INTRODUCTIONTHE
BASICS
From 2001 to
2016, the twopoint conversion rate in regularseason NFL games was 47.2%
(481/1018). The conversion rate for
onepoint conversions approached 99% during this period, but the NFL then pushed
back the line of scrimmage to the 15 yard line, for extrapoint kicks, in the
2015 season. This dropped the success
rate on onepoint conversions to 94%, which is almost exactly double the
success rate of twopoint conversions. Thus,
the result of this rule change is that the “expected points” to be gained from
either type of conversion are now the same.
It’s either 94% of 1 or 47% of twoin either case, the expectation is .94
points.
This has
changed everything.
If the goal
is to maximize the points you will score, there is now no difference between
kicking or going for two. Over the
course of a season, a team that goes for two after every touchdown can expect
to score the same number of points as it would by kicking. Thus, the only reason to prefer one over the
other is tactical, and a coach cannot properly be criticized for choosing one
or the other, except in those situations where tactical considerations
prevail. If you’re down eight and you
score a TD with three seconds left in the fourth quarter, you must go for two
or you will be fired. If it happens with
three seconds left in the first quarter, do what you like. Nobody will care, or at least nobody should care. In the first quarter, kicking an extra point
is never a mistake, and neither is going for two.
Another
fundamental reality underlying the oneortwopoint conversion decision is the
dominance of the home team in overtime games. For the period from 2007 to 2016, in the
regular season, home teams won 1467 of 2556 games (57.4%). We all know there is a homefield advantage,
of course, but what is little understood is that the advantage persists even
when the two teams end the first sixty minutes in a tie. The home team still wins 56.5% of these games
(87 of 154).
Why is this
hometeam dominance in OT significant in the conversion decision? The best illustration comes in the classic
gofortwo scenario. The Jets, on the
road, trail the Raiders by 7 and score on the last play of regulation. Do they kick the point and take their chances
in OT or do they go for two to win it (or lose it), in regulation? The home/away OT stats suggest that a road
team should normally go for two in this situation since they have a 47% chance
of making the twopoint conversion but only a 43.5% chance of winning in OT.
Other
factors can affect this particular endofgame decision, of course. Any coach, either at home or away, may
identify factors at that moment that
must be considered in deciding whether to go for two. If the Raiders are reduced to their emergency
quarterback, or have their allpro shutdown corner nursing a bad knee, it might
be wiser for the Jets to try the kick and head for OT. If there are key Jets injured, it may be best
to take the one shot at winning. Win or
lose, they will get to go home without sustaining more damage.
In the
course of this guide, the inherent edge of the home team in overtime will
appear again and again. OT is no bargain
for a road team and should be avoided if at all possible, even if it means
increasing the chance of losing in regulation.
Coaches
faced with a oneortwo decision will make the wrong choice for many reasons. (Trying to get to OT when they should really
be trying to win the game is just one of them.)
Perhaps the biggest reason a coach will get this wrong is that he is
routinely brutalized by the sports media whenever he makes a binary decision
that leads immediately to a bad result.
If a coach
punts on 4^{th}and1 with three minutes left and loses, he was “too
conservative.” If he runs a play in the
same situation, fails to make a first down, and loses the game, he “took a big
chance.” A coach will never be
criticized for kicking an extra point with a minute left in the game in order
to get to overtime, but if he goes for two and misses, somebody in the media
will demand he be fired. I have never
seen a reasoned analysis of one of these decisions in the Monday sports
section. Never. Thus, many decisions by coaches are made with
a view to avoiding criticism from the press and the mass of football fans who
don’t understand this stuff either.
Yet another
reason coaches muff the conversion decision is that making them is a tiny
fraction of a very difficult job, and the considerations involved have little
in common with the rest of their duties.
NFL coaches are primarily managers and not “game players.” Most do not actually play a lot of games like
poker or backgammon or scrabble or chess.
(Pardon the generalization.) They are more like military leaders whose
job it is to lead men into battle. It is
difficult to harness the energy, intelligence and aggression of fifty large men
who enjoy violence and have few manners, but that is an essential task of an
NFL coach. “Gosh, I wonder if I should
kick or go for two” is just not a priority.
Then, once
he has performed his management tasks, gotten all his players “on the same
page,” and adjusted their testosterone levels to workable parameters, his other
nearimpossible job is to make instantaneous decisions in the fastmoving and
everchanging environment that is a football game.
In a
particular game situation, for a particular play, the decision on whether to
run a cover3 pass defense or a mantoman scheme is a judgment call that must
be made in seconds. There are no charts
to tell the coach what to do. And while
he and his assistant coaches may review these decisions when the game is over,
there is no alternative, in the moment, to “going with his gut” because there
is no time to assess the alternatives in some methodical and logical
fashion. His “gut” is what his twenty
years of football experience tells him to do in that moment, with that
down and yardage, with that time
remaining in the half or the game, against that
opponent on that day. These are what I would call “football
decisions” because the knowledge that goes into making them is specific to the
game of football.
But there
are other kinds of decisions as well. In
almost every game, including football, there are some decisions to be made that
have a correct and an incorrect answer.
Let’s call these “game decisions” since by their nature, they are not
unique to football or Parcheesi or bridge.
If your blackjack hand totals 20, you stand. If you have 13 and the dealer is showing a
king, you hit. By making these plays,
you maximize your chances of winning. To
do otherwise is demonstrably wrong; in the game context, you reduce your chance
of winning.
No one can
dispute there are such moments in football.
If you trail by 8 points and you score a touchdown on the last play of
regulation, you may kick an extra
point, but you would be wrong to do so since it would ensure your defeat. There are many other situations in football,
however, where the answer (and the math), is just as clear, but coaches don’t
know what to do.
After a
game, a coach will often be asked why, in a particular spot, he chose to punt,
or kick a field goal, or try a twopoint conversion. To this, many coaches (e.g., Mike Tomlin)
will reply, “I went with my gut.” This
is the uniform response for those who 1) know a lot about football, 2) know nothing
about math, and 3) do not know how to think logically about “game decisions.”
The problem
is that these game decisions arise regularly, and they are often important. There are always binary decisions to be made
that have a correct and an incorrect answer, and if you “going with your gut,”
you will often get them wrong. On 4^{th}
down, do you punt or try to retain possession by running a play? Do you kick a field goal or try for a first
down? There is usually a right answer to
these questions, and even where there is an element of judgment involved, the
judgment component is typically much smaller than coaches want to believe.
For coaches,
the attraction of “I went with my gut” is that it can never be secondguessed. If how you feel at the moment is the correct basis
for a decision, then nobody can call you an idiot later on. The problem is that it doesn’t matter what
your gut tells you when the question is what two and two add up to.
But not
every coach “goes by his gut” in every situation. Recognizing (in a general way), that there
are right and wrong decisions about these questions, and also recognizing that
the pressure of the moment may make it difficult to think clearly or remember
the right move, many coaches carry a chart telling them whether to go for one
or two in various situations (i.e, up two points, down four points, etc.). The original of these charts, which is still
in use by some coaches, was created
by Dick Vermeil when he was offensive coordinator for Tommy Prothro at UCLA in
1970.
LEAD BY

