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Inside Slant: 'Organic' should be key word in NFL kicking changes -- and elsewhere

2/16/2015
As fans endure rulebook fatigue, the NFL is tinkering with kicking staples in place nearly a century. AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)

The NFL's competition committee will meet this week to debate proposals that would fundamentally change the game, a list ranging from an expansion of instant replay to extension of the postseason to a reimagining of the extra point. So now is a good time to recount a story that Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, told a small group of reporters two days before Super Bowl XLIX.

A few weeks earlier, Vincent found himself listening to talk radio in Green Bay as he drove to Austin Straubel Airport, reliving the controversial divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. He wanted to know how fans were reacting to a rule that disallowed what by all evidence looked like a legal catch by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter of the Packers' 26-21 victory.

"A guy was saying, 'You know, I'm watching the game now and I feel like I have to have a rule book,'" Vincent said. "I parked. I paused and wanted to listen further. I'm [thinking], if he feels that way, and [his team] won, then imagine how other people feel across the country. [They're like], 'I used to know the rules. Football used to be so simple. You run. You throw. You tackle.' When you hear those things around the country, and you read different comments, you say, 'This is something we have to think about. How do we get a culture where there is clarity and consistency for all?'"

What Vincent heard and articulated was a sense that the NFL neared a tipping point with its most loyal fans during the 2014 season. These are the people who look past the league's off-field stumbles, who can stomach concerns about the long-term health of players, and just want to consume football. Even that group has been confused and at times outraged by a labyrinth of NFL rules, exceptions and points of emphasis that impacted games throughout the season.

Among Vincent's duties, one is quite basic: He must ensure that football makes sense and agrees with the average consumer, a task hardened by decades of unintended consequences from rule changes designed to correct a specific flaw. And yet, even when one of its executives recognizes the situation, the NFL is pursuing another set of inorganic changes that would further complicate the game.

The league appears obsessed at its highest levels with changing the near-automatic extra point, as evidenced by commissioner Roger Goodell's prominent mention during his annual news conference last month. It's true that place-kickers have been converting extra points at a rate above 99 percent for five consecutive years, as the chart shows. But two possible changes, expected to be on the competition committee's agenda this week, appear flawed as well.

The possibilities stem from a pair of experiments conducted in the past six months. In the first two weeks of the 2014 preseason, extra points were placed at the 15-yard line and thus became 33-yard kicks. The conversion rate dropped to 94.3 percent for the resulting 141 attempts. Then, in the Pro Bowl last month, the league narrowed the uprights by four feet -- from 18 feet, 6 inches to 14 feet, 6 inches -- and watched as place-kicker Adam Vinatieri uncharacteristically missed a field goal and two extra-point attempts.

"When you adjust it down, it's not automatic," Vincent said. "... I think that will be something that will be discussed, absolutely, just seeing what we saw in the Pro Bowl. I think it was good."

There is no debating that a 33-yard extra point and/or narrower goalposts would make kicks more difficult. But would it make sense within the context of the game? And would it really be more entertaining?

I spoke with both Super Bowl kickers last month about the possible changes. Neither the Seattle Seahawks' Steven Hauschka nor the New England Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski were enthused, and not simply because it would make their jobs more difficult.

"They just want more entertainment," Hauschka said. "If that's what they think is entertainment, then go for it. I think it will affect the games in more ways than they think."

Consider a late-season game at Chicago's Soldier Field. Each team scores three touchdowns but the game is decided by a missed extra point. Would that process and result be more entertaining? Or just annoying?

Meanwhile, Hauschka theorized that conversion rates on field goals would drop from their current spot (84 percent in 2014) to the 70s or lower with narrower goalposts. Gostkowski wondered whether decision-makers understand how often kicking technique requires use of the uprights' periphery.

"When you play in a place like New England or Buffalo or anywhere in the Northeast, there is a lot of wind," Gostkowski said. "You don't always aim down the middle. You have to play the wind. It's a guessing game with the wind, and given a couple of feet less on each side, it becomes [an] extremely, extremely more difficult task at hand."

The chart suggests the sharp rise of field goal accuracy might have leveled off. And an argument could be made that long-distance field goals actually increase scoring and entertainment. "If a team decides to go for a 55-yard field goal and has a good kicker and he makes it," Hauschka said, "I think they should be rewarded for it. You won't see those kinds of attempts anymore if they narrow the goalposts."

The NFL hasn't changed the width of the uprights since it began recording field dimensions prior to the 1920s, according to a league spokesman. The upright is as much a part of the game as a 100-yard field. And if the league moves the spot on extra points, it would introduce an inorganic scenario in which a 19-yard field goal could count for three points while a 33-yard extra point would count for one.

So for what it's worth, I'll return to a suggestion a number of coaches made last summer.

Instead of changing the uprights or moving the spot of the extra point in the name of entertainment, why not give teams an incentive to go for two points after a touchdown? Simply shifting the line of scrimmage from the 2-yard line to the 1 is probably enough. Multiple coaches said they would be more likely to go for two from the 1-yard line, given its reduced difficulty and increased play-calling possibilities.

Since 2001, which is as far as ESPN Stats & Information's records go, the conversion rate for two-point plays from the 1-yard line (after a penalty) is 69.7 percent. By definition, that makes it a substantially more difficult -- and genuinely entertaining -- play without disrupting an efficiency in the kicking game that the league should be trying to preserve.

Would the NFL consider it? I haven't detected any substantive discussion. But if Vincent is hearing about frustration over complex rules, and he knows they originate from attempts to straighten out specific objections, you would hope there is a chance.