Two For the Win
By Walter Rhein
Special to PTU
It must be tough to be an NFL coach; no matter how good a job you do, a large percentage of the public will not be satisfied with your performance. Fans demand full consistency, which simply isn’t possible in a league as talented as that of professional football. Even Bill Belichick gets criticized for calls on occasion. The howling of the fans causes head coaches to lose their jobs, so coaches feel intense pressure to act based on conventional wisdom.
The trouble is, conventional wisdom isn’t always correct.
Now, I’m not a statistician, but I do have a college minor in physics, which means I understand numbers enough to know when something is being misinterpreted. Recently, Jack Del Rio got some flack for attempting a 2-point conversion to win a game rather than a PAT to tie. Despite the fact that the conversion was successful, fans were still critical of the coach for his choice.
That blows my mind! He won the game people! Usually a win is the trump card which erases all bad decisions (even when they are good decisions the general public is too dumb to appreciate)! But not in this case.
Recently the Packers have had poor luck in overtime, and I’m starting to think McCarthy needs to do whatever he can to avoid playing extra minutes. Even with the new overtime rules, we’ve seen instances where the Packers have lost in overtime without ever even getting a chance to possess the ball. Remember, a 2-point conversion at the end of regulation is a chance to win, and chances to win are not guaranteed in overtime.
Let’s break down some of the numbers.
Statistically, the success rate for a 2-point conversion is around 50 percent, depending on certain variables. The success rate for a PAT was 99.2 percent in 2014, but dropped down to 94.2 percent in 2015 when they moved the attempt to the 15-yard line.
So, if you’ve scored at the end of a game, a 2-point conversion attempt gives you a 50 percent chance to win, while a PAT gives you a 94.2 percent chance at going to overtime, where you have approximately a 50 percent chance to win. I’m not sure how you add statistical probability, but it seems to me that a case could be made that a PAT seems to give you less of a chance at final victory.
But wait, there’s more!
What if there is time still on the clock?
Don’t forget that after a score, there is a kickoff. So, if you fail to convert your 2-point conversion, you still have a chance to kick an onside kick, which typically has a success rate of 20 percent (higher if Brandon Bostick is a member of the opposing team’s “hands” squad). Now, you could still do this after missing a PAT, but a PAT never gives you a chance to win. Again, I’m not a mathematician, but a team that has two chances to win will probably win more often than a team with zero opportunities.
But let’s go back a little further. Even the statistic for 2-point conversion success rate is fairly fluid. The places I checked put the number at 50-55 percent. But this is a league-wide number, and there’s no reason to think individual teams couldn’t get their success rate into the 60s or 70s. If, for example, you’ve got the best offensive line in the league and the best running back, your chance of success should be higher than, well, that of the Browns.
Or, if you’ve got the best QB who has ever played the game, a guy who happens to be extremely mobile, and a genius coach who can design some killer plays… heck, getting 2-point conversions should be easier than picking apples in autumn. Put the ball in your best player’s hands and ask him to win the game for you. Again, getting to overtime does not guarantee a chance at victory.
Another factor to consider is that football is a brutal game and freak injuries happen all the time. A few years ago Rob Gronkowski got hurt on a PAT attempt of all things (I know because I had him on my fantasy football team). We’re already at the point where coaches will not put their stars in preseason games for fear of some fluke injury. Overtime is an entire quarter of unnecessary play, which takes place exactly when all your athletes are the most fatigued. Why risk it for a slightly less than 50 percent chance at getting a win?
Also, consider a scenario where your team is in the playoffs and is facing another elimination game the following week. Do you really want to fatigue your players by committing them to an eternal death spiral of endless quarters until one defense collapses exhausted and the other team somehow manages to stumble the ball into the end zone? How effective are you going to be the following week?
How gassed is your defense, how accurate has your kicker been that game, how healthy is your offense? There are a million variables a coach needs to consider. If your quarterback or running back is out, then you aren’t going to get a better chance at a win than a desperate 2-point conversion heave. It is absolutely idiotic to assume that in all scenarios you’re better off going for the PAT. The fact is, your team might be totally outclassed, and you only achieved the tying score through a minor miracle.
I remember a game during that stretch when the Detroit Lions were especially bad, where they’d just scored with the hope of getting into overtime. I believe this was during the Matt Millen era when wins were as rare as competent draft picks. “Go for 2, you idiots! You’re terrible; you’ll never win even if you make it to OT,” I howled at the TV. But, of course, they trotted out the kicker, who, in an appropriate show of utter incompetence, promptly missed the PAT.
Why don’t fans see this and get angry? Why are they so trained to believe the PAT for a loss in overtime is such a great idea?
To me, the threat of injury, fatigue and a lower chance of an actual win all add up to thinking a PAT to force overtime is a pretty dumb decision.
And for those of you who still aren’t convinced, I submit to you the Ice Bowl. According to Bart Starr, Lombardi’s final instructions on the most famous QB sneak in league history were, “Run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” There weren’t any 2-point conversions back in 1967, but if there were, I’d have called one and sent Starr in to sneak again to make the final score 22-17. We have it in our power to put an end to overtime folks. The new motto needs to be “Run the conversion and let’s get the hell out of here.” People were probably critical of the call to sneak Starr, too, but guess what, history forgets the quiet grumbling of the critics. They sure as heck remember the name of the coach that makes the gutsy calls though.
Sometimes, they even put his name on the trophy.
About the Author: Walter Rhein is the author of “Reckless Traveler” and “Beyond Birkie Fever,” which have been called the two greatest books ever written (by him). Check them out on Amazon.com, and contact Rhein for questions or comments at: WalterRhein@gmail.com.
Ed. note- Head coach Mike McCarthy recently told reporters the fact that receiver Jeff Janis was shaken up on the Hail Mary play in Arizona killed their desire to try a 2-point conversion. He said the Packers had practiced three-wide-receiver sets for 2-point conversions, and the Janis situation dropped them to two remaining wide receivers.