TRAIL BY


1
point

Go
for 2

1
point

Go
for 2

2
points

Go
for 1

2
points

Go
for 2

3
points

Go
for 1

3
points

Go
for 1

4
points

Go
for 2

4
points

Decision

5
points

Go
for 2

5
points

Go
for 2

6
points

Go
for 1

6
points

Go
for 1

7
points

Go
for 1

7
points

Go
for 1

8
points

Go
for 1

8
points

Go
for 1

9
points

Go
for 1

9
points

Go
for 2

10
points

Go
for 1

10
points

Go
for 1

11
points

Go
for 1

11
points

Go
for 2

12
points

Go
for 2

12
points

Go
for 2

13
points

Go
for 1

13
points

Go
for 1

14
points

Go
for 1

14
points

Go
for 1

15
points

Go
for 2

15
points

Go
for 1

16
points

Go
for 1

16
points

Go
for 2

17
points

Go
for 1

17
points

Go
for 1

18
points

Go
for 1

18
points

Go
for 1

19
points

Go
for 2

19
points

Go
for 2

20
points

Go
for 1

20
points

Go
for 1

To read the
chart, a coach finds the point margin that exists once a touchdown is scored,
but before the conversion is attempted.
Thus, if you are losing 3 – 0 and score a touchdown, you now lead 6 –
3. Next to the box for “LEAD BY 3
points,” you are instructed to “Go for 1.”
(Note the
“TRAIL BY 4 points,” where the advice given is “Decision”i.e., no advice at
all. “Go with your gut” is what you need
to do, apparently. That this is the one
situation where Vermeil was uncertain seems a bit odd. If you are down 10 – 0 and you score a
touchdown, you’re down four. Every coach
in America is going to kick the extra point, isn’t he? Is the possibility of trailing 10 – 8 so very
attractive that you would accept the risk of being behind 10 – 6 and needing
more than a field goal to tie?
There is,
however, an argument for the twopoint conversion in certain situations that
will be discussed in the Trail by Four section.)
To the best
of my knowledge, Dick Vermeil does not have a degree in mathematics or game
theory, so I suspect the entries in these boxes are more of a seatofthepants
Vermeilian view of conversion possibilities.
In any event, some of them are wrong.
Also, other coaches and football people have changed specific entries on
the Vermeil chart, so now there are other, different, charts in use by various
teams.
In the rest
of this article, I will examine these specific situations (up 2, down 4, etc.),
and provide the best analysis I can.
Some of this analysis consists of my own thoughts and calculations, and
some of it has been around for decades.
Many of the situations are trivial, of course, and require little
discussion.
One further
point needs to be made: these are endofgame situations. That does not mean that we are only concerned
with a touchdown on the last play of the 4^{th} quarter, or with four
minutes left or eight minutes left. This
analysis can be important in the
third quarter as well. There is no
single bright line on the 60minute clock where the decision to go for one or
two points suddenly becomes critically important. About the most we can say is that these
decisions become more important as we
get deeper into the game, simply because there are fewer possessions left in
the contest and thus fewer scoring scenarios to be examined.
Another way
to put it is that at the beginning of the game, none of this matters. If you run back the opening kickoff for a
touchdown, for example, you won’t be wrong whether you kick the extra point or
go for two. We have already seen that
your (mathematical) “expectation” is .94 points no matter which conversion you
choose, so suit yourself. Indeed, it is
hard to make a case that any of this is terribly important until the second
half, so I won’t try to.
WHAT TO
DO WHEN YOU…
Trail by
One
And here we
are. At the very beginning of our
inquiry we are presented with the classic gofor2 conundrum. You have scored a touchdown on the last play
of regulation, and you are down 14 – 13 (or 87 – 86). Do you take the nearcertain onepoint
conversion and go to OT, where your chance of winning will be somewhere near
50%? Or do you run a play for two points
and try to win right here and right now?
Are you
feeling lucky?
As we have
seen, there is a 94% chance of kicking the extra point, so if you have a 50%
chance of winning in OT, your chance of winning the game if you attempt a
onepoint conversion is .94 times .5, or 47%.
Since your chance of making a twopoint conversion is also 47%, there is
no reason to prefer one path over the other.
Are you feeling lucky?
But there is
a variable here, buried in the game and everything that has occurred. Do you have a 50% chance of winning in
overtime? You almost certainly do
NOT. Your chance of winning in OT is a probability
that is significantly better than 50% or significantly worse. If your chance of an overtime victory is more
than 50%, you should opt for OT by kicking the conversion. If it is less than 50%, you should go for two
and take your chances now.
So what are
your chances of winning in OT? What
factors will move the needle from 50% to a greater or lesser number?
In the NFL,
in the ten seasons from 2007 to 2016, the home team won the game 57.4% of the
time. This is not surprisingevery
sport has a homefield advantage. What is surprising is that during the same
period, home teams won 56.5% (87 of 154) overtime games. Thus, even if a visitor has battled the home
team to a standstill and fought its way into overtime, the home team still
maintains a significant advantage. Road
teams win only 43.5% of overtime games. All other considerations aside, a road
team that scores a touchdown on the last play of regulation and is behind by
one point should go for two. A 47%
chance of making the twopoint conversion is much better than the 43.5% chance
of winning in overtime. As a general
rule, road teams should go for two in order to win in regulation; home teams
should take the single point and take their chances in overtime.
But there
are always other considerations. There
are ebbs and flows in the course of a football game, for example. If Team A has scored the last seventeen
