By Peter Mallett
On September 13th, 2015 Texans kicker Randy Bullock ran out on the field with his teammates after their first touchdown of the season. The next play was a simple task for Bullock and its what he gets paid the big bucks for, kicking field goals and extra points. In past years this used to be a forgone conclusion for all fans and players that kickers would make extra points. This conclusion changed this past March in 2015, when the NFL passed the rule that moved the PAT spot back to the 15- yard line. This made the PAT kicks 33 yards instead of 20-yard kicks in years passed. Bullock’s first kick went wide right and all the fans in Reliant Stadium were totally stunned. This was Bullock’s first miss PAT in 67 career attempts. During his postgame interview Bullock told the Houston Chronicle, “Honestly I thought it hit it pretty well. It just tailed off more than anything, that’s the impact of the new rule. It’s not a routine play.” The question that fans are asking now is, has this rule change made the game better?
The NFL has been brainstorming for years with the PAT in hopes of making more difficult and at the same time entertaining for the fans. This new rule change has done just that; viewers will hopefully be staying in their seats or on their couches during PAT’s rather than running to the concessions or the bathroom. This column will analyze the reactions of kickers to the rule change, overall PAT and two-point conversion stats and the coach’s reactions to the rule change along with some of the strategies they will try and formulate during in game scenarios. I believe that this rule change for PATs has improved the game tremendously by emphasizing the importance of extra points and how they can determine the outcome of games. I have two main reasons for why I love this change: first it gives the kickers a challenge while also preparing them for under pressure FGs and secondly it allows for the element of surprise for the fans based upon the strategy their teams create with how they utilize their special teams units.
How have NFL kickers reacted to the rule change?
Josh Brown the kicker for the New York Giants has been kicking for 12 years with a PAT conversion rate of 99.5% over his career. Brown said, “In the past, when it was a 20-yarder, you can have a moment where you fade away. Anybody who says they haven’t is just lying to you. As good as we are, you take it for granted. It’s like layup, you should make it. I don’t think you can afford to do that anymore. We did it to ourselves, we were so accurate.” The kickers really did do this to themselves, and now the 33-yard extra point is a compliment to them in a sense. Some kickers like Blair Walsh came out on Twitter and accepted the challenge of the PAT being moved back to 33-yards.
Other kickers like Jay Feely and Graham Gano had negative reactions on Twitter mainly based on their concerns for the safety of themselves and their offensive lineman.
During training camps this past season, coaches and kickers wondered how they would approach the new extra point scenarios. Matt Bryant, the Atlanta Falcons kicker who has only missed just 4 extra point tries in the last 13 seasons said, “I am going to start lining up for the PAT’s and pretending that they are 50 yard game-winning field goals so that I can get used to the pressure.” After this season, reporters asked him how he would adjust for next season after seeing the rule change in action and his response was that he might start using a field goal as practice for the new extra point.
How did the rule change affect kickers PAT stats and 2pt conversion try rates?
The statistics for PAT’s this season in comparison to 2014 is dramatic and it really shows the impact that 15-yards can have on kickers. This chart below displays the PAT statistics for each team in the 2015 season, the last three 2015 regular season games, the final game of 2015 season, 2015 home stats, 2015 away stats and 2014 season stats:
NFL Team Extra Point Conversion Percentage
|Rank||Team||2015||Last 3||Last 1||Home||Away||2014|
In changing the PAT distance to 33-yards, the NFL hoped that there would less of a guarantee of making extra points and more incentive for coaches to go for two point conversions. The timing of the two-point conversions has always been tricky and this season the Pittsburgh Steelers truly embraced the new rule by going 8 for 11 on two point conversions. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the two-point conversion pays dividends, “If you’re up 8-0and they go score, they have a decision to make. We feel like we’re a team that’s going to do it enough but it’s going to be hard to get a beat on us” (Murphy, 2015). Though the math still favors PAT’s, when comparing the overall percentage of conversions, teams like the Steelers who have enough confidence and an explosive offense could make two-point conversions look simple and gain an advantage on their opponents. Obviously every team in the NFL aren’t taking risks and going for successfully completing two-point conversions as seen in the chart below:
Two Point Conversion Success Rate
|Team||Two Point Attempts||Two Points Made||Two Point Percentage|
|2||Green Bay Packers||6||4||66.7%|
|8||San Diego Chargers||3||2||66.7%|
|9||Kansas City Chiefs||4||2||50%|
|12||New York Giants||2||1||50%|
|17||San Francisco 49ers||2||1||50%|
|19||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||3||1||33.3%|
|21||New Orleans Saints||4||1||25%|
|22||St. Louis Rams||2||1||50%|
|27||New England Patriots||0||0||0%|
|32||New York Jets||0||0||0%|
Despite the low conversions rate on two-point conversions this season, I believe that the NFL was very smart with their revision of the extra-point rule, because they have created scenarios where coaches need to scheme about their decision making after they score touchdowns.
