Every point scored in a football game affects the outcome. Therefore, every point should be contested and should have some degree of difficulty. Anything automatic is useless in a sport that presents equal doses of mental and physical challenges.
Nothing should be assumed, and the home audience shouldn't be given a convenient break to step aside and replenish the living room’s supply of bacon-wrapped everything.
The extra-point attempt had long passed its expiration date. It was the league’s two-week-old deli meat shoved to the back of the fridge. A successfully booted ball from the 2-yard line after a touchdown was such a formality that kickers missed only five of 1,267 extra-point attempts in 2013.
That translated to a conversion rate of 99.6 percent (an all-time single-season high), and more near-flawlessness followed in 2014 with a 99.3 percent success rate. NFL kickers have reached the 99 percent plateau in each of the past five seasons, and there hasn’t been a season below 98 percent since 1993, according to Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal.
Change had to come for this utterly obsolete act of clinging to tradition. But the NFL generally hides under the warm comfort of bed covers when faced with any radical shift in gameplay.
So which option was given 30 thumbs up and only two dissenting votes by owners during their spring meeting in San Francisco? The one that felt safe, of course. Dan Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, provided a recap of the rule changes:
The league’s decision in part implements a preseason experiment that injected some periodic blinking into a play on life support. For two weeks during the 2014 preseason, a team lined up at the 15-yard line after scoring a touchdown. The extra point was then a 33-yard try, whereas previously chip shots came from 20 yards out.
The result? Well, something.
|Comparing extra point conversion percentages|
Sure, those eight misses are from a minuscule sample size when compared to 2013. Over two weeks of preseason games, kickers attempted 133 extra points, and there were 1,316 in 2013. But inexperience is a standard preseason flaw, and many of the kickers who participated in the experiment were released before meaningful football began.
What we have with the approval of a new approach is a tiptoeing start. It’s a beginning and a natural evolution toward something more permanent to fix an afterthought. Courtesy of Barry Petchesky of Deadspin, Sportsnet New York's Andrew Vazzano provided insight on the NFL's kicking percentages from 1932-2013:
Tuesday's decision is potentially a temporary rule change, too, and will be revisited following the 2015 season. Which is where hope can be found.
There’s reason to believe this tweak—and let’s be clear: The 33-yard extra point cranks the change knob no more than one notch—will be followed by more tinkering with the post-touchdown procedure in the coming seasons.
The first source of optimism simply comes from other proposals under consideration this year, even if they weren’t adopted. An idea floated from the Philadelphia Eagles suggested moving up two-point conversion attempts to the 1-yard line. That would have fundamentally changed strategy and led to the importance of extra-point specialists like the Eagles’ own quarterback/throwing running back Tim Tebow.
Another proposal from the New England Patriots was identical to the competition committee idea eventually accepted, but without an opportunity for the defense to score.
The owners delicately took a middle ground between those three options. They shied away from drastic two-point change, but introduced the potential to be punished for a longer extra-point miss if a blocked kick is returned. In that case, the defense gets two points.
Overall, this still represents a step forward, albeit a slight one. When this half-measure flounders, hopefully 32 rich men, whose votes matter, will be far more open to a larger stride next year.
Because while there’s encouragement to be found if you're the optimistic type, any play with a 90-plus percent success rate is still barely avoiding irrelevant status. Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus shared some stats on field-goal accuracy:
Kickers connected on 95.8 percent of attempts in the 30- to 34-yard range in 2014, per Futterman.
There will be change, just not a whole lot, and the coaches set to make rapid decisions in high-pressure moments know their thought process won't be affected much.
"It'll be interesting, because I don't really think things are going to change, except the fact that percentage goes down from 32 or 33 yards," said Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, via Ben Swanson of Broncos.com.
"So the minute you miss that extra point, the two-point play comes into effect."
The scenario Kubiak describes was standard thinking under the old rules, and now perhaps sprinkling a few more missed PATs throughout the season will in turn lead to a marginal uptick in two-point conversion attempts. But any increase will barely be noticeable.
And while added risk is introduced through the threat of a defensive score, it’s minimal at best, too. During the 2014 regular season, 31 kicks were blocked. That includes attempts from any distance, and clearly there are far fewer thuds for shorter kicks not requiring a low trajectory. Only two of those blocked kicks were returned for touchdowns, coming on attempts from 48 and 41 yards.
The next step is to either back kickers up further or embrace the 1-yard line as a starting spot for two-point conversion attempts. That would bring a new strategic wrinkle, as teams had a 57.5 percent scoring rate in 2014 from the 1-yard line, according to SB Nation’s Katie Sharp, as opposed to the 47.5 percent two-point conversion rate from a yard further back.
Or there's another idea that's been tossed around, one Broncos kicker Connor Barth supports.
"Narrowing the uprights would make it a lot more challenging than moving the extra point," he told Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post. "Most guys can hit 33-yarders in their sleep."
Barth added that the new distance will "probably change the percentages a bit," but nothing of significance.
"I still think we'll be in the high 90 percent range on extra points from the 15. I think they're just trying to find something to change."
He's right: This will be mostly useless tweaking if the NFL stops here. However, as a first step for a league sluggish in its acceptance of change, the new extra-point distance has value.
Strategizing and managing risk are at the root of football, and both will eventually be needed for every play.