So what do we do with all these missed extra points?
NFL kickers are missing more than ever, so why don’t more teams just go for two?
Yesterday was a disaster for kickers across the NFL. Between 2010 and 2014, NFL kickers missed just 37 of 6,153 extra point attempts, a 99.4% conversion rate. Yesterday’s 12 games alone saw a whopping 12 missed extra points. What was once an opportunity for fans to grab a snack or a bathroom break has instead become must-watch television.
The weather yesterday had a lot to do with the many missed extra points, but the fact remains that what was once a 1-point formality after every 6-point touchdown has now become a game changer in many cases.
Many studies have now shown pretty conclusively that NFL teams should go for two more often, or even exclusively. Yesterday’s horrible kicking offered even more proof — so what are we to do with extra points, and why are so many teams still kicking them?
A quick review of the math is helpful just to understand the basics. Since the NFL moved the extra-point attempt back to the 15-yard line last year, teams have converted the kick 93.9% of the time. Since the kick is worth one point, that means each kick attempt is worth 0.939 points on average.
That means teams must convert a two-point attempt at least 47% of the time for it to be profitable, since that would give each two-point attempt an expected value of 0.94 on average, making it better than a kick.
Over the past five seasons, teams have converted when going for two on 47.8% of their attempts. So that means the math favors going for two more often — but only slightly.
So is the decision largely a toss-up?
Last year saw 94 two-point conversions attempted with 45 completed successfully, a rate of 47.9% very much in line with historical expectations and an expected value of 0.96, making it every so slightly better than kicking the extra point.
So far this season, 26 of the 32 NFL teams have gone for two at least once. Thus far they’ve converted on 36 of 67 attempts, a success rate of 53.7% and an expected value of 1.07. So far nine teams are converting below 47% success and probably wish they had kicked more often while almost twice as many (17) are at 50% or better success and very happy with their decision.
So are teams getting better at going for two? There’s not enough data yet to tell, but we’d have to see the next nine attempts in a row fail for the data to support kicking over going for two this year. Even on a small sample size, that is a pretty unlikely scenario.
And actually, the data itself may likely be skewed in a way that blurs the numbers. After all, who usually goes for a two-point conversion? Traditionally it’s a team that is trailing in the game, looking to make a comeback or put up points quickly late. In other words, better teams are often sitting on leads while worse teams are trying to catch up by going for two.
Last year, the 12 worst teams in the league combined to go 18 for 38 on two-point attempts, a 47% success rate right in line with expectations. Meanwhile the 12 best teams in the league converted 21 of 35 attempts, a 60% success rate and an expected value of 1.20 per attempt. That success rate jumps even further to 67% if you exclude Seattle. Last year’s best teams were quite good at going for two. It was not a coin flip but close to a 2-to-1 likelihood they’d convert the two points successfully.
So why aren’t good teams going for two more often?
One reason may have to do with the psychological effect called loss aversion. Loss aversion is a behavioral economics concept stating that humans in general are affected psychologically almost twice as strongly by losing something than by gaining. Thus humans often act irrationally, choosing to limit risk and avoid losing, even at the cost of a greater gain.
For so long, the extra-point attempt has been a formality in the NFL. Touchdowns were basically just worth 7 points, and the kick was a waste of television time. Coaches probably got used to the same mentality. The extra-point became a freebie. You can either “take” the point or risk it and go for two. Going for two and failing hurts not only because you didn’t gain the two points but because it feels like you “lost” the one point.
Not all coaches act the same way. Have you ever watched lower level college football or Friday night high school football? A lot of teams at those levels have garbage kicking games and see extra-point conversions well below 94%. And not surprisingly, a lot of teams eschew the kick and go for two much more frequently. If you only convert 50% of your extra-point kicks, then you only need a 25% success rate on two-point attempts for the math to work in your favor.
Maybe it’s time for NFL coaches to stop treating the extra point as a freebie. You work all game to get a touchdown and score 6 points. Now you have a bonus opportunity to score points.
Imagine if the NBA suddenly started offering players and coaches a choice. When a player earns free throws, he can either shoot from the traditional spot for 1 point or he can shoot from the three-point line for 2 points. Your player hits an NBA-average 75% of his free throws but is a sharpshooter from downtown, hitting almost 50% of his threes. Which spot do you think the coach has him shoot from?
Well the correct answer should be obvious. The “two-point attempt” spot in this case offers 33% greater value and is a clear choice. Still no one would be surprised to see many coaches think about taking the sure, safe free throw points. After all, it’s right there in the name — “free” throw.
Think about when your favorite basketball team is down two late in the game. Your star player gets a good look but the shot rims out, and bummer, you lose. But imagine instead your guy gets fouled and earns two free throws. The day is saved! This guy is a great free throw shooter at 85% so you figure you’re headed to overtime — these are sure points. Yet the math shows that you’re still going to lose 28% of the time, and sure enough if your star misses a free throw there, it feels absolutely devastating.
Why does it? It’s loss aversion at work. Free throws are free. Your mind has already assumed the points were there for the taking and now you’ve lost them. Humans do not like to lose something they think they already have.
There are plenty of other reasons the scale should weigh more often in favor of going for two.
An average 32-yard kick attempt in the NFL over the years has been made around 94% of the time, but an extra point is not like every other kick. If that kick is a field goal, the defense must be careful not to jump offside or run into the kicker, lest they give the offense a first down and a renewed chance at a touchdown. And if all 11 defenders go for the block, the kicking team could fake and pick up a long gain or score a touchdown.
There’s no such risk involved for the defense on an extra-point attempt. Teams can’t fake the attempt, and if the defense tries too hard to block the kick and draws a penalty, the only real cost is the team getting a new chance to kick again. Now maybe instead of a 94% conversion rate, the kicker’s odds go up to 97% — big deal. That tiny margin is well worth the risk if the upside is taking a full point away from the other team.
Plus NFL teams average around 5.5 yards per play this year. That’s almost triple the yardage they need to earn for a successful two-point conversion. And if teams started practicing going for two more often, shouldn’t they develop better plays and get more successful in their attempts?
Going for two can also have a psychological advantage. Flash back to week one this season when Oakland scored what appeared to be a “game-tying touchdown,” down seven in the final minute in New Orleans. Instead of kicking the extra point for the tie, coach Jack del Rio had his team go for two and they converted it, taking the lead by one and securing the win a few plays later.
Now the Raiders are 7–2 and enjoying their best season in years. Del Rio’s decision the first week of the season showed a young team that their coach believed in them and, instead of playing not to lose, was ready to go out and win. That psychological belief likely galvanized the team for the entire season moving forward. Even if they had missed the conversion, del Rio knew his players would see that he believed in their ability to go get two yards and win the football game.
More NFL teams should consider going for two more often, and maybe yesterday’s disaster of a kicking day will help tilt the conversation further in that direction. Instead of fearing the loss of the no-longer-sure-thing extra point, maybe fans and teams will begin to embrace decisions like del Rio’s in week one or Pete Carroll’s decision to go for two up seven against New England a week ago — the right decisions, successful or not.
And if not, I guess NFL teams will just keep missing extra point kicks.
I should know, after all ... I’m a Vikings fan.
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