Over the last week in the NFL, multiple coaches and quarterbacks have talked about the possibility of going for two after almost every touchdown. But no one has come right out and said his team is going to go for two most of the time.
In fact, no team in the history of the NFL — or in major college football — has ever gone for two most of the time. Last year, the Steelers were about as close as any team has come to making two-point conversions the norm, but even the Steelers kicked more than three times as often as they went for two, finishing the season with 34 extra point attempts and 11 two-point conversion attempts.
Mike Tomlin took a step in the right direction, but it’s time for NFL coaches to stop taking baby steps on two point conversions. It’s time for some coach to go for two as the default option after scoring a touchdown.
Mathematically, there’s no question that it would be the right call for some teams. Last year across the NFL, kickers went 1,146-for-1,217 (94.2 percent) on extra points, while offenses went 45-for-94 (47.9 percent) on two-point conversions. In other words, an extra point kick produced, on average, 0.942 points, while a two-point conversion attempt produced, on average, 0.958 points. The risks already (slightly) outweigh the rewards of going for two.
But that’s just on average. Some teams — teams that have a good short-yardage offense and/or a bad kicker — were leaving significant points on the board when they decided to take the allegedly safe option of kicking the extra point. Take the Steelers, who converted on eight of their 11 two-point attempts and 32 of their 34 one-point attempts. That means the Steelers scored 1.5 points per two-point try and 0.9 points per one-point try. The Steelers were forfeiting more than half a point, on average, every time they sent their kicker onto the field after a touchdown.
Even if you think your kicker is automatic on extra points (and no kicker truly is, as the Patriots found out when Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in a decade in the AFC Championship Game), if you have confidence in your offense you’re better off going for two. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is one of the coaches who said recently that he’d consider making two-point conversions the default option, and he’d be wise to do so. Even though the Packers went 36-for-36 on extra points last year, they were better on two-point conversions, converting on four of six attempts, or 1.3 points per two-point try. The Packers’ season ended when they lost in overtime to the Cardinals in the playoffs, an overtime they forced with an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary followed by a Mason Crosby extra point. McCarthy should have trusted Rodgers to win the game with a two-point conversion at the end of the fourth quarter, rather than trusting Crosby to tie the game and then hoping that overtime would work out in the Packers’ favor.
No team would always go for two because there are still some late-game situations in which a 90 percent chance at one point is better than a 50 percent chance at two points. If you score a touchdown in the final minute to tie a game, you’re always going to kick the extra point to win by one, rather than try for the conversion and win by two.
But those rare instances aside, there’s little doubt that many if not most teams would be better off with a strategy of going for two most of the time.
So why don’t coaches do it? Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter answered that question honestly this week.
“We’ve studied it, and mathematically, it does make sense,” Koetter acknowledged, before adding, “Say we go out there that first game, and we score three touchdowns and we don’t make any two pointers and we lose 21-18. Who’s going to get killed?”
Koetter is right — he’s going to get killed if he makes going for two the default option and he fails. But guess what? You took a job as a head coach in the NFL. Your decisions are going to be second-guessed. It comes with the territory. If you’re going to be second-guessed anyway, you might as well get second-guessed for the strategy that you admitted makes sense, mathematically. That strategy is going for two most of the time. It’s time for some coach to have the guts to follow the risky — but smart — strategy. Some coach might follow that strategy and lose 21-18, but another coach is going to follow that strategy and win 22-21, and when he does, he’ll be hailed for having both guts and brains.