points of the game to draw within one, Team A’s coach may feel that Team B is
on the verge of physical or psychological collapse, and that all he has to do
is get to overtime in order to win
the game.
If instead,
Team A is melting down, the wisest course may be to run one play (the twopoint
conversion). If Team A is down to its
emergency QB, or if one of their other weapons is physically compromised, it
may be best to avoid OT. Even if there
are no serious injuries, there may be reasons to decide the issue now.
There is no
clear answer on what to do in this situation.
Dick Vermeil’s original chart from 1970 says “go for two.” A revised edition still in use on NFL
sidelines says kick. My answer is kick
at home and go for two on the road, unless there are compelling reasons to do
otherwise.
Trail by
Two
With ten
seconds left in regulation, this is a trivial case, and all the charts tell you
to go for two. However, the more
interesting question arises about what to do when the situation arises two
minutes into the 3^{rd} quarter, or even in the first half. You have probably noticed that most coaches
down say, 14 – 12, with plenty of time left in the game, will kick the point to
make the score 14 – 13. Their choice is
defensible, but I think they are wrong.
Going for
two in this common scenario means you will either tie the game or trail by two
points. Tied is good; down two is not so
good. The question is whether the upside
is bigger than the downside. Coaches
routinely kick because they have concluded that the downside of going for two
and missing is more significant than the upside of tying the score.
What they
fear is a subsequent touchdown by their opponent. If they trail 14 – 12, and the opponent
scores seven points, they will trail by 21 – 12 and will be two scores
behind. Trailing 14 – 13, however, seven
points for the other side will make it 21 – 13, which the trailing coach views
as being “in touch” or “within striking range” because eight points is
potentially achievable with just one score and a twopoint conversion.
There are
several flaws in this reasoning. First,
if the bogeyman you fear is that the other guys will score a TD and force you
to score a TD and a 2point conversion just to tie, well, why put off that day
of reckoning? You have just scored a
touchdown to make the score 14 – 12, so why not try your 2pointer now? If there is any likelihood you will need a
2point conversion, it will always be wise to try it sooner rather than
later. Doing it now tells you how many times you need to score to catch or
overtake your opponent. Putting off
the decision means you may not discover the answer to the question until you
miss your 2point conversion with 1:50 left in the game, and you suddenly realize,
“Oops. I guess I need to score again.” If you had gone for two back in the third
quarter and missed it, you would have known what you had to do much earlier,
and you might have planned your offensive strategy accordingly.
The clichÃ©
you hear from sportscasters is that a team trailing by 8 is “one score
down.” It’s not true. Seven points is “one score” because we can
assume a onepoint conversion, but you can never assume you will make a
twopoint try. Eight points is really
“one score or two scores, but we won’t know until we flip a coin.” If you’re going to flip that coin, do it
now. Why keep yourself in the dark?
We will
return to this idea when we discuss other point deficits (i.e., down 9, down
16). When a team gets to these situations,
a coach does not know how many more times he has to score, but he does know
that if he is to win the game, he will need at least one twopoint conversion
in regulation. The only way to eliminate
the uncertainty is to try the two at the first opportunity.
There is
another aspect that enters into prevailing “coachthink” in this and similar predicaments,
and that is the tendency to seek a tie that sends the game into overtime, even
at the cost of abandoning any chance of winning the game outright without
having to play extra time. Going for one
point when trailing 14 – 12 is done in order to stay close enough so that you might be able to tie the game later and get
into OT. The decision to “stay close,”
however, reduces the chance that the trailing team will win the game without
having to face overtime.
Trailing 14
– 12 in the third quarter, there is a vast array of possibilities for the
scoring that might occur in the remainder of the game. The reason Team A kicks the extra point, however, is so that
when Team B scores a (7point) TD, Team
A will lead 21 – 13, potentially allowing Team B to tie and get to OT. Down 21
– 13, however, one thing Team A cannot do with its next touchdown is take the
lead and win the game. Its only hope
becomes overtime.
Going for 2
when behind 14 – 12, however, changes the equation. If Team A succeeds in tying the game at 14,
Team B then scores a 7point touchdown, and Team A responds with a TD of its
own, the score will now be 21 – 20 with Team A having the option of kicking the
almostcertain conversion to get to overtime, or going for two again in order
to win the game immediately. As we have
already seen, there are many reasons a coach may rationally decide to do
this. Road teams win only 43.5% of
overtime games, but the NFLwide success rate for 2point conversions is 47%.
What this
means is that a team playing in a hostile stadium should always be willing to
take risks in order to preserve the possibility of winning the game in
regulation. Overtime is no bargain for a
road team, which will normally get the short end of the statistical stick.
Trail by Three
This is a
notuncommon situation. The Steelers
lead by 16 – 7. The Eagles score a
touchdown, making it 16 – 13.
Kick or go
for two?
Well, it
depends. With three or four minutes
left, you kick, so that a subsequent score will win the game for you. The difference between being down one and
down two is meaningless if your only hope is 1) to stop the Steelers from
