Picture this: The Vikings have scored a touchdown with “00:00” flashed up on the clock to pull within one point of Aaron Rodgers and the rival Green Bay Packers.
Should they kick the extra point — no longer a gimme now that the ball will be snapped from the 15-yard line — and play for overtime? Or do they put the ball in the hands of Teddy Bridgewater or Adrian Peterson and go for the two-point conversion and the win?
Blair Walsh knows what he would do.
“The way you have to look at it is, what would you have done last year? You would kick the extra point,” said Walsh, who was an All-Pro kicker in 2012 for the Vikings. “Adding 13 yards to the kick shouldn’t really make you not trust your kicker at that point.”
The conventional wisdom among NFL coaches — even Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly, two notable mad geniuses in a sport filled with closed-minded men in headsets — always had been to trot out the kicker for what amounted to a 20-yard attempt.
But now that there is a higher degree of difficulty when it comes to kicking the point after touchdown (PAT) after NFL owners approved a rule change Tuesday, there have been conversations among folks with cleats, keyboards, radio microphones and even graphing calculators about whether we will see teams go for two more often.
The consensus, even in the face of convincing statistical analysis?
“I can’t imagine that it will make a significant dent in how teams approach the extra point, even if the point value leans slightly in the favor of going for two,” said Bill Barnwell, who writes about the NFL for ESPN’s Grantland website.
The numbers Barnwell are alluding to are based on a statistic called expected points, which relies on recent historical trends and factors such as down and distance to determine the number of points that a team can expect to score in any given situation.
“The expected value is higher going for two,” said Keith Goldner, chief analyst for sports analytics website NumberFire.com.
Stats speak up
NFL kickers were making 99.7 percent of their PAT attempts, inspiring Tuesday’s rule change. That means that the expected point value for any PAT attempt was 0.997.
But now extra points will be booted from 33 yards out, and according to research by the NumberFire, the success rate for field goals from that distance has been 93.6 percent, meaning that the expected point value would be 0.936. That equates to a loss of 0.061 points expected on the new PAT tries.
That might not seem significant, but the difference is enough to shift the statistical scales over to the side of the two-point conversion. According to NumberFire, NFL teams convert close to 48 percent of their two-point attempts. The point expectancy on those two-point plays is 0.960.
But that doesn’t mean NFL coaches will pay any heed to the number-crunchers.
“Some teams will probably pay lip service to the idea, and there might be some experiments early in the year,” Barnwell said. “But once somebody fails going for two in a key situation, you’ll hear the same tired arguments about taking the sure thing and they’ll go back to the extra point.”
But with the NFL changing its rule book and with Tim Tebow — an able but erratic passer in a power back’s body — now on the Philadelphia Eagles roster, several newspapers and national websites already are speculating that Tebow could become the league’s first “two-point specialist.”
“Is the universe bending the rules of football to create a game where Tim Tebow’s unique professional skills are suddenly useful?” Barnwell wondered half-jokingly. “Scary, indeed.”
Would Vikings change?
In an interview with Sirius- XM NFL Radio on Wednesday, Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said he believes that some teams might opt to go for two points often.
“You’d have to ask the head coach on the decisions,” he said. “Every head coach is going to be a little bit different with their approach to it.”
With coach Mike Zimmer playing it by the book last season, the Vikings went for two only out of necessity. But they converted all four of their attempts, and that was without Peterson lining up behind Bridgewater, who can threaten defenses with his legs, too.
Still, it seems unlikely the Vikings will become two-point pioneers this season.
While Priefer said Mother Nature could have some say in post-touchdown decisions late in the season at windy TCF Bank Stadium, he expects Walsh to be nearly perfect from the new extra-point distance, making this conversation pretty much moot at Winter Park.
And, of course, Walsh, who is 7-for-7 from 32 to 34 yards in his NFL career, will keep on advocating for Zimmer to keep trotting him out after every Vikings touchdown.
“Absolutely,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to be confident in what you do.”