers, you're down to three misses in two weeks.
Second, it's worth noting that even the initial 94.3 percent figure is higher than the regular-season rate of 33-yard field goals over the past five seasons (91.8). It's reasonable to wonder if place-kicking is improving so rapidly (a story for another day) that a 33-yarder could soon progress into near-automatic range -- rendering moot the original intent of moving it back. (As we discussed this winter, it would probably require a 46-yard extra point to make a long-term impact on the game.)
"Generally speaking in the NFL, you should make that [33-yard] kick," Indianapolis Colts place-kicker Adam Vinatieri said. "My expectation for anyone is that they should make it. So I'm not sure if this is a steppingstone to move it again or what."
Finally, there seemed to some an unnatural and inorganic feel to a rule that calls for one point from a 33-yard kick but three (from a field goal attempt) as short as 19 yards.
"It was really interesting to hear the conversation around the topic and all the different ideas this spring," Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said before the preseason began. "It was the first time in my experience going to those meetings where I felt it was a little bit of a reach. We have to do something, but we're not really sure what the best option is. That's why trying this, the moving it back deal, is going to be interesting. It's the first time I've seen an unorthodox attempt to try to fix something that they feel is wrong. So to me, I think we're seeing the first version of what's ahead of us and they'll continue to get input. They obviously feel the extra point is just a wasted play."
In the end, however, is a play with a 94.3 percent success rate substantially more entertaining than one that is 99.8, as the NFL extra point was in 2013? You can't sell me on that, and for at least some fans it could prove more of an annoyance than anything else. That's why the idea of a shorter two-point conversion seems a more intriguing option.
You might not think there is much difference between a play from the 1- or the 2-yard line, but in NFL terms there is. Since the start of the 2001 season, which is as far back as ESPN Stats & Information records on it go, the conversion rate of two-point plays from the 1-yard line is 65.5 percent. From the 2, it's 46.9 percent. At that rate of success, more coaches probably would choose it over an extra point.
"I think if they go to the 1," McCarthy said, "the two-point conversion [attempts] will go up significantly. … The run opportunity and the pass opportunity are both in play from the 2 and the 1, but running from the 2 is different than running from the 1."
In this scenario, you've taken the post-touchdown success rate from 99.8 to 65.5. The ultimate entertainment goal for this experiment, as Colts punter and occasional place-kicker Pat McAfee said, should be to create a genuine "chance for failure." The NFL could achieve that -- as well as an infusion of more sophisticated and nuanced strategy -- with a shorter two-point conversion. Hopefully, the 33-yard extra point experiment will be the start of a journey to get us there.