scoring and get the ball back, and 2) kick a field goal.
If the
Eagles get their TD with twelve minutes left, however, other possibilities
arise. Stopping the Steelers and kicking
a FG is not the only way you might win this game. You might be able to win even if the Steelers
score again.
Suppose you
kick your extra point to make the score 16 – 14 with twelve minutes left. If the Steelers now put up a TD with a
(single) extra point, they will be ahead 23 – 14 and you’re probably
screwed. Thus, when the Eagles put the
ball in the end zone and trail 16 – 13, don’t they have to consider the
possibility that a Pittsburgh TD will win the game? The twopoint conversion, to draw within one
point at 16 – 15, still will keep them within 8 if the Steelers should put up
an additional seven.
The
downside, of course, is still that missing the twopoint conversion on the
Eagle’s first TD leaves them at 16 – 13 so that even a lastminute field
goal would only get them to OT. However, it is less likely that this specific result will occur, since the
additional time expands the tree of possibilities.
Note that the
chance of an intervening Pittsburgh field goal does not change the calculation
for Philly. Whether the score is 16 –
15, 16 – 14, or 16 – 13, an additional three for the Steelers still means the
Eagles can win with a TD and a conversion.
I mentioned
earlier that the decision on whether to go for two probably doesn’t matter much
in the first half. Since your
expectation on the conversion is .94 points regardless of your choice, the only
things that matter for your choice are tactical considerations, and tactical
considerations are just not that important early in the game. But they not only matter in the second half,
they can change depending on how much time is left. The problem of what to do when you trail by three
points is only one example.
Other
students of the gofortwo question have realized this, of course, and charts
exist that are WAY more complicated than Vermeil’s, since they import another
variable into the problemtime left in the game. The best I’ve seen appears at http://www.footballcommentary.com/twoptchart.htm
in a 5292004 posting entitled “TwoPoint Conversion Chart.” The chart covers all score differentials from
aheadby30 to downby30 on the vertical axis with different amounts of time
remaining (in 3minute increments), arrayed across the horizontal. The advice on going for two is not a binary
yes/no, but is expressed as a percentage.
For example,
the footballcommentary chart makes clear that when you have just scored and are
down two points with 3:00 left in the game, you must go for two. With 30:00
left, however, while you should still go for two, the decision is much closer
to a coin flip, so that if a coach has little confidence in his team converting
the two, he should probably just kick.
I don’t
question their results, and I certainly don’t pretend to have modeled a
football game using the Markov Decision Process (as they have done), because I
don’t know what the hell it is. I do
think their chart is somewhat impractical for use on the sidelines, though. In addition, it imputes a level of
mathematical certainty to these issues that cannot be justified by the
data. For example, if you are ten points
down (16 – 6, let’s say), after scoring a TD with 29:48 left in the game, they
say you should go for two if you have a greater than 52% chance of making it.
Another
example. Suppose you are six points down
(e.g., 15 – 9) after scoring. If there
are three minutes left in the game, you should try for two only if your chance
of making it is better than 54%, but if it’s the very beginning of the second
half, you should go for it if your chance of success exceeds 44%.
Is this
level of specificity really going to help Doug Pederson make a decision in the
heat of battle with the clock ticking?
In logic, the
flaw in the footballcommentary.com chart is called the fallacy of
“overprecision,” and the classic illustration of it is the joke about the guard
at the natural history museum who is asked about the age of the dinosaur
skeleton on display.
“That
dinosaur is 90,000,008 years old,” he replies.
“”Really? How can they pin it down so precisely?” you
ask.
“Well, when
I started working here, they told me it was 90,000,000 years old, and that was
eight years ago.”
Summarizing,
when down three (e.g., 16 – 13), kick the point with three minutes left. With more time (say, ten minutes), it’s not
wrong to go for two.
Trail by
Four
Kick it, of
course. Get within a field goal. That was my assumption, anyway, until I read http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/whentogofor2forreal/
There are no
dummies at fivethirtyeight, of course, and when Nate Silver speaks, it
is usually wise to at least listen. As the
article explains, “If you’re down 4 points after scoring a
touchdown (with 10 minutes left), you should go for 2, because being down 2
points instead of 3 helps you more than being down 4 points instead of 3 hurts
you.” In support of this reasoning, fivethirtyeight
cites ESPN’s Expected Win Percentage Model, which gives the conclusion at least
a patina of science.
On reflection, however, I am unconvinced. In particular, there is no particular reason
to think “being down 2 points instead of 3 helps you more than being down 4
points instead of 3 hurts you.” I need
some data on that before I can believe it.
It must also be noted that fivethirtyeight stands alone on this
point. All the charts in common usage
and all references in the gofortwo literature support the idea of kicking the
point when you’re down four.
I will go this far, however.
If you are the visiting team and there is so little time left (let’s say
four minutes), that your only realistic hope, after the conversion, is to hold
your opponents, get the ball back, and score one more time, then there is an
argument to be made for a twopoint conversion.
When you’re down four and you go for two, you will either be trailing by
