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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The rise of the NFL’s 2-point conversion: A guide to strategy



The Detroit Lions attempted a 2-point conversion late in the 4th quarter against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 30, 2023. (X.com)

By Ben Blatt and Francesca Paris


The NFL playoffs, which begin Saturday, will probably bring high-stakes moments around a simple decision: After a touchdown, should your team kick for 1 point, or go for 2?


The 2-point try — where teams get to run one play to score from the 2-yard line — was initially a hit with coaches when it was introduced to the NFL in 1994, but its popularity soon faded. In recent seasons, that trend has reversed, with 2-point attempts becoming more common thanks to rule changes and to the growing role of analytics.


For those who enjoy strategy, this trend has brought a welcome dose of tactics to what was once an automatic decision to kick. (Week 17’s game between the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, which hinged on not one or two but three consecutive 2-point attempts in the game’s final seconds, typified both the strategic and emotional factors at play.)


Here’s a primer on what has changed and what is behind the decisions you’ll see in the weeks ahead.


Why are attempts going up?


The short answer: a rule change. In 2015, the NFL moved the spot for the extra-point kick from the 2-yard line back 13 yards, to the 15, making a successful kick slightly less probable. (It’s now successful 95% of the time, on average, instead of 99%.) That decrease was enough to make going for 2 more appealing.


How often are 2-point attempts successful?


About 47.5% of the time since 2015 — almost exactly half that of the extra-point conversion rate.


Interesting! Was that a coincidence or by design?


It’s hard to say exactly how much math was used in the NFL’s decision to move the ball to the 15 for teams who choose to kick. (Much closer and the math says they should kick; much farther away, going for 2 is clearly the better choice.) But the league stated it wanted to make it more entertaining for fans.


Is there a straightforward, math-based strategy for when to go for 2?


For most situations, there is consensus (among statisticians!) for when to go for it. However, in some situations, different assumptions can lead to different recommendations.


If a team scores a touchdown that leaves it 5 points down, the math is very clear: Going for 2 is the right choice. A successful conversion would put the team within a field goal of tying the game. A failed conversion or a successful kicked extra point would leave a deficit of 4 or 5 points.


If a team scores a touchdown that leaves it 4 points down, however, the math is a bit trickier. A comprehensive analysis by FiveThirtyEight recommended going for 2, especially late in the game, but a separate analysis by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, Laura Albert, concluded it’s best to kick the extra point. Even on similar questions, slightly different assumptions or data can lead to different answers.


So, are teams mostly following the math?


I would never describe NFL teams as “mostly following the math,” but their decisions are increasingly going in the same direction as the math.


Teams are more conservative than they probably should be, but they’re also now much more likely to go for 2 when the math heavily favors doing so.


Take that down-by-5-points example above. From 2010 to 2013, teams went for 2 in those situations 25% of the time. But in the past three years, they’ve more than doubled that rate, going for it 56% of the time.


Going for 2 when down 9 is a more complicated decision (FiveThirtyEight declared it a toss-up). From 2010 to 2013, teams didn’t attempt this even once. But in recent seasons, it’s becoming more accepted, with coaches facing this situation choosing to go for 2 about 32% of the time since 2020.


Why don’t coaches just outsource the decision to math? Seems like it would make their lives easier!


Math is not and should not be the only thing coaches rely on. A team may have a play (such as the one Dan Campbell of the Lions used against the Cowboys) that it loves from practice and that it thinks has a high chance of success. Or, alternatively, weather or a specific personnel matchup could mean a play is less likely to succeed than a calculation might otherwise suggest.


But it’s also true that NFL coaches have typically refrained from going for 2 until the end of the game, when the specific situation forces them to make a tough decision.


Still, the trends say math is winning. Coaches have started to go for 2 earlier in the game.


What about when a penalty moves the line of scrimmage, as happened with the Lions?


The math certainly does not shine favorably on the Lions’ decision to go for it from the 7-yard line after a penalty moved them back from the 2. (Only about one-third of attempts have been successful from that mark, the same as for fourth-and-goal attempts from that distance.)


On the other hand, thanks to a 2019 rule change, teams can take advantage of penalties committed against them during the touchdown to start the ensuing 2-point attempt from the 1-yard line, rather than from the 2. That additional yard makes a difference: About 59% of attempts from there have been successful, and teams should go for it even in a situation where 2 points are not essential.


The playoffs are here. Should we expect more or less aggressive behavior for this decision?


It’s hard to say. Since 2015, the percentage of 2-point attempts after a touchdown has been 12% in the playoffs and 9% in the regular season.


This could mean coaches are more aggressive, but the sample size for playoff games is small, so it could just be statistical noise. It’s worth noting, though, that playoff games aren’t especially closer contests than regular-season games. That doesn’t mean you can’t shout at your TV louder during the playoffs, though.

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