The Safety: The Sweetest Two Points in Football

Sarah BraunsteinCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2006

IconRight before it happens, as the offensive line sets up in its own end zone, your nervous twitch kicks into gear.

Maybe you're a toe-tapper, or a leg-shaker, or maybe you just silently raise your hands above your head. In any event, you know what's coming.

The ball is snapped and the quarterback hands it off, and the running back struggles not for a first down, not even for decent yardage—he just wants to cross that line.  But he can't, and as the holes close down on the left and the right he fights and fights and then finally crumples to the ground, under three or four men much larger than he.  The whistle is blown, the play is over—and as the defensive line jumps up and down the scoreboard above the field changes, adding the two sweetest points in football.

There's just something magical about the safety.

According to the NFL Record and Fact Book, no team has ever recorded five or more safeties in one season. The last to get four was Tennessee, back in 1999. Only one team has earned three in a single game: the L.A. Rams, against the New York Giants on September 30, 1984.  Fred Dryer holds the individual player record for most safeties in a game, at two, and Ted Hendriks holds the record for the most safeties in a career—with a surprisingly-low four.

So perhaps it's because the safety is so rare that it's so exciting to see.  

Like every other football fan, I like a last-minute win.  I enjoy the thrill of a team, on its last possession, engineering a winning drive.  I liked watching Rob Bironas' 60-yard field goal sail through the uprights on Sunday.

But things like that happen every season.

Winning by a safety, on the other hand, is an unexpected gift from the football gods.  We were lucky enough to see it happen this year—on September 10, when New England beat Buffalo by a score of 19-17.

Because of their rarity and their "inside the five" location, safeties carry with them a kind of humiliation unmatched by other defensive scores.  A defense comes into a team's home, to its own end zone, and shuts them down.  They disgrace a place generally reserved for celebration—and the safety can't be ignored, because the evidence is right there on the scoreboard: 5, 15, 19, and 23 are numbers you don't usually see on Sundays.

Now I know there will be shouts about two-point conversions, and I agree that there's nothing like a team successfully reaching the end zone on two consecutive plays to kill the spirit of a defense.  But it's an offense's job to score points.  The two-point conversion is planned, expected—but the safety, no matter how badly a defense wants it, is unpredictable.

Data about game-winning safeties is difficult to find, but by far the most impressive statistic is that two NFL games have been won via safety in overtime: a Vikings vs. L.A. Rams game in 1989 and a Bears vs. Titans game in 2004.  In the latter, the Titans fumbled the ball in their own end zone, and though they recovered it they couldn't get past the line, resulting in a 19-17 Bears victory. How's that for an ending?

There have been some amazing plays in the NFL in recent years: Devin Hester's 108-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown; the Ravens' blocking a potential game-winning field goal to beat the Titans by one point; Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal for the Bucs to beat the Eagles after he was 0-for-3 from beyond 40 yards. These are thrilling events, the kind of feats that get replayed over and over and over again on ESPN...

But when it comes to scoring points in unexpected ways, I still think the good old fashioned safety is the sweetest play of them all.