two or four, and if you are trailing by two or four with four minutes left in
the game, overtime is very unlikely.
Going for two is an avoidOT strategy, and a coach on the road
should never be criticized too harshly for an avoidOT strategy, since the
visitor is usually a significant underdog in overtime.
So kick. Unless it’s very
late in the game and you really really really want to go home after sixty
minutes. Then you might decide to go for
two.
Trail by
Five
Go for
two. Why not? Again, the purpose is to get within a field
goal.
Trail by
Six
Go for one,
though it’s hard to make much of an argument either way. As time grows short, it makes sense to kick
the point because that puts you down only five.
If your opponent then scores three, you may still have a prayer of tying
the game and sending it to overtime.
With more
time left on the clock (in the third quarter for example), there will be more
scoring possibilities for both sides, so going for two becomes more
attractive. A fourpoint spread is the
difference between a TD and a field goal, and it is worth risking a missed
conversion to achieve that. For one
thing, let’s assume the remainder of the scoring consists of an opponent’s
field goal (going up seven), and your lastsecond TD to get you within one
point. As we have seen, there are many
reasons why you might wish to go for two on that final score so as to win the
game (or lose it), in regulation. Going
for two when down six may provide you with that opportunity.
Trail by
Seven
Kick
it. The chance of getting to 5 is not worth the
possibility of getting nothing and remaining down seven.
Trail by
Eight
You’ve been
behind 14 – 0 since halftime and you now score a touchdown with five minutes
left in the game. Your only realistic
hope is to hold your opponent scoreless the rest of the way and punch in
another TD yourself. With the score now
14 – 6, do you kick the extra point or go for two? As Richard C. Porter, an economist at the
University of Michigan, pointed out in “ExtraPoint Strategy in Football”
(published in The American Statistician
in 1967), you need to go for two.
Coaches
virtually never do this, of course. It
is believed the last time an NFL coach went for two in this situation was in
the PackersRavens game on October 14, 2001.
The Ravens, trailing 31 – 17, scored a touchdown with 38 seconds left in
the game, went for two, failed, and lost the game 31 – 23. The decision caused little stir at the time
since the Ravens were unlikely to win the game anyway, and actually failed to
recover the ensuing onside kick.
Going for
two is clearly the right move, however, and by a large margin. Kicking an extra point when down eight points
significantly decreases your chance of winning the game, and we have known this
for fifty years.
Assume a fourteenpoint
deficit with five minutes left in the game.
Further assume you will hold your opponent scoreless in the remainder of
regulation, but that you will score two touchdowns. What conversion choices should you make to
maximize your chance of winning the game?
Suppose you
do what every NFL coach would dokick two extra points in order to get to
overtime. Since you have a 94% chance of
making each conversion, and a 50% chance of winning in overtime (this will
fluctuate, but let’s call it 50%), your chance of winning the game is .94 x .94
x .50 = 44%.
Now what
happens if you go for two on your first opportunity? Well, if you make it (47%), all you have to
do is kick an extra point (94%) on your second TD, and you win the game in
regulation. Your chance of winning this
way is .47 x .94 = .44, the same as your chance of winning by kicking two extra
points and going to OT.
You have
additional chances, however. Even if you
miss your twopoint conversion try (which you will do 53% of the time), you may
make a twopointer after your second touchdown (47%) to get you into overtime,
where you will then have a 50% chance of winning. The probability of this happening is .53 x
.47 x .50 = 12.5%.
There is
even another possibility. Suppose you
make your first twopoint conversion (47%), then miss the kick after your second touchdown (6%). This still gets you to overtime where your
chance is, as we have postulated, 50%.
The probability of this branch of the tree awarding you a victory is .47
x .06 x .50 = 1.5%.
Summarizing,
your chance of winning by kicking two onepoint conversions is 44%. Your strategy is simple: get to OT and then
get lucky. Your chance of winning by
going for two on your first score, however is 44% plus 12.5% plus 1.5%, for
a total of 58%.
The big difference
between the two strategies is that kicking the two onepoint conversions gives
you NO possibility of winning the game in regulation. Going for two, however, gives you a
significant chance of winning in regulation in addition to a smaller chance of
prevailing in OT. By kicking, you are a
dog to win the game even if you make the
two touchdowns you need. Going for
two on the first score (assuming you get the second TD as well), makes you a
favorite.
This
particular flawed aspect of coachthink is one we have seen before. In the interest of staying close or staying
within striking distance or maximizing the chance of getting to overtime, coaches
will actually reduce their probability of winning the game. The mistake is understandable; the idea of
going for two when down eight points is counterintuitive. Nevertheless, there has to be somebody on the
sideline whose job it is to keep his eyes on the biscuit. The goal is NOT to “get to overtime;” the
goal is, or should be, to win the game.
Trail by
Nine
This is
another decisionpoint where most NFL coaches get it wrong, and for the same
reason discussed above. Down fifteen
points (22 – 7, let’s say), with five minutes left in the game, the trailing
team scores a TD. Going for two might
make it 22 – 15, though missing will leave them behind by nine points. NFL coaches routinely (and incorrectly) kick
