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The Two-Point Chart: Science or Mythology?

By Dan Steinberg | Excerpt From The D.c. Sports Bog
Friday, October 31, 2008

To refresh your memory: With 11 minutes 49 seconds remaining in last Sunday's game, Santana Moss returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown, pushing Washington's lead over Detroit to 12 points. The extra-point unit took the field, but Coach Jim Zorn then changed his mind and sent out the offense to go for two. The attempt failed. The lead stayed at 12.

Detroit got a quick touchdown, the Redskins answered with a field goal, and as the Lions got the ball back for the final time, they trailed by eight, and could potentially tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion.

Some fans looked at that result and said Zorn shouldn't have gone for two, not with so much time and so many possessions remaining. Others insisted, based on probability, he made the right call. This merited a second look.

First, the coach. In this case, the fabled two-point conversion chart said go for two. Zorn said that he doesn't follow The Chart strictly, but that he does carry it on the sideline.

"Late in the third quarter, fourth quarter for sure you're looking at it," he said.

Next, the players. Here, confusion crept in.

"There's supposedly some chart," Todd Yoder said. "It's like a mythical beast of a chart that I've never seen and I don't know if anybody [has], but it's supposed to tell you, 'Go for two, not go for two.' I've never seen this chart."

"If I'm coaching my team on Madden and I want to go for two and I need points, I just go for two," Chris Cooley said. "Like, big deal. Think if you went for two every time. You're probably gonna get 50 percent of them."

"I just take a point if I can get it," Randy Thomas said, offering an opposing perspective. "If you're down by two and you need to go to overtime, of course you've got to go [for two], but if I'm up, I'm going for points."

"Supposedly there's a chart and all that stuff," Pete Kendall said. "I don't really pay attention to The Chart. I've never seen one of them. I don't think it's real hard, you know what I mean? Add one or add two."

For media members and fans, it's the sort of topic that can provoke hours of study, back-of-the-beer-stained-napkin equations, and, if you're of the gambling persuasion, memorization in order to correctly yell at a coach for making the improper call. And if you're, say, an NFL kicker, do you also memorize The Chart?

"Jeez, you're giving me too much credit, man," Shaun Suisham said. "I know The Chart, but I don't think anybody has it memorized, do they? I just look for Coach to say one or two. I don't try to make things more complicated than they need to be. . . . I'll tell you what, the less I have to think about it, the better off I am."

And so the thinking is left to the coaches. When Zorn is considering whether to pursue one point or two, he speaks in his headset with offensive assistant Chris Meidt, the guy with the BA in math and the MBA in information and decision sciences. This is the guy who designed his own version of The Chart, whose St. Olaf College team once averaged more than a point per attempt, who sees nine and 17 as the two crucial numbers, since they represent two- and three-possession games.

Over the headset, Meidt will quickly and specifically explain every scenario that would be affected by going for two. Zorn then makes the call.

"For us, it's not just, 'Hey, how do you feel today?' " Meidt said, when I asked how math could help a football coach. "It has really little to do with feeling. It has everything to do with data and analysis."

Players, though, haven't necessarily signed up for the data and analysis school of football.

"I wouldn't follow The Chart, I'd just go by gut feeling," Yoder said. "I would just look at the scoreboard and be like, 'You know what? We should go for two.' "

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