Longer Extra Point Could Make NFL Coaches Do the Math

This month, reports emerged that the NFL is considering moving point-after-touchdown attempts out to 43 yards, more than doubling the current PAT distance. The proposal set off a round of teeth-gnashing. In 2013, kickers made 99.6 percent of extra-point attempts — what would the NFL do without such gimmes? What would coaches do if games could be won or lost because of one missed PAT?

That’s the entire point. Putting aside the fact that kickers made 83 percent of 43-yard field-goal attempts last year — it’s a fairly routine kick — the proposed change isn’t meant to, say, make kickers MVP candidates (Seriously, what?). It’s meant to compel coaches to go for more two-point conversions.

Teams convert about half of their two-point tries. So, over the long haul, coaches should be relatively indifferent between going for two or kicking a PAT. Over many attempts, both options have about the same expected payoff. Still, coaches clearly prefer to kick. In 2013 teams attempted 1,267 PATs and just 69 two-point conversions.

But if the probability of getting that single point shifts from almost 100 percent to just 83 percent, the after-touchdown calculus shifts significantly. A coach would either have to desperately need one point — but not two — in a specific scenario, or he would have to think his team had less than a 41.5 percent probability of converting a two-point try.

The rule change would virtually mandate more optimal behavior from NFL coaches. Strategic innovations in sports tend to come from the bottom up. A rogue team goes out on a limb, and, if successful, other squads adopt the tactic. Suddenly, we see game-changing results — for example, after the 1998 Minnesota Vikings and the 1999 St. Louis Rams lit up opponents with pass-heavy offenses, other teams quickly followed suit.

It’s rarer to find situations where the league office incentivizes a strategy that the numbers say is being underused. The range of conditions under which it makes sense to not go for two would shrink dramatically if the PAT were moved out to 43 yards. That’s exactly what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants. Less kicking means more action, and that means better TV.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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