From a percentage standpoint, it’s tough to see a significant different between teams making extra points 96-98% of the time vs. 99%. Research shown in the graph below predicts that the rule change will not have a major effect on the conversion percentage in the next coming decade of NFL play:
So while this rule change should marginally improve the mathematical favor of two-point conversions, it’s not enough to help sway coaches regularly. Most coaches are already stuck in their ways about going for two. Over the past 10 years, the league conversion rate is at 47.4 percent, which gives coaches enough of a reason to keep kicking extra points and play it safe. With the rule change the expected value of going for two-point conversion vs. kicking it is based on the tactical situation and the current point in the game itself. Two popular game scenarios come to my mind for attempting the two-point conversion. The first one is when a team is down one point due to a missed PAT earlier in the game, so they need to go for two to tie the score and force overtime. The second one is a late game scenario where a team scores a go ahead touchdown and then go for the two-point conversion to put pressure on their opponent to have to do the same if their conversion is successful. If there is a sudden shift in favor of coaches going for two, I think it will be the result of coaches relying on the fact that the new rule gives them cover if they fail rather than a mathematical shift in conversion rates.
What worries do the NFL coaches have about the rule change?
With this new rule change coaches worry about penalties and how they would affect their decision making processes. A personal-foul penalty by the offensive during an extra point try would make the try 48 yards making the kicker’s job even more difficult. On the counter, a defensive person-foul penalty would but the ball at the 1-yard line, which makes it tempting for coaches to pull the trigger and try a two-point conversion. Tom Coughlin the New York Giants coach this past season believes that in the future teams will start going for two rather than kicking extra points based upon variables of weather, field conditions and the current high conversion rate for two-point tries over the last few NFL seasons. Pittsburgh’s special teams coach Danny Smith said that due to the distance now being 33-yards, “The trajectory of the ball is a little lower, so the opportunity for blocks is greater, because of the elevation from the 2-yard line, getting the ball up fast and high, made it harder to block. Is it a difference in percentage at the end of the day? I sure hope not, if a guy is missing a lot of kicks, you’ve got to get a new kicker.” So in the end, coaches are now dealing with two big decisions due to this rule change: do they go for more two-point conversions over extra points and when a kicker starts to struggle hitting these 33-yard extra points should he be released right away.
For me SI reporter Alex Reimer said it best, “the consequences of moving the extra point back 13-yards will likely be felt in some capacity on Sundays. A play that has been automatic for so many years is no longer that way, and that’s a pretty big deal.” Even though in 2015 the success rate of 33-yard extra points was 93%, which is still pretty high, it does leave room for error in close games. Over the last 12 NFL seasons, a little over 22% of NFL games has been decided by three points of less. So statistics show that these “pointless” extra points could be a difference between a team losing a winning a game, especially with the defense now having the chance to score two points off a turnover on the PAT’s. One heartbreaking missed PAT situation that ultimately changed the outcome of the game was the 2015 AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. Early in the first quarter, New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 523 attempts, dating back 9 years ago. The lost point forced the Patriots into going for a potential game-tying two-point conversion that was intercepted by the Broncos defense with 12 seconds left in the game. After the game Gostkowski said in his press conference, “It’s kind of a cruel reality that it came down to that, I just feel awful about it. It was my fault, 100 percent. I just didn’t hit a good kick.”
In the end, given how closely contested most NFL games are today, even the smallest rule change like moving the PAT back to 33-yards is going to have an impact on the game in some fashion. Personally, I believe that it has made the game better because it allows for new scenarios to arise for the coaches, it keeps the games suspenseful and entertaining for the fans and it allows kickers to show off their talents rather than just go through the motions of making “pointless” kicks.