Before last season, the NFL made a rare admission that something about its football product was not absolutely perfect. The extra point had become too easy for kickers, who converted 99.3 percent of opportunities in the 2014 season.
So the NFL decided to make the extra point more difficult, moving the spot of the ball from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line. This past Sunday, the rule had its most “successful” day yet, as kickers missed extra points left and right. (Literally!) With several games taking place in windy, rainy weather, 12 extra points were not converted, a record for the most PAT misses in one week in NFL history.
Personally, I didn’t like the rule change when it happened. Yes, we made the extra point “more interesting.” But even when 12 extra points are missed in a week, each miss still feels like a fluke. NFL kickers hit 94.2 percent of their extra-point attempts last year; this season, even with all of Sunday’s misses, the conversion rate is 93.6 percent.
If the problem was that extra points were boring — well, they’re still pretty boring. If we watch extra points with a renewed vigor, hoping for misses, we’re going to be disappointed roughly 94 percent of the time. Plus, I’d be a little bit concerned if you’re turned on by watching kicks miss.
I would have gotten rid of extra points entirely. Most sports don’t have a little bonus round after every score. The extra point is a holdover from rugby, because the guys who invented football 150 years ago were basically just playing weird rugby. But we’re not beholden to rules from 1869. If we don’t like something about the sport, we can change it. Give teams seven points for a touchdown, with the option to risk the seventh for a chance to score an eighth on a two-point conversion.
Sunday afternoon, I tweeted out my opinion on the rule change. I was surprised to find almost every person replying disagreed with me, saying that the moved-back extra points actually make the game more interesting. People told me they felt the misses led to more two-point conversion attempts and put more of an emphasis on having a strong kicking game.
I don’t believe I’m right 100 percent of the time, which probably means I’ll never get to host my own TV show, but hopefully leads to better football analysis. So I’ve decided to look at whether the new extra-point rule has actually made football better.
Are the longer extra points rewarding teams with good kickers?
Some people want to make kicking as unimportant as possible, since it’s so different from every other aspect of football. I’m not one of those people, because I like how weird special teams play is. I think teams should benefit from investing in their kickers and punters, so if the extra-point rule increases the potential gain of that investment, I’d be for it.
Teams with bad kickers are certainly punished by the new extra-point rule. For example, the Vikings: Blair Walsh was one of the worst kickers in the league this season, hitting just 75 percent of his field goals, tied for third worst in the NFL, and also missing four of 19 extra points, putting him last in the league in extra-point percentage. So the Vikings cut him. But as I wrote last year, there’s a big drop-off between the league’s good-to-mediocre kickers and the players available on the free-agent market. Walsh’s replacement, Kai Forbath, missed an extra point in his first game, blocked by a rusher from the edge due to an unusually long setup.
The Bears cut Robbie Gould in early September, but his replacement, Connor Barth, hasn’t been great either. He’s hitting just 76.5 percent of his field goals, barely better than Walsh, and missed an extra point Sunday. But since there are so few NFL-level kickers, Gould quickly found work with the Giants when they decided to cut Josh Brown over his domestic-violence case. And Gould promptly missed two — two! — extra points on Sunday.
But some of the best kickers in the NFL are also struggling with extra points. Last year, all-time great Adam Vinatieri hit a lower percentage of his extra points (91.4 percent) than his field goals (92.6 percent). That’s pretty wild, considering field goals can be from any distance and any hashmark, while extra points are chip shots from wherever the kicker wants them. Vinatieri’s not the only player to manage that: Steven Hauschka has converted a lower percentage of extra points than field goals both years since the rule change. He’s the fourth-most-accurate kicker in NFL history on field goals, but second worst in the league this year on extra points. Stephen Gostkowski, who is third-best all-time on field goals, has missed three extra points this year.
There’s definitely a correlation between kicker quality and extra-point success: Bad kickers are more prone to these breakdowns, since kicking is essentially all about how consistent you are at repeating a motion. Teams with bad kickers were going to be punished anyway, because football has kicking in it. But teams with great kickers haven’t been safe, either.
Does it lead to more two-point conversions?
Yes! My colleague Danny Kelly wrote about this at length last week.
In the decade before the rule change, there had never been more than 69 two-point conversion attempts in an NFL season. While that’s a nice amount, there was a huge jump last year to 93 attempts, and the league is on pace to have more than 100 this year.
