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The State of the Two-Point Conversion

With Pittsburgh’s 0-for-4 against Dallas and Seattle’s Belichick-boggling attempt against New England, last Sunday saw plenty of post-touchdown conversion drama. Is it likely to continue?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Week 10 was not great for fans of completed two-point conversions. Around the league, teams chose to go for two instead of kicking the extra point 13 times — and, hey, that’s fun! But fortune did not favor the bold. Just four of those 13 tries were successful, and the Steelers-Cowboys tilt was a portrait of two-point conversion unprofitability; all six of the attempts in that game failed.

The Steelers became the only team since the NFL introduced two-point conversions in 1994 to go 0-for-4 in a game. Leaguewide, the success rate has been about 55 percent (34 of 62) this season, up from 48 percent last year. So, are we on the verge of a two-point-conversion revolution, or will Pittsburgh’s epic gambler-trying-to-get-out-of-the-hole tactic scare teams away from a more aggressive strategy? To find an answer, let’s ask some more questions.

Are two-point conversion tries up?

Teams have attempted more two-point conversions the last two seasons, and that coincides with the NFL’s decision to move the extra-point kick from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line before the 2015 season. The reasoning behind this was, we can assume, that it would make the extra point more difficult to get. With a nonautomatic extra point, teams would have to more seriously consider going for two, and more missed kicks would mean uneven score lines that would also force teams to go for two in order to catch up.

It worked. Extra-point conversion rates are down — the 99.3 percent success rate in 2014 dropped to 94.2 percent in 2015 and is on pace for 94.8 percent this season — and two-point conversion tries are up. Teams across the league attempted an average of 56.8 two-point conversions a season (which averaged out to just 3.3 a week) from 2009 to 2014. That increased to 93 (5.5 a week) last year and is on pace to eclipse 100 this season.

While a two-per-week increase in the average number of two-point conversion attempts might not be revolutionary, it’s still significant.

When does traditional logic dictate going for two?

There are several common scenarios in which basic logic and game situations call for two-point conversions instead of the standard extra point. As SB Nation’s Michigan State blog points out, if it’s late in the game and you’re behind one point, five points, eight points, 11 points, 15 points, 18 points, 19 points, 22 points, 23 points, or 24 points before you score a touchdown, it’s best to go for two instead of kicking the extra point.

In general, if you score to take the lead, you go for two to preempt the other team from posting the game-winning score on its next drive. For instance, if a team is down five and then scores a touchdown to take a one-point lead, going for two would make it a three-point lead. So, it’s simple: If the opponent kicks a field goal on the ensuing drive, it would only tie the game.

For the teams that get the touchdown but are still trailing, going for two is done to decrease the number of possessions and/or touchdowns needed to make a comeback. For example, if your team is down 19 points late in the game and scores a touchdown to cut the lead to 13 points, going for two makes sense because instead of needing two more touchdowns to catch up, a touchdown (with a two-point conversion) and a field goal would tie the game.

There are also some situations that call for a two-point conversion even when a team is ahead. For teams that score a touchdown when leading by six points, going for two is a logical decision: Complete the two-point conversion to push the lead to 14 or fail and leave the lead at 12; failing means you’ll still get beat by two touchdowns and one extra point. The Ravens went for two (and got it) late in the third quarter against the Browns on Thursday, a strategy that pushed their lead to 21–7. They didn’t need it, but maybe a similar decision pays off against a team that’s not the Browns.

Who hasn’t listened to that advice?

NFL coaches are a famously conservative bunch, but a few have gone against the grain this season.

Raiders coach Jack Del Rio got the ball rolling with this in Week 1. With his team trailing 34–33 just after scoring a touchdown with 47 seconds remaining, he chose to go for two — and the win — instead of playing for overtime. The gamble paid off: Derek Carr found Michael Crabtree near the sideline on a fade route for the score, putting Oakland ahead for good in a situation that would see the vast majority of coaches kick and tie up the game.

Mike Tomlin’s decision this week to go for two after every single one of Pittsburgh’s touchdowns against the Cowboys bucked convention as well.

And then there was Pete Carroll. When Russell Wilson found Doug Baldwin in the end zone to push the Seahawks’ lead over the Patriots to 31–24 with 4:24 remaining, the logical choice would probably have probably been to just kick the extra point and make it an eight-point game. This would mean the Patriots would have to not only score a touchdown in the final four-odd minutes, they’d have to execute a two-point conversion as well. Instead, Carroll did what no other coach has done so late in a game in NFL history: He went for two with a seven-point lead. It even confused the hell out of Bill Belichick, who had previously never been confused about anything.

As Carroll said after the game, his reasoning was simple: “We wanted to see if we could put it out of reach, make it a two-score deal.”

The way he saw things, we can surmise, was that the odds were low that, should Seattle fail on the two-point try, Belichick and Co. would both score a touchdown and then come back and try for a two-point conversion of their own. The worst-case scenario of the decision was overtime. Carroll, in effect, went for the knockout punch rather than dancing around and letting the final round end to go to the judges for scoring.

He missed on that punch — Wilson was high on his throw to Baldwin — but the Seahawks made a goal-line stop on the Patriots’ next drive to preserve their win.

After the game, Belichick seemed to almost — almost — like it. “That’s an aggressive call,” he said. “An aggressive call on the road.”

How should teams go for two?

There’s no one “best” play for the two-point conversion. Most frequently, teams pass the ball — 75.8 percent of the time this season — but it’s still an effective change-up to just run the ball up the gut. Additionally, the Bills, Jaguars, and Falcons have all called designed quarterback draw plays this year, and all three have had success with it. Oh, and the Packers ran a read-option play with Aaron Rodgers that got him into the end zone untouched.

When teams do throw, though, there are a multitude of strategies that work: Most of the time, teams spread their offenses out horizontally, where pick plays — both toward the middle and toward the sideline — are common, and quick slants have been effective as well. In other words, there’s more than one way to skin a cat; however, it might be advisable to not try the four plays that the Steelers used Sunday against the Cowboys, because, well, what the hell is happening here?

So, should teams go for two more often?

It goes way against the traditional line of thinking, but if you’re a true believer in statistics, the math actually says you should just go for two every damn time. Accounting for the loss in accuracy with the new extra-point rules, combined with the near 50-50 shot of converting on a two-point conversion, over the long term you’re statistically more likely to get more points by always going for two.

That’s clearly not happening yet, but there does seem to be a growing acceptance of the idea that going for two more often is a sound strategy. It’s no surprise that the Steelers are at the vanguard of this movement. Pittsburgh went for two 11 times (and converted eight) in 2015, the most in the NFL, and is tied with Tampa Bay for the league lead in attempts again this season (six). Tomlin has the full support of his quarterback, too. “I think we should go for it every time,” Ben Roethlisberger said in June. “Why not? If we do it every day and if we’re 50 percent … there’s your 14 points. Why not give it a shot?”

Before Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, the aggression had worked really well for Pittsburgh. The Steelers had converted 14 of their past 17 two-point attempts in the three years leading up to the 0-for-4 meltdown. They’ve converted only two of their six tries this year, but it’s a good bet we’ll see them stick with the strategy.

On the other hand, the odds that an NFL coach — even one with the job security of a Super Bowl winner like Tomlin — will decide to go for two after every touchdown, no matter what, in every situation, seem very, very long. It’s much like the idea that teams should never punt. While advanced statistics tell us that over the long haul, teams will score more points, most coaches are too concerned about making it through the season with their jobs intact to strategize that far into the future.