KNEE-JERK CHANGES NEVER WORK || BY ROBERT KLEMKO
Peter, I agree with you.
Extra points are gimmes, and the game would be immediately improved by narrowing the goal post, setting the kicks at an angle, moving back the extra point or eliminating it all together.
It’s a non-play, and it’s unnecessary in today’s NFL. Even former Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff grudgingly agrees.
“I don’t like eliminating more special teams plays, and the declining importance of special teams is why I’ve turned down offers to go back to the NFL,” Westhoff told me, “but if I were a head coach, I would not be opposed if they made that change. The kick doesn’t matter anymore.”
It’s a fine and obvious point, but it doesn’t take into account the long view. There are many precedents in football which illustrate why reactionary, knee-jerk rule changes are never the way to go.
Here’s my favorite:
By 1940, the center-QB exchange had evolved from the center kicking the ball back with his heel, to rolling the ball on the ground back to the quarterback with one hand, to an elevated snap invented by John Heisman. In 1893 as coach of Buchtel College, Heisman taught his center to snap the ball in the air to accommodate his very tall quarterback of the time. Then, in 1940, Bears coach George Halas had an idea, which for all intents and purposes killed Heisman’s gun. His center snapped the ball to the quarterback standing directly behind him, and in the NFL Championship that year the Bears put up 73 points on Washington, rushing for 381 yards and passing for 138. This would be the way football was played for as long as anybody could foresee.
And what might the NFL look like now if the decision-makers of yesteryear looked at their sport the same way those who would change the extra point today see things? Undoubtedly, they would have deemed the QB-center exchange too easy. By the late-1950s, with 20 years of 99% execution, what would have been the point of a snap? Why not just scrap the formalities and let the quarterback start with the ball in his hands? It would have sped up the game, and probably saved the necks of more than a few centers.
And if they had gone ahead and killed the snap, the consequences would have been endless.
Niners coach Red Hickey never would have introduced the modern shotgun in November of 1960 as a way of escaping a scary Colts pass rush. Tom Landry never would have improved on it with Dallas in the ’70s, despite being mocked endlessly by a football community still stuck under center. We would know nothing of countless schematic innovations which led to the offenses of Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, who thrive in diverse, shotgun-heavy attacks, borne of the patience of men who recognized decades ago that football strategy was in its infancy.
Suppose we take the same long view on extra points?
During the 2013 regular season, a little under half of the 69 two-point conversion attempts were successful, and in 2012, exactly half worked. When it was tried, it was always late in a game—only three times did teams go for two in the first half of games this season. Going for two points is a big risk when the average team scores 23.4 per game. Plus or minus two points constituted an even bigger risk in 1999, when the average team scored 20.8 per game.
It stands to reason the two-point conversion will become more and more enticing as rule changes such as the defenseless receiver rule and the constantly evolving safety bubble around the quarterback raise scoring every year. When Chip Kelly’s offense at Oregon was scoring 50 points a game, he occasionally went for two in the first quarter, because why not? If your offense is above average, and the average offense converts 50% of the time, odds are your risk is going to be rewarded.
And if it isn’t? Two points is still a drop in the bucket when you’re scoring 50 points per game. Plus, as a safeguard, Kelly would often line up in a gadget formation, and revert to a kicking formation if the defensive front wasn’t conducive to the plan.
If the NFL were to continue on its path to higher and higher scoring, one can assume coaches will eventually take Kelly’s college strategies to heart. And such operations would be impossible if the NFL did something short-sighted like, say, eliminate the extra point, or ask teams to declare whether they’re going for one or two after a touchdown, which would have to be the case in the event of the extra point kick being pushed back.
I proposed this theory to Westhoff, who agreed.
“I like it. I do think that offenses will go for two more as scoring rises, and that really does make the extra point situation more crucial,” he said, “The problem is, coaches are still stuck in the old thing a little bit. They ignore the odds and play it safe.”
Indeed, instead of coaches attempting more conversions as NFL scoring rose at the turn of the century, they attempted fewer. Those brave ’99ers called for 80 two-point conversions that season, 11 more than NFL teams attempted in 2013. No doubt, this is evidence of the NFL’s group-think malady, which holds that widespread innovation is preceded by a lone boatsman riding against the current. It will take a maverick—a Heisman or a Hickey or a Landry—to buck the NFL trend and make the extra point an exciting proposition once again.
Until then, let’s be patient.