It’s time to set the scene. The date is October 21, 2018. The Tennessee Titans are locked in a close one with the Los Angeles Chargers in London. There is 31 seconds left on the clock and the Titans just scored a touchdown to make the score 20-19 with 31 seconds remaining on the clock. Newly minted head coach Mike Vrabel didn’t know this at the time but he was about to change the way the NFL viewed a two point conversion.
The 2-pt coversion in the NFL
The two point conversion has been a part of the NFL since 1994. The concept is simple. After a touchdown, a team is given two options. The first choice is kicking an extra point, which is the length of a typical 33 yard field goal. The second choice is for a two point conversion which keeps the offense on the field and get the ball back into the end zone from 2 yards out.
Why do it?
Conventional wisdom would take this on a situational basis and that’s typically how NFL teams approach it too. However, it is important to note that there has been a surge in two point conversion attempts in the NFL since the rule to move the extra point back to the 15 yard line. In 2018, teams attempted 130 two point conversions, the most since 2001.
Why are teams suddenly going for it more often? The answer is simple: analytics. All teams have their own win probability models that measure the success of two point conversions and how it affects a team’s ability to win a game. There are the definite scenarios to go for it, llike down two points after socring a touchdown. But some are less clear. For example, what if a team is down by one point? There’s a couple scenarios where teams have gone for two in that situation.
Let’s start with the one mentioned at the beginning. The Titans scored the touchdown and went for two points to win the game and they failed and lost the game 20-19.
However, it doesn’t always fail. One of the earliest examples of this new trend actually took place in Week 1 in 2016. The Oakland Raiders scored a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints with time running out. Jack Del Rio, the Raiders coach at the time elected to go for it and they succeeded to take a 35-34 lead. The Saints were able to drive back into field goal range, but Wil Lutz missed the definitely missable 61 yard field goal and the Raiders won the game.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Raiders had a 51% chance to win had they kicked the PAT and only a 44% chance if they went for two. But clearly, the aggressive play calling paid of for Del Rio.
Many times, teams will go for two simply to avoid overtime. With the way NFL’s overtime rules are structured, sometimes teams would rather lose by missing a two-point conversion in regulation, then relying on the overtime coin toss to decide their fate. In overtime, if the first team to possess the ball scores a touchdown, the game is over. This is why the Philadelphia Eagles went for two in the NFC Wild Card game in January 2019 vs the Chicago Bears. That forced the Bears to attempt a 43 yard field goal to win the game, which missed.
Worth it or Not Worth it
At the end of the day, if you’re a coach with trust in your offense, it makes sense to be aggressive and attempt the two-point conversion because it can be the difference between win and loss. The benfits of winning outweight the cost of overtime obviously and while the 2 point conversion is never for certain, an extra point is never for certain either. If you want to be put in a better position to win, the 2 point conversion attempt is the obvious choice. These days in the NFL, playing to win is a better strategy to playing to not lose.