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Dorktown: NFL teams should go for two way, way more often

Generally speaking, scoring points is good. And in cowering away from the two-point conversion, most NFL teams are leaving points on the table.

Chart of 2-point conversion percentages in the NFL.

In 2015, the NFL moved the extra point back from the 2-yard line to the 15 as a result of the automatic nature it had become. Across the first half of last decade, which immediately preceded that change, nearly half the league’s teams were perfect on XPs and not a single organization had a success rate under 98 percent:

Every NFL team’s points per extra-point attempt, 2010-2014

Now, we have five regular seasons worth of data to assess not just the success rates of that new, farther kick, but also how that plays into the ever-present debate about whether to kick or go for the 2-point conversion.

This analysis should be prefaced by acknowledging we’re generally not dealing with huge samples when it comes to 2-point tries — but that’s sorta the point. As we’ll see, coaches oughta explore going for that second point a helluva lot more than they currently are.

Also, some alterations to the NFL’s official data are necessary to reconcile the following two issues:

• Since 2015, there have been eight instances of a quarterback taking a knee following a touchdown at the end of the game where further scoring is unnecessary. Those officially go down as failed 2-pointers, but for obvious reasons I am omitting them from this study (a rule giving teams the ability to waive a post-touchdown try was enacted in 2018).

• Since 2015, there have been 10 instances of a team opting to kick an extra point, only for a bad snap/hold to abort that mission in what then became a desperate, makeshift, futile attempt to make something happen. Those, too, officially go down as failed 2-point attempts … from the 15-yard line. Those plays are obviously indictments/inherent risks of going for one — not two — and should be reflected as such, thus I have omitted each of those from 2-point attempts (2PA) and added them to extra point attempts (XPA).

After making those adjustments, the end result is that there were 505 legitimate 2-point attempts in the NFL from 2015-19 — so the average team went for two about once every 5.1 games. Here’s how many came from each of the 32 teams across that 80-game window:

Every NFL team’s 2-point conversion attempt total, 2015-2019

And here’s how many points on average they yielded for each team:

Every NFL team’s points per two-point attempt, 2015-2019

Despite Washington, Tennessee, Denver, Atlanta, and especially Detroit dragging down the class, collectively the league successfully converted 253 of the 505 attempts, good for an average of 1.002 points per try (the attempts of the 27 teams that didn’t have 2-point yips produced an average of 1.082 points each).

Now, here’s how many points the average extra-point attempt from that further distance yielded for each team in the same time frame:

Every NFL team’s points per extra point attempt, 2015-2019

Collectively, the NFL’s 6,001 extra point attempts generated in the five regular seasons from 2015-19 produced 0.938 points per try. So every time a coach decided to kick an extra point, that meant leaving an average of 0.064 points on the table.

But two teams in particular jump out as the most fascinating. The first is the Philadelphia Eagles. They chased that second point a lot (relatively speaking), with the Steelers the only team that surpassed their total of 26 attempts. And for good reason: they were awesome. Having successfully converted 19 of the 26, that’s nearly a point-and-a-half, which as we saw above comfortably led the league.

It’s a mark so high that, when combined with that tougher extra point, meant every time Doug Pederson sent his kicker on the field after a touchdown, he was conceding a lot:

Every NFL team’s points per extra point attempt, and points per two-point conversion attempt, 2015-2019

That discrepancy between the green and red bars amounts to more than an entire half-point:

Points every NFL team left on the table each time they decided to kick an extra point, 2015-2019

There we’re also able to see that 21 of the 32 teams have been leaving points on the table by deciding to kick, including 10 of whom forfeited roughly a quarter-point or more when going for the single point. Here’s that same data, but also as a function of frequency going for 2:

Points every NFL team left on the table each time they decided to kick an extra point, 2015-2019

So the team going for 2 more than just about anyone is also the team most sabotaging themselves by not doing so even more (and while the league-wide discrepancy is 0.064 points, just in case you’re curious that skyrockets all the way to 0.148 when isolating the 27 teams that weren’t allergic to converting 2-pointers).

The other team whose behavior in this regard is seemingly the most inexplicable is the New England Patriots. They were one of just three teams to have only attempted single-digit 2-pointers during this time. The other two were the Bengals and Jets, NFL punching bags. But the Patriots? They were the gold standard of the league, and it’s not like their small sample of post-touchdown aggression carried with it a bizarre lack of success; indeed New England converted on five of their nine 2-point attempts.

Bill Belichick may be the greatest coach of all time, but I simply can’t make sense of his rationale here. If teams in general should be going for two way more, arguably the team with personnel most conducive for it would be the Pats, employer of Tom Brady at quarterback and, for much of that time, a tight end genetically engineered to cause red zone destruction in Rob Gronkowski. Not to mention plenty of reliable safety valves like Julian Edelman, James White, Dion Lewis, etc.

In 2019, one particular decision perhaps best underscored Belichick’s extremely risk-averse nature in this department. Heading into December, he’d already been struggling through a revolving door of kickers all year, and they missed five extra points thru the season’s first 12 weeks.

Then during Week 13 in Houston, with Belichick on his fourth kicker of the year, the just-signed-two-days-earlier Kai Forbath, he still eschewed the notion of going for two following the first Patriots touchdown. That was asinine — after all, even if all extra points carried literally a 100% success rate, the math still says going for two is the logical play. So for a coach of Belichick’s pedigree to kick even when relegated to a fourth-string kicker is downright mind-boggling. The kick sailed wide left.

I’m not being critical with the benefit of hindsight — I made a remark to that effect three days prior to the game.

The moral of the story is basically that, when a touchdown is scored, going for two should be the default stance. There are certainly exceptions — times where one point is far more than half as valuable as two points. Obviously if you’re down six at the very end of the game and score a TD on the last play to tie it, you kick the XP to win. If you’re up 10 and score a TD, you kick the XP to go up three scores, etc. But when two points approach or exceed twice the value of one point, which is the case the overwhelming majority of the time, the post-touchdown choice should be a no-brainer: keep the offense on the field.