Football Analytics: Kick Extra Point, Worry Later About 2-Point Conversion

The Football Game Scenario

The football game was early in the fourth quarter on November 15, 2020. The home team Carolina Panthers were down 32-17 to the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Bucs). Hope came alive for the Panthers after quarterback Terry Bridgewater ran up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown. With over 11 minutes to play, the Panthers were down 32-23 and faced a key decision. Should the Panthers go for the near guarantee of the extra point kick and pull within 8 points? If so, the Panthers would next need a 2-point conversion after another touchdown to get even with the Bucs. Alternatively, the Panthers could try the 2-point conversion NOW to pull within a touchdown (and an extra point).

The Basic 2-Point Conversion Scenarios

Traditional NFL rules tell coaches they should only try the riskier 2-point conversion when absolutely necessary to get a win or a tie. Here are some standard scenarios toward the end of the game:

  • Down 1 point: kick the extra point for the tie. If the other team will not have enough time for additional plays and the coach has a strong preference for going for the win, then go for the 2-point conversion. A coach may have a strong preference, if, for example, the team’s defense is exhausted and not likely to perform well in overtime.
  • Down 2 points: go for the 2-point conversion. Whether the team comes away with one or zero points, the team will still need a field goal to win. Go for the tie now.
  • Down 3 or 4 points: kick the extra point so the team can go for the win or the tie with a field goal on the next offensive possession.
  • Down 5 points: go for 2 points so the team can get a tie with a field goal on the next possession. The team will still need a touchdown whether it comes away with one or zero points, so trying for the extra point is pointless.
  • Down 6-8 points: kick the extra point as the team will need a touchdown to tie or win no matter what. When down 7 or 8 points, the extra point has the added bonus of positioning the team for a win or a tie without resorting to a 2-point try on the next touchdown score.

Note that these scenarios do not take into consideration the potential for the other team to score. As a result, these scenarios are most useful toward the end of the game. They can also be useful when the coach is “relatively” confident that the defense will stop the other team from scoring any more points.

The More Tricky 2-Point Conversion Scenario

The 9-point deficit after scoring a touchdown begins the trickier scenarios. If the Panthers kick the extra point, the team stills need a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to tie. In the past, the decision was easy: bank the “sure” extra point now and worry about getting the 2-point conversion later. According to the sports announcers, modern “football analytics” recommend going for 2 points right away. Apparently, the goal is information discovery. The coach gets to find out now instead of later whether the odds of winning remain promising. However, I disagree with this approach. The 2-point conversion is not a neutral prize sitting behind curtains awaiting discovery. The announcers made a good point: the decision is complicated by the costs potentially incurred by sports psychology.

If a team pulls within 8 points on a successful extra point, the entire team gets an extra boost of hope. The game remains within reach. The defense stays focused on preventing further scoring as the biggest chance to win the game. Upon receiving the ball again, the offense can focus on a single mission: use the time available to get one more touchdown.

If the team fails the 2-point conversion, it faces the daunting task of scoring twice to avoid losing. This scenario creates a higher hurdle to overcome for sports psychology. If the defense doubts its offense can score twice, it may not play quite as hard. The defense will more likely become aware of its exhaustion. Upon receiving the ball with two scores to go, the offense needs to hurry more. It will be more prone to mistakes. The opposing defense gets the advantage of a lower bar of performance. The defense just needs to slow the offense down as much as possible.

In other words, the football analytics do not seem to take into account the high cost of failing to convert the riskier 2-point conversion. Depending on the team and the specific game scenario, those potential costs can be too high to risk. Ironically, in this case, more information is bad, not good.

Putting the fuzziness of sports psychology aside, the slightly less fuzzy world of assessing odds provides another way of understanding the likely wisdom of kicking the extra point now and worrying about the 2-point conversion later.

Quantifying the Cost of Failing A 2-Point Conversion

The odds for the different scoring options are also important considerations. In today’s NFL, the extra point is harder to convert. Starting with the 2015 season, the NFL moved the line for the kick from the 2 to the 15-yard line. The odds of making an extra point fell from near certainty (26 of 32 teams made 100% of their extra points in the 2014 season) to somewhere around 94%. The worst team in the 2019 season only made 85% of its extra points.

The odds of making a 2-point conversion these days is reportedly just under 50%, but the range of actual outcomes in 2019 was extremely wide. Excluding the teams with 0% success (in some cases these teams did not attempt any 2-point conversions), the success rates ranged from 17% to 100%. Depending on the team, the 2-point conversion can be quite speculative. The Panthers only made 25% of their 2-point conversions in 2019. Before this game at hand, the Panthers had a 100% conversion rate.

