The new-and-improved XFL completed its first week of the season, with largely positive reviews. The product on the field resembles the football we are used to, with some tweaks to make the game more exciting. Most notably, there are no kicked extra-point attempts after touchdowns. Instead, teams have the option to run a play worth either one, two or three extra points — each with an added degree of difficulty — creating the possibility of a nine-point touchdown.
A one-point attempt is attempted from the two-yard line. A two-point attempt is attempted from the five-yard line and a three-point attempt is attempted from the 10-yard line, although the league has yet to see its first three-point try.
“The underlying rationale in our mind was the extra-point kick, even with the NFL moving it back a few years ago, was a fait accompli,” said Oliver Luck, the league’s CEO and commissioner. “We put it in the category of meaningless plays, plays where you get up off the couch and make a sandwich. Instead, we wanted to bring drama and strategy into that decision right off the bat and give coaches options after a touchdown. We also liked the idea of a nine-point touchdown because it allows a team to get back into the game more quickly.”
Put aside excitement and drama; the math has long advocated for football teams to be more aggressive in their pursuit of extra points, even if coaches often ignore that advice. And NFL data since that league moved the line of scrimmage for extra-point attempts from the two-yard line to the 15-yard line suggests that the XFL’s two-point and three-point conversion opportunities will be more valuable than going for one.
From 2015 to 2019, NFL teams converted 124 of 251 goal-to-go plays on third and fourth downs from the two-yard line — plays that mimic a two-point try, per data from TruMedia. That’s a 49 percent success rate. Teams converted 64 of 182 plays goal-to-go plays on third and fourth down from the five-yard line, a 35 percent success rate. And they went 15 for 82 from the 10-yard line, giving them an 18 percent success rate over those five seasons. Those figures suggest the two-point attempt is the most valuable option in the XFL, with the one-point attempt the least valuable of the three, generating only 0.49 expected points per try from the two-yard line.
Expected points per attempt (NFL from 2015 to 2019)
During practice games before the start of its season, XFL teams experienced somewhat similar success rates of 50 percent on one-point conversions, 30 percent on two-point conversions and 10 percent three-point conversions, according to Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal. Those rates would correspond to expected point values of 0.5, 0.6 and 0.3, respectively, again indicating that going for two is the most efficient bet after a touchdown.
Expected points per attempt (XFL practice games)
But XFL teams don’t need to rely on those preseason figures. The league had its data and analytics partner, Optimum Scouting, build a decision-making model based on NFL win probability over the last decade, giving its coaches a cheat sheet indicating when to go for one, two or three points based on the point margin, time left in the game and conversion rates based on NFL averages.
“This chart will ultimately help our coaches make the decision to go for one, two or three,” Sam Schwartzstein, director of football operations for the new league, explained in a telephone interview. “From an expected points perspective, all things being equal, going for two is the best option. But you will see from the chart it is not always the best option based on context.”
Optimum Scouting found the two-point conversion the best option to increase a team’s win probability overall, with a few exceptions. The first is any situation in which a team is trailing by six or more points after scoring a touchdown; or when a team is trailing by two or more points after scoring a touchdown in the final eight minutes. In those situations, a team should attempt a three-point conversion. If a team is up by four or more points after scoring a touchdown in any situation or has any lead after scoring a touchdown in the final eight minutes, a one-point conversion is the best strategy.
For the most part, coaches actually followed the data in the league’s opening weekend. Overall, there were 11 one-point attempts, eight two-point attempts and no three-point attempts in the opening four games. Of the 19 conversion attempts, 14 followed the chart’s exact recommendations. Of the five decisions that went against the chart, three conversion tries were actually more aggressive than the chart recommended. Two of those were two-point attempts by the Houston Roughnecks, despite the chart advocating for a one-point play. It’s also worth noting the Roughnecks were the only team to attempt more than two two-point attempts, and they successfully converted two of their four tries.
“Our coaches make decisions based on a rule set they’ve known in the NFL and at the collegiate level,” Schwartzstein said. “Now they have a new rule book, and as they get familiar with the data and the tools available, they will evolve and embrace the changes a lot more.”
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