the extra point here to leave themselves eight points behind. They do this to stay “one score behind.”
But eight
points is not one score behind, is it?
It is one thing to assume you will make an extrapoint kick, but who
dares to assume you can make a twopoint conversion? NFL teams only make them 47% of the time.
Fifteen
points is not two scores. It is either
two or three and you won’t know how many it is until you try the twopoint
conversion. Therefore, you should
attempt it at your first opportunity.
Dick Vermeil
got this one correct, by the way, on his chart from 1970.
Trail by
Ten
As time
winds down, it becomes essential to go for two so as to bring the lead down to
eight points. With time for more scoring
(i.e., in the third quarter), the possibilities become so numerous that the
arguments for one or two are not very compelling.
Trail by
Eleven
Dick Vermeil
says to go for two. Other sideline
charts say kick. It is difficult to
mount a convincing argument either way.
Following your conversion attempt, you will trail by nine, ten or eleven
points, meaning that you will still need a field goal, a touchdown, and a
conversion to win or tie. Since the
elevenpoint difference, requiring a subsequent field goal and a touchdown and
a twopoint conversion, is most likely to occur if you now try a two and fail,
I would kick in order to bring the deficit to ten. Then, when you later score your field goal
and TD, you can decide at that point whether to go for one or two.
Trail by
Twelve
This is a
close call, but you should go for two.
If you make it, a field goal will get you within seven, and then when
you score a touchdown with two seconds left in the game, you have the option of
kicking (to reach overtime), or trying a two in order to win or lose in
regulation. Down twelve, if you kick to
get within eleven, your only (narrow) path is a field goal, a TD and a
twopointer.
This is
another illustration of the principle that if you are going to have to go for
two at some point, you are better off doing it at your first opportunity.
Trail by
Thirteen
Go for
two. If successful, you have a shot at
tying the game with a field goal, a touchdown and a twopoint conversion.
Trail by
Fourteen
Kick.
Trail by
Fifteen
For the same
reason you go for two when you are down fourteen and score a touchdown, you
also should go for two when you are down twentyone and score a touchdown. See TRAIL BY EIGHT.
Assuming you
make the three TDs you need when you are down twentyone, kicking three extra
points gives you only a 41.5 % chance of winning the game. You’re a serious dog. Going for two on your first touchdown, when
you are down fifteen, makes you a 55.8% favorite if you get the other two TDs.
Trail by
Sixteen
This occurs
more often than you think. Trailing by
22 points (e.g., 28 – 6 or 25 3), a team will score a touchdown. Almost invariably (I have not found a
contrary instance in the NFL), the coach will kick an extra point.
This is
another instance of the “stay close” or “eight points is one score” error. Down 22, a coach (let’s call him Jim
Harbaugh), will think, “OK, I need three touchdowns and four extra points to get us into OT. Therefore, I need two kicks and one twopoint
conversion. Therefore, I will kick after
my first touchdown to cut the deficit to 15 (“two scores”), and I’ll kick again
after the second touchdown to bring the gap down to 8 (“one score”). And then finally, I’ll go for two to tie the
game after the third TD.”
In Superbowl XLVII, played on
February III, 2013, Harbaugh’s 49ers were trailing 28 – 6 when, midway through
the third quarter, Michael Crabtree caught a 31yard pass from Colin Kaepernick
to make the score 28 – 12. Harbaugh
kicked. Still in the third quarter, Frank
Gore ran it in from the sixyard line, bringing the tally to 28 – 19. Harbaugh again
kicked to make the score 28 – 20. Then,
after each team added a field goal (the score now 31 – 23), San Francisco
scored their third TD with 9:57 remaining in the game to make the score 31 –
29. Harbaugh finally decided to go for
two and missed. Oops! I guess we weren’t really three touchdowns
down after all! Unfortunately for
Harbaugh, now that he realized he needed to score some more points, he was
unable to (except for a lastsecond gift safety from the Ravens to seal the
Baltimore victory). Final score: Baltimore 34 San Francisco 31.
Personally,
I fire Harbaugh after this performance (though every other NFL coach would have
done the same thing). I fire him for
refusing to get help in an area that he must have known he was unfamiliar
with. I mean, even Jim Harbaugh knows
that he was not hired as coach of the 49ers to do math problems, so why not
hire somebody who can? His crime is
especially unforgiveable considering he coached San Francisco, a city where
there are approximately 14,000 Asian kids with 800s on their math SATs, any one
of whom would have been thrilled to stand next to Harbaugh on the sidelines and
tell him the right thing to do.
Let’s
examine Harbaugh’s strategy.
First,
assume the deficit is 22 points and assume the trailing team will score three
touchdowns. What conversion choices
should be made in order to maximize the chance of victory?
Harbaugh’s
plan is TD plus kick, then TD plus kick, then TD plus twopoint
conversion. This gets him to overtime
where his chance of winning is 50%.
Thus, Harbaugh’s probability of winning the game is .94 x .94 x .47 x
.50 =
.208.
Suppose,
however, that Harbaugh goes to two at his first opportunity. If he succeeds, and then kicks after the
second and third touchdowns, he is again in OT with a 50% chance of
winning. This probability is the same as
above: .208. (If you are only trying a
twopoint conversion one time, it obviously doesn’t matter which touchdown you
attach it to.)
But what if he
misses that first opportunity? This
gives him an additional chance to win
the game that is not available if he waits until the final touchdown to try the
twopointer. He can still tie the game