For argument’s sake, I assume the Panthers had a 70% chance of making the 2-point conversion. The Panthers converted 90% of extra points to-date. So the “expected value” of a 2-point conversion is 1.4 (0.7 * 2). The expected value of an extra point is 0.9 (0.9 * 1). These values suggest that the Panthers should always go for the 2-point conversion. Since the team kicked 19 extra points to-date, I assume that the Panthers consider the odds of making the 2-point conversion to be too low to replace kicking extra points. Even so, this expected value does not take into consideration the cost of failure. With the above odds, the cost of failure must be lower than “-2.5” to advantage the 2-point conversion. (If x is the cost of failure, then the two options are equivalent when 0.9 * .1 + 0.1 * x = 0.7 * 2 + 0.3 * x).

What does -2.5 mean in this context? This value can represent a proxy for measuring the impact of missing either the extra point or the 2-point conversion. Either miss presents the team with a 9-point deficit at the subsequent kick-off. In addition to the touchdown the team needs in either case, a lack of extra points means the team must score one more time after the touchdown.

For simplicity, assume the coach decides the odds of scoring an extra field goal is 30% and an extra touchdown (with the extra point) is 10%. The expected value of this scenario is 0.3*3 + 0.1*7 + 0.6*0 = 1.6. This value is too low to compensate for (zero out) the -2.5 cost of failing to convert. The coach needs, for example, to conclude that the odds for the extra field goal are 60% and the touchdown 10%. The expected value for this assessment of probabilities is exactly +2.5.

These odds of course require a lot of optimism. For the Panthers facing one of the toughest defenses in the NFL, these odds sit precariously at the extremes of optimism. Note well that these stylized assessments do not even include the cost incurred for the lower odds of scoring the first required touchdown when the offense is rushed and the coaching staff is thinking through more game scenarios.

Conclusion: Kick the Extra Point Now

Putting everything together, I recommend that a team just kicks the extra point when facing a 9-point deficit after scoring a touchdown. Bring the deficit to 8 points and live to think through one more offensive series. In this case, postpone going for the 2-point conversion until it is necessary to tie the game.

So what happened in the actual game? The Panthers followed the football analytics but failed to convert the 2-point conversion. The team went on to lose the game 46-23. The Panthers did not score again even as the Bucs continued to pile up points.

A Football Story: The Brittle Logic of Kicking Away A Scoring Opportunity

Football coaches are notoriously conservative play callers, especially at the professional level. While this behavior can produce sub-optimal game strategies, the precautions are understandable given the precarious nature of the job. A coach’s audience is prone to judge decisions by outcomes instead of the situation and information available at the time of the decision. Coaches can receive too much blame for executional mistakes and the ravages of randomness in cause and effect analysis. Conservative play calling buffers these crosswinds because it conforms to conventional thinking; it is more resilient because it references an orthodox body of work that has withstood prior scrutiny. So there is almost nothing like a sportscaster or analyst to remind me of the unfair punishment coaches can receive from actually taking a chance or stepping outside the bounds of standard expectations.

Such an occasion happened during an NFL game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football on November 6, 2017 at Lambeau Field. I was listening to the game on the radio during an extremely long drive through heavy traffic. I had no visuals to distract me from the game announcers. They were my entire window onto the game. I had little else to do but reflect critically on the scrutiny the announcers applied to the game. It is possible this audio focus increased my sensitivity.

Sportscaster Boomer Esiason, former quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, caught my attention with a scathing reaction to the decision of Lions coach Jim Caldwell to kick a long-distance 55-yard field goal. Esiason sounded scandalized as he explained why Caldwell should have instead punted the ball back to the Packers. This strategy is conservative because it trades in the immediate opportunity to score for the potential of receiving a better opportunity to score later. Esiason argued that Caldwell’s strategy should focus on pressuring the young Packers quarterback Brett Hundley. A punt would pin the Green Bay offense deep in its own territory. With his back against the wall (near his own endzone), Hundley would presumably execute even more poorly. This strategy includes some key assumptions delivered with no supporting data or references:

  • The punter successfully kicks the ball deep, AND the Packers fail to return the ball down the field.
  • A bad quarterback’s performance significantly varies by field position.

