It was the Sunday of the missed extra point, and I loved it. Even though I hope we never see another one like it.
Let me explain: Yesterday there were 12 missed extra points, more extra points missed than ever before in any week in NFL history. That is an extraordinary outcome of the NFL’s year-and-a-half-old rule, which made extra points harder by pushing them back 13 yards farther. I love the fact that an extra point is no longer a gimme that you don’t even bother to watch.
But here’s why I hope we never see another day like yesterday in the NFL: Because I hope coaches finally learn from all these missed extra points and start going for two as the rule, not the exception. I’d love to see some weekend in the NFL when teams don’t even attempt, let alone miss, 11 extra points, because two-point conversions are a far more entertaining play. And what do we watch football for, if not to be entertained?
Now that extra points aren’t gimmes, going for two is the mathematically smart play: Two-point conversions are made about 50 percent of the time, and extra point kicks are made about 94 percent of the time. So the average expected value of a two-point conversion is 1 point, while the expected value of an extra point kick is 0.94 points. Obviously, it’s a small difference, but it’s still a difference. Coaches do all kinds of things to try to give their team the slightest of edges. So why not go for two more often, when it will give their team a slight edge?
The answer is that football coaches are conservative traditionalists by nature, and a lot of the time the reason they do things is because, “We’ve always done it that way.”
But that’s a bad reason to do things. “We’ve always done it that way” comes from a time when teams could always count on their kickers to make extra points. As we saw across the NFL yesterday, that’s no longer the case. Now, kickers miss more extra points on one Sunday than they missed in an entire season before last year’s rule change.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has begun going for two more often than most coaches do, but even Tomlin kicks more often than he goes for two. It’s past time for coaches to not only emulate Tomlin, but go beyond what Tomlin has done, and make going for two the default option. Some day some coach is going to do it, and when his team wins a game by a point, he’ll be hailed as a genius. I won’t even take credit for it.
Here are my other thoughts on Sunday’s action:
Sen’Derrick Marks made the bonehead play of the year. Marks, a Jaguars defensive tackle, jumped offside on a fourth-and-2 hard count by the Lions that was so obviously just an attempt to draw them offside that the Lions might as well have announced it on the Ford Field jumbotron. There was never any chance that the Lions were going for it on the play, but their offense lined up and Matthew Stafford started barking out signals. Amazingly, Marks jumped offside, handing the Lions a new set of downs that they used to put the game away in a hard-fought win. Players hardly ever jump offside in that situation because players know that the fourth-down hard count is the oldest trick in the book. But apparently Marks didn’t know.
Ben Roethlisberger, Cleveland nemesis. I know I wrote last week that I don’t like quarterback wins, but I’m going to share this stat anyway: Yesterday the Steelers won their 10th game started by Ben Roethlisberger in Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium. That’s as many wins as any Browns quarterback has in the stadium — and the Browns have been playing there since 1999. Think about that: The Browns have quarterbacks starting in that stadium eight times a year, for 17 years. They’ve played there 133 times. Roethlisberger has played there 12 times. And Roethlisberger has won as many starts as any Browns quarterback. That’s an ugly demonstration of just how bad the Browns have been since re-joining the league.
No, the Cowboys’ offensive line isn’t the MVP. Whenever a great player bursts onto the scene, there’s an inevitable backlash of people who want to claim that player isn’t really so great. This year, there’s been a backlash against both of the Cowboys’ great rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. And the backlash has taken the form of claiming that the Cowboys’ offensive line really deserves the credit that Prescott and Elliott are getting. I’ve even seen arguments that the Cowboys’ offensive line deserves to be the MVP of the league, a bizarre claim that defies the very idea of what an MVP is. (It’s a most valuable player, singular, not a most valuable group of players, and you can’t give it to a whole offensive line just like you can’t make an entire secondary the Defensive Player of the Year.) But if you watched Elliott and Prescott play yesterday against a very good Ravens defense, I hope it was obvious what special players they are. No, not just “anyone can run behind the Cowboys’ line,” as I’ve seen people say. Yesterday Elliott ran for 97 yards and put the game away late, while backups Alfred Morris and Lance Dunbar, running behind that same Cowboys line, combined for five yards on three carries. Both Morris and Dunbar have career-low yards per carry averages this season, strongly suggesting that not just “anyone” can run behind that Cowboys line. Prescott had 301 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers. You don’t do that just because your line is protecting you. The Cowboys have the same offensive line this year that they had last year, when they had perhaps the worst offense in the NFL. Prescott and Elliott are the reason for this year’s turnaround.
Chip Kelly’s personnel mistakes are legion. When you look at this year’s Eagles, it’s really stunning to see that they’ve built a good team despite inheriting a huge personnel mess from Chip Kelly. Last year, when Kelly was given total control over all the personnel decisions, the team stunk. This year, they’ve tried to reverse almost all of his big moves: They traded away Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, and they’d love to trade away Kelly’s first-round pick, Nelson Agholor, if only anyone would take him in a trade. (An awful Agholor drop yesterday is what made me decide to mention this.) The 5-5 Eagles are probably a year away from getting back to the playoffs, but it’s a testimony to G.M. Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson that they’ve been able to pick up the pieces in Philadelphia, because the team Kelly left them was in shambles.
Bill Belichick, analytics maven. Belichick got some laughs when he scoffed last week about analytics websites, but as I detailed here, Belichick is actually a believer in analytics. He may not be a believer in the publicly available data online, but Belichick considers the Patriots’ football research director Ernie Adams one of his closest advisors, and he studies statistics closely. Given that, I have high hopes that Belichick will be the first coach to eschew extra point kicks and make the two-point conversion the norm. That’s the future of football.