The life of an NFL kicker seems pretty enviable. Raking in a little over $1 million a year for swinging your leg a few times each Sunday is undoubtedly better than the vast majority of other jobs people do for a living. However, while deriding kickers and mocking their status as football players relative to their teammates is nothing new, recent rule changes have sought to make their job just a little harder. The NFL plans to move the extra-point kick back 13 yards, which will create new and exciting possibilities and strategies for ambitious coaches.
The NFL was motivated to move the extra point, historically a 20-yard kick, back to 33 yards because they felt a 20-yard kick was too easy. The numbers essentially prove that to be true. From 2004-2014, over 99 percent of extra points were successful. Two weeks after moving the distance to 33 yards, that rate now stands at 94.2 percent. The last time the extra-point conversion rate was this low — below 95 percent — was in 1982. In the first 32 games of this season, kickers have already missed nine extra points — more than in all of 2014. However, kickers have only missed one field goal from 30-39 yards in 2015 so far. While this year’s current sample size is a fraction of the data from past years, these early numbers are astounding because only last year, kickers converted more than 90 percent of field goals from this range. More specifically, kickers have converted 97.6 percent of kicks between 30 and 35 yards over the past two seasons. Using that percentage and last season’s numbers, a total of 30 extra points would have been missed — but the league is on pace for more than double that this year.
This surprisingly low figure could be due to early season jitters or an adjustment period, even though preseason games were played with this change in effect, which gave every team and its kicker several in-game opportunities to adjust. Even if kickers improve to meet expectations, at least one coach has already said he would be willing to experiment and go for two points. The ball would still be placed at the two-yard line, just as it was under the old extra point rules, which now makes this option more appealing.
After Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller scored a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers, coach Mike Tomlin decided to go for two, and the team succeeded. This gave the team an early lead of 8-0, which is unusual because teams almost never go for two points so early in the game. However, there are several reasons why this strategy might be the best play overall and could be used on a wider scale as the season goes on and weather conditions worsen.
First, going for two points early in the game is a relatively low-risk, high-reward play. If successful, the team is obviously rewarded with two points instead of one. Aside from the fact that all points are valuable, this places additional strategic burdens on opponents who may be more conservative. Because a vast majority of NFL head coaches are rather conservative play-callers and strategists, this could give risk-seeking teams an advantage. There is already ample evidence as to why coaches should be going for two more often, regardless of the time left in the game — so the rule change essentially incentivizes coaches to make a more strategic, rational decision.
Even if the conversion attempt fails, the team still has the entire game to make up the conversion or adjust its game plan because of the failed attempt; this seems like a much better idea than waiting until the final drive in the fourth quarter to go for two, failing, and having no recourse.
Second, basic math shows that teams would probably be better, or at least not any worse off, by foregoing the 33-yard attempt altogether. In theory, coaches should favor the option that can get them the most points. With the extra point at its new distance, the expected value is .942 points per try. To get that same expected value, teams would have to be successful on 47.1 percent of their two-point attempts from the two-yard line. So even if teams convert 50 percent of their conversion attempts, they will be better off in the long run. Since 2010, teams have actually converted 50.5 percent of their two-point attempts, which yields an expected value of 1.01 points per attempt.
Nothing in the NFL comes easy, and the league has done its part to ensure that kickers now have to earn their keep too. Kickers have undoubtedly improved both in range and accuracy over the years, and have proven themselves to be invaluable assets to their teams. The real challenge of this rule change falls on coaches and what decisions they will make as they face mounting evidence that the traditional way of operating is a losing bet.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.
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