Go For 2. Why Del Rio was right.

I wrote last week about teams going for 2 more frequently in 2015, due to the NFL rule change which increased the difficulty of a successful extra point. Well, week 1 in the NFL didn’t disappoint with the continued trend and chatter.

Figure 1 shows week 1 stats, though too early to say which way the season will tip relative to 2015. 79 touchdowns were scored in week 1, with teams electing to kick the one-point attempt 72 times and missing 5 times. Of the 7 two-point attempts in Week 1, 4 were successfully converted. And no two-point attempt has been more discussed than the Oakland Raiders third attempt on the day, with just 47 seconds remaining in the game and trailing the New Orleans Saints by one point.

Focusing on Oakland, last week’s article suggested that they have no business going for 2. Ever. Their XPM% was among league best in 2015 (only missed 1 attempt in 39 tries). Additionally, their ability to convert two-point attempts and 4th downs in 2015 was among league worst at 37.5% (converted 1 of 3 two-point attempts and 5 of 13 4th downs).

So what gives?

Let’s revisit an important point from last week’s article:
“… each play following a touchdown is an independent event and each decision of whether to go for 1 or 2 is made on the margin.”

This means that each decision is made in context of the game, with consideration (not determination) of the retrospective statistics. So put yourself in Jack Del Rio’s shoes at the end of the game where your team has staged a heroic comeback. Here’s some of what is kicking through your head at the time of his call (which, interestingly Del Rio decided before even scoring):

  • My kicker is among league best (97.4% XPM in 2015)
  • 47 seconds left in the game, giving the Saints a chance to kick a FG and win
  • New Orleans has been extremely successful moving the ball today — 4 out of 10 possessions were full-field drives for touchdowns (FootballOutsiders calculated Saints were 2nd best in Week 1 normalized yards per drive)
  • If I am able to stop the Saints with 47s remaining, there is a 50/50 chance I get the ball first in OT
  • (Author’s conjecture) “Sure, we weren’t great converting two-point attempts and 4th downs last year, but this year is different. We’re already 50% today!”

So given those truths (and some other reasonable assumptions), here’s what coach Del Rio was facing:

Expected values based on stated probabilities for winning and losing against each strategy show that Del Rio had a good reason for choosing to go for 2. Sure, the extra-point is nearly a given, but winning in OT isn’t.

Del Rio made a good decision and it led to a good outcome.