Perhaps you’ve seen the A T & T commercials with the four kids around a table…”What’s better? Faster or slower? Bigger or smaller? More or less?” Well, that same question can be asked following a touchdown. What is better? Two points or one? We would all say “two points.” But that doesn’t mean that going for a two point conversion is better than taking the almost guaranteed extra point following a touchdown.
So how is a coach to make the decision about taking the extra point or going for two? To answer this question, we must go back in time.
In the early 1970s, former Eagles and Rams coach Dick Vermeil was the offensive coordinator at UCLA. To assist head coach Tommy Prothro, Vermeil developed a chart that is still used to this day by coaches at all levels. It clearly states that when trailing by two, the touchdown scoring team should go for the two-point conversion. Just look at the scoreboard. Easy decision, right? Well, not exactly.
There are many factors that the Vermeil-created chart does not take into account. First and perhaps foremost, how much time is left in the game? Clearly, a different decision would be made when trailing by two in the first quarter than in the fourth quarter. Second, what is the percentage of success? While the answer varies and is influenced greatly by the make-up of the offensive philosophy and personnel of each team, the general success rate for the two-point conversion is about 45%. Third, how is your defense fairing against the opponent’s offense? Fourth, how many time outs remain? Fifth, do you have a guy like Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore in your backfield to cause the defense to spread itself between the run and pass, or is your backfield a committee of Mendenhall, Ellington, Taylor and Smith? I can tell you that this would matter to me. I could go on but the bottom line is that the Vermeil chart of only looking at the point differential helps but is insufficient for the decision-maker.
Bruce Arians faced his decision mid-way through the third quarter of the Cardinals/49ers game this past weekend. Michael Floyd had caught a Carson Palmer touchdown pass and the Cardinals narrowed the 49er lead, trailing only 22-20. Arians elected to go for two, and the razzle-dazzle play from Palmer to Patrick Petersen to Larry Fitzgerald failed. After failing on the two-point conversion, the 49ers went on an 18 play, nine minute clock devouring drive, capped off by a six yard touchdown run by Kendall Hunter with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter. Dawson made the extra point, giving the 49ers a two possession lead, 29-20. The Cardinals fumbled less than a minute later, their fourth turnover of the game.
Did Coach Arians make the right decision? Some may rightfully assert that since the Cardinals lost by 12, how can the two point conversion decision be viewed as impactful? Well, you never know.
I don’t like to second guess coaches. Guys like Bruce Arians have forgotten more football than I will ever know. Nonetheless, the “art” that is football coaching must find at its core data, probabilities and variables. Here, there was too much time left for the Cardinals not to add to their score by kicking the extra point. The defense had been playing too well not to have faith in what they could do in the remaining 21 minutes. There were many potential possessions left for the inconsistent but improving Cardinals offense. We did not have Manning (Peyton, not this year’s Eli) or Brady or Brees behind center. Momentum was in our favor. I say “Put the point on the scoreboard.”
Sorry, Coach Arians. I hate second guessers too.