What’s the Point?

January 23, 2014 by dombonvissuto

Earlier this week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would consider eliminating the extra point in favor of a revised scoring system. Peter King believes this is long overdue and advocates a change. Robert Klemko disagrees and thinks it’d be a knee-jerk decision to abolish the PAT. Their arguments are below.

GIVE THE PAT THE BOOT || BY PETER KING

I was wrong this week. I wrote the extra point is the biggest waste of time in American sport. Actually, the intentional walk is worse. But that’s it. That’s the only thing worse than the 45 seconds of clock between the touchdown and the TV timeout that was wasted five times per game in the 2013 NFL season on a play that has become the most automatic thing about football. That’s three and a half minutes in every game, wasted.

Why I think the PAT should be re-invented immediately:

1. Kickers have made it too automatic. In the past three years, kickers have missed five, six and seven extra points, respectively. That’s 18 misses out of 3,709 tries—a 99.5 percent accuracy rate. Out of every 200 extra points, one is missed.

2. I do love football tradition. I’m the guy, remember, who wrote a pro football history book back in the nineties and got ripped for having Don Hutson and Otto Graham 1-2 on the list of greatest players of all time. You can have a respect for tradition and still know when change is logical. And right now, change is overdue on the PAT.

3. Recall the last time an extra point was exciting, or even remotely interesting. I can’t.

When the current iteration of football scoring was last changed significantly, in 1912, the touchdown was valued at six points and the “try,” or point after touchdown, one. In those days, the kicker was a rank amateur compared to everyone else on the field, and the PAT was always in doubt at different levels of football. When the NFL was invented in 1920, this line of scoring was adopted: six for a touchdown, one for the extra point.

It’s good … again! Officials made this signal on extra points 1,178 times in 2013—out of 1,183 attempts. (Kirby Lee/Getty Images)

So the PAT has been alive in its its current form for 102 years. Are we sentenced to live with it forever? Can we not change a rule that clearly has outlived its usefulness?

Or, put another way: If you were inventing the sport of football today, and you were putting a scoring system into play, would you adopt a rule for scoring that was 99.5% efficient? Would you adopt a rule for a highly competitive game that was absolutely uncompetitive?

I raised this point about Stephen Gostkowski this week in The Season. Gostkowski has made 360 straight PATs, dating back to the final game of his rookie season, in 2006. He last missed four months before the Patriots traded for Randy Moss. Seven years ago. In that time, four-and-a-half hours of Patriots football has been played with Gostkowski attempting and making extra points (360 times 45 seconds per PAT try). What a waste.

So, what should the NFL do? I’m not in favor of what Roger Goodell suggested to Rich Eisen this week, that every touchdown be awarded seven points, and if you choose to go for two and make it, you finish with eight points—but if you miss, you only get six. That’s penalizing a team for trying a potentially exciting play, the two-point conversion. What I’d do:

1. Make every touchdown worth six points.

2. Give teams a choice on the conversion. The one-point conversion would be a kick. The two-point conversion would be from the 2-yard line, where it currently is, run as it currently is when teams choose to go for two after a touchdown.

3. But the PAT would be moved back. I am open to any number of suggestions here. My preference would be a true challenge. Say the average spot of a missed field goal in 2013 is from 44 yards out. In 2014, then, the spot for the extra point would be the 27-yard line, necessitating a 44-yard kick to convert the extra point. But I am flexible here. Anything with the ball spotted at the 25 or farther would be okay with me. I just want to make the kick non-automatic.

Sorry, King. You're Wrong

Completely disagree with Peter King's take on extra points? So does Robert Klemko, who argues it would be short-sighted to eliminate them. FULL STORY

I don’t want to fiddle with the tradition of the game. I love tradition. I wish there would be more mud bowls and Charger powder-blues and crew-cutted tight ends. I do not advocate change for change’s sake. But the extra point just doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s not going to ruin the game to change it, the same way changing the kickoff spot by five yards didn’t lessen the greatness of the game.

I’ve heard scores of suggestions, many of them smart and good, about the PAT on Twitter in the past day or so. It’s good to discuss the merits of the game you all love so much. All I ask, again, is this: If you were inventing a competitive sport like football all over again, would you include a play that is the most automatic in sports?

Now, head to Page 2 to hear Robert Klemko’s retort…

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.”

If the NFL eliminates the extra point, coaches likely won’t have the option of going for one. (Elsa/Getty Images)

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.

“I do think that offenses will go for two more as scoring rises, and that really does make the extra point situation more crucial,” Westhoff said. “The problem is, coaches are still stuck in the old thing a little bit. They ignore the odds and play it safe.”

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.

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