by missing the first two but making a two after both the second and third
touchdowns. This additional possibility
is .53 (missing a twopointer) x .47 (making the second) x .47 (making the
third) x .50 (winning in OT), for a total of 5.8%. Harbaugh’s plan gives him a 20.8% chance of
winning. By trying the twopointer after
the first TD, the chances increase to 26.6%.
But even
this is not the optimal strategy.
Go back and
look at the TRAIL BY EIGHT section.
There is a thorough explanation of the counterintuitive finding that a
team trailing by fourteen points must go for two when it scores its first
touchdown. Now apply that reasoning to
the problem we are dealing with in this section. Specifically, if you are trailing by
twentytwo and you score a touchdown and make a twopoint conversion, you will
then be trailing by fourteen. A
subsequent touchdown puts you down eight, and
this means you must go for two again!
In other words, when you trail by twentytwo points, you should go for
two on both of your first two touchdowns.
(If you miss one of them, you’ll have to go for two on your third TD as
well.)
Going for
two on at least the first two touchdowns presents the following probabilities
of winning which, since they are mutually exclusive, must be summed to arrive
at the total chance of success:
1) TD plus
two points AND TD plus two points AND TD plus kick. This probability is .47 x .47 x .94 = 20.8%. (Note: the twentythree points wins in
regulation, so there is no factoring in overtime chances.)
2) TD plus
two points AND TD plus two points AND TD with missed kick AND winning in
OT. This probability is .47 x .47 x .06
x .50 = 0.6%
2) TD plus two points AND TD with missed conversion AND TD
plus two points AND winning in OT. This
probability is .47 x .53 x .47 x .50 = 5.9%
3) TD with missed conversion AND TD plus two points AND TD
plus two points AND winning in OT. This
probability is .53 x .47 x .47 x .50 = 5.9%.
Since 20.8% + 0.6% + 5.9% + 5.9% = 33.2%, this is the
probability of winning the game if you go for two on the first two touchdowns. You are 1 ½ times more likely to win the game
by following this path than by using the standard strategy of kicking after the
first two touchdowns and going for two only after the third one.
Lead by One
The obvious answer is to go for two, in order to stretch the
lead to three points. All of the
Vermeilian sideline charts say so.
But be prepared to be secondguessed if you miss the
twopoint conversion and then lose the game.
This was the story in the aftermath of the WashingtonAtlanta game on
October 15, 2015. There, with eight
minutes left in regulation, the Redskins scored a TD to go ahead 13 – 12. Washington coach Jay Gruden ordered a
twopoint try, which failed, and the Redskins ultimately lost the game 25 – 19,
in overtime.
That night, in a lengthy article in USA Today, Chris Chase delivered
his analysis. In what may be the
apotheosis of the “lookwhatcangowrong” school of gofortwo theory, Chase
blamed the Washington loss on Gruden’s decision to try a twopoint
conversion. His conclusion: “Always take
the points (or point, in this case).
Always.” Chase does acknowledge
certain “latelate” game situations where there is no alternative but a
twopoint conversion, but otherwise, there is apparently never a valid reason
to go for two. See: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/10/twopointconversionchartuponepointnflteamswashingtonredskinswentfortwoatlantafalconsjaygruden
My advice to football coaches: do your best to win games, no matter what the
Chris Chases of the world will say the next day.
Lead by Two
Everybody kicks this, but the correct answer is not so
obvious. Certainly the single point,
stretching the lead to a field goal, is valuable, and will almost always make
sense for the home team. On the road,
however, going for two virtually eliminates the chance of going to OT and, as
noted, OT is not where visiting teams want to be. Unless the visiting coach has strong reasons
to think he will be a favorite to win in extra time, he should go for two.
Lead by Three
Kick.
Lead by Four
Kick. Vermeil says go
for two and other charts say kick.
Dick’s wrong about this one. The
only relevant scenario to be concerned about is: 1) other team scores TD for 7
or 8 points, and 2) you manage a FG to win or tie the game. Getting the fivepoint lead matters.
Lead by Five
Go for two. Make your
lead seven points.
Lead by Six
The obvious, and correct, decision is to kick. However, it’s a closer call than you might
think. This is another situation where a
visiting coach might reasonably decide to go for two if he has a good twopoint
conversion play in his pocket, if he has some injured players and doesn’t want
any more of them, or if he just doesn’t care for his chances in OT.
Lead by Seven
The charts all say kick in this situation, and that’s what
every NFL coach will do. In fact, there
is no difference in your chance of winning the game whether you go for one or
two.
The calculations are long and complicated because of the
many possibilities that must be considered and given probabilities, and I will
not reproduce all the numbers here. The
question is this: assuming your opponent will score a touchdown in the
remaining limited time of regulation (let’s call it three minutes), are you
more likely to win the game by kicking or going for two when up by seven?
If you go for two and make it, you are up by nine and you’ve
won the game. That’s the easy one. If you miss, however, your opponents may 1)
tie you with a onepoint conversion, sending the game to overtime, 2) beat you
with a twopoint conversion, 3) lose to you by missing a twopoint conversion,
or 4) lose to you by missing a kick.
Then there are all the possibilities if you go for one.
Adding it all up, if you score a touchdown that puts you up
seven points in the closing minutes, you are approximately a 75% favorite to
win this game whether you go for one or two, even assuming your opponent
subsequently scores a touchdown.
