The NFL is widely known as a copycat league, and nowhere is that more evident than in teams going for two-point conversions after scoring touchdowns.
During the first five weeks of the season, NFL coaches, as a group, have made the choice to go for two points 47 times, 19 more than they did at this point of the season in 2017 and the highest five-week total since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002. Looked at another way, NFL coaches are going for two points once every nine touchdowns scored (11 percent of the time); in 2017 they went for two once out of every 13 touchdowns scored (8 percent).
If there is a sign the analytics revolution is gaining ground in the NFL, this might be it. After all, the mathematical advantages of the two-point conversion are hard to ignore. For example, if teams are successful kicking an extra-point 95 percent of the time — the average rate since 2015, when the league moved the snap for the extra-point kick to the 15-yard line — they will score 0.95 points per kick attempt. That means a two-point conversion needs only a 47.5 percent success rate to give a comparable point per attempt.
NFL teams are converting at a 60 percent clip in 2018, which equals 1.2 points per two-point attempt.
Philadelphia Eagles Coach Doug Pederson has no problem bucking conventional wisdom. He called for his team to go for two against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday when trailing by eight points. The Eagles converted and trailed by six, meaning a touchdown would put them in a position to win. The Eagles ultimately lost, but the decision to go for two in that situation was the correct thing to do: according to ESPN’s Seth Walder, the two-point conversion gave the Eagles a 60 percent chance at winning if they were to score another touchdown. That’s compared to a 46 percent chance with an extra-point attempt instead.
Philadelphia isn’t even the most aggressive team when it comes to two-point conversions this season. That honor goes to the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers, four teams with four two-point conversion attempts each this season. At the other end of the spectrum are the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills; all have yet to try a two-point attempt this season.
No team gets victimized more by the two-point conversion than the Arizona Cardinals, though that was in part due to the Los Angeles Rams losing their kicker to injury just before their game in Week 2. In all, Cardinals opponents have gone for two six times this season, the most against any team in 2018, and have converted three, one via the pass and two on the ground. The Kansas City Chiefs have had their troubles, too, allowing opponents to convert 4 of 5 two-point attempts through five games.
A large number of two-point conversion attempts against the Chiefs makes sense — their defense enjoys a nine-point lead, on average, when they take the field, so teams have to play catch up more often. But a number of these other instances appear to simply be the result of teams weighing the odds and finding that a two-point conversion makes more sense.
NFL coaches are shifting toward a more analytical approach in other ways, too. Going for it on fourth and short is becoming more common, as is the number of passing attempts on first down. During the first five weeks of the 2017 season there were 1,964 pass attempts on first down; a year later there were 2,277. It appears data is changing the game for the better, and it is only a matter of time before the entire NFL follows suit.
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