When the NFL announced this season’s rule change, moving the extra-point spot from the 2-yard line back to the 15, kickers publicly shrugged. But even if any one kick is unlikely to miss, accuracy drops enough at the new spot to notably alter game outcomes—and coaching strategy. We crunched the numbers. We dug through NFL history. Here is everything you will ever need to know about how the new extra point spot will impact the game.
1. Is 15 yards really too easy?
Main point: At the old spot on the 2-yard line, kickers were pretty solid—they made an extra point kick 99% of the time, which meant that an average of only one game per season was impacted by a missed extra point. And what happens when kickers kick from further away? As you can see, kickers remain pretty steady in their accuracy up to the 10-yard line. Hypothetical extra points from those spots would remain pretty solid.
But by the time you get to the 15-yard line, where accuracy drops to around 92% (so far this year, accuracy is 94%, although that may drop a little as kicking conditions get harder with colder weather), things start to change. We calculate that, under the new rule’s extra kick at the 15-yard line, five games per season will be impacted by missed kicks. And were the NFL to have picked an even further yardage, significantly more games would have been impacted.
Geek out: There are 256 games in the NFL season. At the new distance, the extra point would impact about 2% of games (compared to 0.4% at the old spot). At the 20, the extra point would impact about 3% of games. At the maximum impact (the 33), the extra point would impact a little over 4% of game outcomes.
We kind of like the 20 as the sweet spot. That means the extra point would go from impacting one game a year to one game every other week. That seems about right for a rule that should matter—but not too much.
Notes on how we came up with the numbers:
1. We’re assuming no strategic adjustments by coaches. In other words, we’re not allowing coaches to go for two more frequently as the kick gets longer. Coaches are mostly bad at making these kinds of strategic adjustments anyway. They are likely to stick with the extra point often even when going for two is a better decision, at least for a while. (See below for way more on that.)
2. We assumed that field goal accuracy will be similar at all distances in 2015 as in 2014. Extra points might be a little more accurate than field goals because the clock is stopped and the kicker can pick the hash mark he prefers or the center of the field. For simplicity, we ignore that small issue..
3. We stopped at the 35-yard line in part because differences in kickers will become particularly important if you go further than that.
2. Should teams go for 2 more often?
Main point: A smart, aggressive coach could change the game by following the math. And here’s what the math says: Statistically, going for two now produces more points than an extra-point kick.
How is that possible? Take a look at the chart. The blue line tracks the number of points, on average, that a team will get from extra point kicks. (The red line represents points made by 2-point conversions; it’s straight because nothing about the 2-pount conversion rule has changed.) As the chart shows, extra-point kicks from the 2-yard line scored an average of 0.99 points, because they were very rarely missed. Meanwhile, two-point conversions succeeded about 47 percent of the time, which means they produced an average of 0.94 points. Basic math: 0.99 is better than 0.94, so the extra point was the safer way to score. But now things are different. The kicks from the 15 are less accurate, as you saw in the first chart. And that means these new extra point kicks score are expected to score an average of 0.92 points over the course of the season.
Got that? Here’s what it means: Over the course of a season, a team that always went for 2 would end up with more points than a team that always kicked the extra point. Is this how coaches will coach? Almost certainly not. But a bold coach might want to start making some bold, math-based decisions. At least one coach has already made a move in that direction.
Geek out: Some things to notice:
1. The 14-yard line is right where things flip, such that going for two produces more expected points. That means the 15-yard line is just above the cutoff where teams will generally do better by going for two, even in the first quarter.
2. The benefit of going for two gets big in a hurry as the line goes even further back. It is a small mistake to kick at the 15. If the extra point line had been moved to the 20, kicking would have been a big mistake.
3. The new rule increases the value of coaching. Smart teams will be the ones to adapt by being bolder to take advantage of the new situation.
4. The results will not apply to all teams equally. Teams with bad kickers (i.e. Detroit last year) want to go for two more often. Underdogs who are pretty good at two-point conversions will be giving up quite a bit if they fail to go for two now.
3. What if the extra point was always at the 15?
Main point: The graphs show how many game outcomes were impacted under by extra points in the past, and how many we estimate would have been impacted if the new rule had been in effect. Result: NFL history would look pretty different.
