The extra point must go

November 1, 2012

Of all the things that went wrong for the Washington Redskins last Sunday, the least consequential may have been the blocked extra point attempt. But as kicker Kai Forbath drilled the ball directly into Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood, I thought, ‘Is it my imagination or have the Redskins been the NFL’s worst team at converting extra points in the last few years?’

After I dug into the data, it turns out it wasn’t just my imagination. Since 2000, when the NFL digitized its game data, Washington has been the least successful team at converting extra points, with a rate of 98.1%. Since 2009, their rate has been even worse–only 96.3%, low enough to make going for two-point conversions regularly worthwhile. The rest of the league was successful 99.3% of the time over the entire period, including last Sunday afternoon’s games.

That’s only seven missed or blocked extra points over a nearly 12-year period for the Redskins, certainly not a matter of primary importance. And even on the rare occasions when an extra point goes awry, it isn’t often consequential to the game outcome. In the Redskins’ case, none of the seven games that featured an unsuccessful extra point ended in a scoring margin of less than three points. The misses just seem to add insult to injury during an era of offensive struggles in Washington.

The irrelevance of the extra point, even for the team that’s been worst at converting them, raises an interesting question: What’s the point of the extra point? If the NFL success rate is over  99%, why even have it? Why not simply give 7 points for a touchdown and allow a team to choose to gamble the 7th point on a two-point conversion attempt? It would shorten the games and might reduce injuries ever so slightly. It would also end the farce that the kick has become.

The best response would be that tradition should be respected. The extra point is something left over from gridiron football’s evolution from rugby. Originally, the ‘touchdown’ in rugby was less important than the ensuing free kick, and the points given for the touchdown and the ‘point after try’ varied during football’s early history. Today’s extra point is a vestige of football’s rugby roots. It’s football’s appendix–inconsequential, its original purpose uncertain and safe to remove.

I’m not alone in questioning the logic of the extra point. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has suggested getting rid of the play entirely, or at least moving the kick distance back to the 15 or 20-yard line, where it wouldn’t be so automatic. In the 1968 preseason, the NFL and AFL eliminated the extra point in inter-league games, replacing it with a scrimmage play worth one point.

Wouldn’t that be more compelling than the current mind-numbing kick? As it is now, the extra point is a time to get up and grab a drink from the fridge. If the play was something that really mattered, fans would be on the edge of their seats.

You might think replacing the extra point is too unconventional or that it doesn’t respect the traditional importance placed on special teams throughout football’s history. But think of it this way: Imagine that the NFL had always made the 7th point a scrimmage play, like the two-point conversion is now. What if someone came along and insisted that we replace it by instituting a kick bound to be successful over 99% of the time?

You’d think the idea was nuts, and you’d be right.

Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.

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