The National Football League introduced a rules change this week that has folks all aflutter, mainly because it's the off-season and people can talk about Deflategate or, if you prefer, Ballghazi, only so long. As a former player in the NFL, I've been recruited to offer some guidance.
The change in question moves the extra-point attempt — which occurs right after a touchdown — from the two-yard line to the 15-yard line. Two-point conversion attempts will stay at the two-yard line.
What does that mean? Not a whole lot.
NFL muckety-mucks changed up the extra point rules mainly because they felt the play was too automatic and didn't add anything to the viewing experience. The NFL wants every play to be meaningful, and the extra point, apparently, did not feel meaningful to the group of marmots the organization chose for focus testing. To be fair, it may not have been marmots, it could have been chinchillas. I'm not a vet.
Anyway, this change will supposedly liven up the game by putting additional pressure on the kicker to make a longer kick — 33 yards versus 20 yards. That's 13 whole yards more! NFL kickers, however, tend to be automatic on field goals from 40 yards and in (or they quickly become ex-NFL kickers), especially when they can line up the ball in the middle of the field.
Pro Football Focus, a stats-oriented website (full disclosure: I helped write its punting grading formula) has NFL kickers making 97.6% of kicks from that distance, compared with the 99%-plus success rate for traditional extra points. According to science, extra points will still be made almost every time. Excitement! Drama!
Kickers miss for various reasons. The kicker might just screw up the timing, in which case there's nothing for him to do but grit his teeth and bear it. Or the snapper might throw back a bad ball. The holder might mishandle the snap, or a lineman whiff on a block. The kicker can try to save a badly placed hold by shifting his approach at the last second, or delay his rhythm slightly to account for a bad snap.
But all of the above challenges are just as problematic from 33 as from 20 yards. If the kicker misses from 33 yards out, he would have missed from 20, and vice-versa.
“Wait,” I hear you say. “If that's true, what causes the 2% difference in success rate?”
I'm so glad you asked.
Kicking extra points outdoors, at least in stadiums notorious for their weather conditions, just got slightly harder. In places like Chicago, Buffalo and Kansas City those extra 13 yards will actually make a difference, because the wind has more time to act on the ball.
A kick that starts off going right in a dome is going to continue going right at a predictable rate of deviation. And if the kicker is aiming down the middle (which he should be doing), those 13 yards aren't enough for the ball to pass outside the uprights.
A kick that starts off going right in an outdoor stadium is a whole different animal. A gust of wind at just the wrong time can rapidly alter the ball's trajectory, especially if it gusts the instant the ball leaves the kicker's foot. Now those 13 yards are important, because they can turn a kick that barely snuck inside the upright into a screaming leather missile headed straight for Grandma's war-painted face in row 19 — which makes both Grandma and the head coach incensed, and quite possibly irate, especially if Grandma spills her beer.
What's the ultimate takeaway here? In windy games outdoors, coaches are now going to have a bit more incentive to go for two points from the two-yard line as opposed to kicking an extra point. The rest of the time, they're just going to kick like usual, and, like usual, they'll succeed on almost every attempt.
In my experience, most people don't actually watch the extra point. They use that time to find a restroom, or drink more league-sponsored beer.
Under the new regime, you may continue your excessive consumption of liquid carbohydrates secure in the knowledge that the extra point, while gussied up a bit, is still the bedazzled appendix of the league — something no one cares about until that rare occasion when things go horribly wrong. Quaff away, my friends.