Lead by Eight
Kick, of course. Nine
points ahead is exactly where you want to be.
Lead by Nine
At this point, once you are ahead by more than one score, it
begins to matter less and less whether you go for one or two. Going for two when up nine, and making it,
puts you in a situation where an opposing touchdown AND a field goal cannot
beat you in regulation. On the other
hand, getting the morecertain single point to stretch the lead to ten, seems
at least as worthwhile. All the charts
say kick this, and I won’t argue.
Lead by Ten
The considerations here are quite similar to those in the
previous entry. Kick it. Sure, going up by twelve (requiring the
opponent to score two touchdowns), has some value, but I’ll take the single
point.
Lead by Eleven
Obviously, you kick this.
Leading by eleven is a TD and a field goal (maybe); getting the twelfth
point forces the other guys to score two touchdowns.
Lead by Twelve
And here you might as well go for two. If the bad guys do score their two
touchdowns, leading by thirteen rather than twelve is probably not going to
help you, but if you add two, for a lead of fourteen, you might limp into OT
and get lucky.
THE STUFF TO REMEMBER
This “Practical Guide” is not quite as practical as a simple
gridlike chart a coach can consult on the sidelines. Trailing by sixteen when he scores a
touchdown, we can’t really expect a coach to pull out this treatise and read
800 words on the subject. On the other
hand, the charts invented by Dick Vermeil provide only crude approximations of
the truth, and many of the specific entries are wrong.
A similar chart could be created out of the work presented
here, and it would be better than the existing charts, and maybe that is one
thing a coach might do to reduce the errors that are routinely made in the
gofortwo decision. More important,
however, is that the insights contained here be understood and incorporated
into his thinking. Somebody else can do
the math.
And that’s the first point.
These decisions have nothing to do with your “gut.” These are math problems. Some of them have clear answers and others
are much more situationdependent and nuanced, but none of them cares about
your feelings. And this presents you
with a choiceeither master the problems yourself or hire a geek to tell you
what to do. Jim Harbaugh might have won
himself a Superbowl had he done so. So find
some math whiz from a local college and let him hang out on the sidelines, his
only job being to run over and advise you whenever you score a TD. Free hotdogs and a couple of Uber rides is
all he will cost.
The next point: change your approach to the question of
whether to go for two. For almost all of
everyone’s football career, it generally made sense to kick the point because,
in the long run, you would score more points that way than if you went for two
after every touchdown. Now, with the
scrimmage line for kicks pushed back to the 15yardline and the extra point no
longer automatic, there is no longer a reason not to go for two. It’s not
a desperation move anymore. So when in
doubt, go for two. You pay no price for
doing so.
The traditional view, that going for two is a desperation
tactic, is one reason coaches have put off the twopoint conversion until they
have no other choice. This is why, when
trailing by fifteen, a team that scores a touchdown will kick the extra point
and defer the twopoint attempt until its next touchdown. This never made a lot of sense, but now it is
indefensible. When you are fifteen
behind (with limited time remaining), there must
be a twopointer in your comeback run, and that means you are as likely to
require three scores as you are to require two.
So unless there is some reason you
don’t want to know how many times you have to score, you must go for two at
your first opportunity.
The same issue arises in many score/timeremaining
situations, but the rule is the same: if there is a twopoint try somewhere in
your future, do it NOW. When you are
trailing late in the game, the number of times you need to score is a very important
question. Get it answered as soon as you
can.
Much of this Guide is concerned with the distinction, much
ignored, between 1) winning the game, and 2) getting to overtime. NFL coaches routinely lose sight of what
should be their goal (winning the game), and instead pursue a different
goalgetting to overtime. The two
goals are not identical. In fact, they
are often in conflict.
If you trail by eight points with one minute left in the
game, the only way to win is to score
a touchdown, make a twopoint conversion, get to overtime and triumph
there. In that situation, the goals of
getting to OT and winning the game are inseparable. More often, however, the two goals will point
in different directions. To change the
above example slightly, if you trail by seven points (rather than eight), with
one minute remaining, there are many situations where kicking a point after
your touchdown and heading for overtime is a mistake because it will reduce
your probability of winning. In that
case, the rational coach will go for two in order to maximize his chances of
winning the game even though it eliminates the possibility of overtime. (These decisions also turn on the fact that
home teams are usually a distinct favorite in overtime.)
The best explanation of this phenomenon is in the Trail by
Eight section above, which examines a scenario where you are behind by
fourteen points and you score a touchdown.
You must go for two in this spot because it significantly increases your
chance of winning, even though it almost destroys any shot of getting to
overtime. As Thomas Aquinas taught us,
all clear thinking begins by making distinctions. For an NFL coach, one distinction that needs
to be foremost in his thinking is that trying to get to overtime and trying to
win the game are two different things.
Copyright2017MichaelKubacki
Note: Additions, suggestions, corrections and arguments are
welcome.