A conservative coach would indeed assume the odds of a great punt and poor return are better than the odds of a long field goal. Yet, the Lions possessed the football at the Packers’ 37-yard line. Such a close-range punt can easily result in a touchback because the room for error is so much smaller. A touchback occurs when the ball goes into the opposing team’s endzone, and it gives the opposing team the ball on its 20-yard line. With the Lions at the Green Bay 37-yard line, a touchback would result in a net 17-yard punt. Esiason ignored these risks in his analysis and said nothing about the skill of the Lions punt team.

Given the poor quarterback play, the Packers coach was very unlikely to allow Hundley to make any risky throws. Notably, Hundley never turned the ball over the entire game. The Packers suffered three sacks but only lost 12 total yards as a result. Packers coach Mike McCarthy seemed prepared to call a game crafted for his inexperienced quarterback. A bad player will force any coach to get and stay conservative. In other words, the Packers coach would likely neutralize pressure by very conservative play calling. Esiason assumed that the Packers coach would be unable to neutralize this pressure.

Overall, Esiason’s strategy has multiple points of failure. It feels and looks brittle compared to the simplicity of attempting a long field goal. I argue that relying on your team’s resilience in the case of a failed kick is the better risk/reward course of action, especially against a much weaker opponent.

Even without these assumptions, Esiason’s analysis fails under the weight of a critical logical flaw. If a legendary high-performer like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady replaced Hundley, Esiason’s strategy implies that the coach should kick the long field goal. However, the skill of the quarterback has NO impact on the odds of making the field goal. So if a coach fears a field goal miss, why would that coach risk giving a highly skilled quarterback a short field (meaning a shorter distance to make a touchdown)? I claim that Esiason should REVERSE his logic. If the opposing offense is weak, then a coach should take MORE risks: the downside costs should be lower. The potential penalty for giving a short field to a bad quarterback is much lower than giving a short field to a good quarterback. If Esiason then objected to the conditional on the skill of the quarterback, then his strategy effectively reduces to a ban on all long field goal kicks unless perhaps to win a game in the final minutes or seconds…an extremely conservative strategy!

Esiason’s error is more glaring considering the record of Matt Prater, the kicker for the Lions. Over his career, Prater has a 79% success rate with field goals of 50+ yards (the other announcer provided this statistic – perhaps in the hopes of assuaging Esiason?). That is, Prater is a good and strong kicker. He is a kicker a coach can trust with riskier kicks. Esiason complained that the weather was cold and not conducive to making long field goals, so perhaps the odds under those circumstances were somewhat lower. I doubt significantly lower given Prater’s overall record. (Note that the Lions are an indoor team, so Prater plays at least half of his games in the relative comfort of room temperature).

So how did things turn out? Prater missed the field goal.

Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).
Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).

Source: NFL

Esiason essentially lost it after the miss. Without acknowledging that Prater missed the field goal by a small margin – the ball hit the crossbar and would have made it over with a few more inches of lift – Esiason took the miss as proof of the soundness of his strategy. For the next several plays, he found several opportunities to remind the audience of coach Caldwell’s perceived negligence.

After the miss, possession returned to the Packers. They gained all of one yard in three downs before punting the ball right back to the Lions. The result was not surprising given the poor play of the Packers offense. I would not have expected the good field position to somehow enhance Hundley’s play. The Lions ended up with the ball deep in their own territory (on the 9-yard line), and Esiason bitterly pointed out that this positioning was the fault of Caldwell’s poor decision-making. Even as the Lions methodically marched the ball up the field, Esiason continued to complain that Caldwell forced his offense to work harder than needed. The Lions ended this drive with a touchdown and took a 14-0 lead. The success of the Lions suddenly diminished the power of Esiason’s argument which relied so heavily on the post-decision results.

Sportscasters straddle a fine line between descriptive recitals of the moment in real-time and sober consideration of a myriad of decisions emanating from coaches and players. That line can blur enough such that heat of the moment observations appear to prove the claims of the previous moment. I understand the pressures. Yet, a football game unfolds through multiple possibilities, and sportscasters can become overly focused on one particularly compelling path. In THIS game, Esiason made strong claims and did not consider alternative realities or sufficient data points. I think if he went back to review the entire context, he might reconsider.

Fortunately in business and in life we usually have the opportunity to take some time to challenge our gut instincts and consider the full context. We can collect some hard data on key assumptions behind our preferred decision. We can use our playbook as an initial map to the game, but we do not have to lock into a single course of action or commit to a single set of pre-conceived set of probabilities. When our field goal is waiting for the call, we can ask for the odds of success. We can look to the defense and assess the odds of stopping a poorly playing offense. We can inspect the offense and uncover its ability and determination to score from any point on the field.

Try that kick!