Makes sense, right? For starters, when extra points miss, teams have to make up for the lost point with a two-point conversion.
Plus, some teams are getting ballsy and trolling for points whenever they can. If teams make 50 percent of their two-point conversions — and since 2010, they’re 222-for-442 — they’d get exactly the same amount of points as if they hit 100 percent of their extra points. But they’re not hitting 100 percent of their extra points: They’re hitting about 94 percent of them. So a team stands to gain a few points a year by going for two all the time.
Two-point conversions are great! They’re all-or-nothing endeavors featuring a team’s best short-yardage play against an opponent’s best short-yardage defense. If harder extra points mean more two-point conversions, harder extra points are good.
Does it lead to more interesting scenarios?
I looked at all 43 games this year in which an extra point was missed, and in the vast majority of them, the misses didn’t change the game result. There were 12 misses in eight games on Sunday. Four were won by the only team that missed. The Browns lost by 15; without a missed extra point it would have been 14. (We would need a lot more than extra points to save the Browns.) Giants-Bears and Lions-Jaguars featured both teams missing extra points, but New York and Detroit both won by touchdowns.
The exception was Bengals-Bills: Mike Nugent missed two extra points, and the Bengals trailed 16–12 instead of 16–14. The Bengals had the ball last and got into field goal range, but due to the earlier extra-point misses, they needed a touchdown. They wouldn’t get one, losing by four.
Unless you’re a Bengals fan, it’s hard to argue that the finish was more or less interesting than it would have been in a world with automatic extra points. Instead of Cincinnati setting up for a game-winning field goal, the Bengals were forced to go for a game-winning touchdown, which is really just as fun.
Exactly the opposite scenario took place in the Bengals’ Week 8 game in London. Nugent missed an extra point in the third quarter, and the Bengals never corrected for that with a two-point conversion attempt. So, when Washington got the ball with under four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, it trailed by only three points instead of four points.
Instead of being forced to go for a game-winning touchdown, Washington could set up for a game-tying field goal. The game went to overtime, and ended in a tie.
With each missed extra point, there’s a give and take. It was cool that Colts-Texans went to overtime because of an earlier Nick Novak missed extra point; it also would have been cool if the Texans had won on their touchdown with 49 seconds to go. It was cool that the Bengals beat the Jets on a field goal with under a minute to go because of an earlier Nick Folk missed extra point; it also would have been cool if that field goal had forced overtime, or if the Bengals had tried to score a game-winning touchdown down three.
Even the clearest examples of games improved by missed extra points would have been pretty good without them. In Week 9, a Vikings touchdown with under 30 seconds left against the Lions put Minnesota up by only three due to an earlier missed extra point, allowing Detroit to rush down the field, kick a 58-yard field goal, and win in overtime. And in Week 10, the Broncos blocked a potential game-tying Saints extra point and returned it for a game-winning defensive conversion, one of the best highlights of the year and a play that made me very happy.
So we have an overtime win and a game-winning extra-point block. But without the missed extra points, we have a game-winning touchdown in regulation and a game-tying extra point that leads to overtime.
I wouldn’t say the extra-point rule has led to more exciting scenarios. Because every point matters, the game is pretty exciting regardless of which way that point turns. And I don’t think the rule has made extra points themselves more exciting.
But I’m willing to admit that the rule has made for different scenarios. If we were to eliminate extra points, games would be a lot more similar.
We don’t watch football to see the same thing every time. We watch it because it’s a fascinatingly multifaceted game with screwed-up scoring and a weirdly shaped ball and a ton of rules that most of us don’t understand. The refs might, but they also might not.
With more difficult extra points, there’s a slight, but occasionally important change in how games play out once every 20 times somebody scores a touchdown. That might not make games better, but it adds to the chaos and randomness of a sport made great by its chaos and randomness. And I suppose that’s a good thing.
I guess my only complaint might be that extra points are still a 94 percent proposition. If missed extra points lead to more weirdness, let’s get weirder. Push the extra point back another 5 yards. Wanna get really crazy? Push it back 10 yards. Bring us more strange scorelines and scenarios, and more two-point conversions by gutsy coaches hustling for points. The very-easy-but-not-a-100-percent-guaranteed-point is arguably a half-measure.
If it’s chaos we want, we can ruin kickers’ lives a little bit more.