Geek out: The red graph shows how many real game outcomes were affected by extra points. It goes from a high of four games in 2002 to a low of zero. The blue graph shows a bit of revisionist history: Those are the number of games we calculate would have been impacted, had the extra point spot always been at the 15.
About five or six game outcomes would have been impacted under the rule change last season. We project that about five game outcomes will be impacted this season. This is more than people appreciate. Even if any one kick is unlikely to miss, there are lots of kicks and some will swing games.
It’s pretty easy to find examples of how this new extra-point location might have changed some NFL game outcomes. Here’s one: In 2006, in week 16, the Bengals played the Broncos. With both teams fighting for a playoff spot, the Bengals missed an extra point that would have tied the game with under a minute left. They had one of the NFL’s best offenses—and if the extra kick had to be at the 15, the Bengals might have decided to go for two instead. They might have won that game.
Notes on how we came up with these numbers:
1. Games were counted as impacted if missed extra points: a) changed the winner to the other team, b) took a game that would have gone to overtime and flipped it to one that was won in regulation, or c) took a game that would have been won in regulation and pushed it into overtime.
2. To come up with the estimated number of games impacted under the new rule, we ran 500 simulations where each extra point was kicked with the ball spotted on the 15-yard line. If the game outcome changed under the rule above, we counted it as affected.
3. To estimate field goal accuracy at the new rule distance over time, we looked at kicks from 2010 to 2014 from between the 30-yard line and the 34-yard line. That’s a little on the short side (the extra point is now a 33-yard kick), because extra points happen under slightly more favorable circumstances than field goals.
4. Kickers were really good from about the new rule distance in 2014. They made about 95% of their kicks. Some of that was luck. We estimate kickers would have made about 92.5% of their kicks without luck. If the trend continues, kickers would be expected to make about 93% of their extra-point kicks this year.
Bonus super geek out!
Want to revisit history yourself? Here’s a list of every game since 2002 that was impacted by a missed extra point. If the kick had been good, and the loser instead became the winner, would a team’s season have changed? Would the playoffs have changed? The possibilities are endless. Have at it.
Bills 45, Vikings 39 (OT)
2002, Week 2: Vikings miss a third-quarter and fourth-quarter extra point, lose in OT
Cardinals 9, Cowboys 6 (OT)
2002, Week 7: Cowboys miss third-quarter extra point, end up losing in OT
Steelers 34, Falcons 34 (OT)
2002, Week 10: Steelers miss third-quarter extra point, game ends up in a tie
Colts 23, Broncos 20 (OT)
2002, Week 12: Broncos miss second-quarter extra point, end up losing in OT
Panthers 12, Buccaneers 9 (OT)
2003, Week 2: Buccaneers miss extra point that would have won game with no time left, lose in OT
Seahawks 20, 49ers 19
2003, Week 6: 49ers miss third-quarter extra point, end up losing by one
Jaguars 20, Saints 19
2003, Week 16: Saints score potential game-tying touchdown on last play with multiple laterals – a play awesome enough to have a name, the River City Relay – miss extra point
Cardinals 24, Dolphins 23
2004, Week 9: Dolphins miss first-quarter extra point, end up losing by one
Vikings 28, Lions 27
2004, Week 15: Lions miss extra point late in fourth quarter that would have tied the game
Buccaneers 17, Packers 16
2005, Week 3: Packers miss first-quarter extra point, end up losing by one
Broncos 24, Bengals 23
2006, Week 16: Bengals miss extra point late in fourth quarter that would have tied the game
Browns 33, Seahawks 30 (OT)
2007, Week 9: Browns miss second-quarter extra point, end up needing OT to win
Bengals 23, Browns 20 (OT)
2009, Week 4: Bengals miss extra point late in fourth quarter that would have won the game, pull it out in OT
Jaguars 23, Rams 20 (OT)
2009, Week 6: Jaguars miss first-quarter extra point, end up needing OT to win
Bears 36, Vikings 30 (OT)
2009, Week 16: Vikings miss third-quarter extra point, end up losing in OT
Jets 23, Lions 20 (OT)
2010, Week 9: Lions miss third-quarter extra point – Ndamukong Suh replaced an injured kicker – end up losing in OT
Buccaneers 17, Redskins 16
2010, Week 14: Redskins miss extra point that would have tied the game with 0:13 left
Cowboys 27, Cardinals 26
2010, Week 16: Cardinals miss extra point late fourth quarter; Cowboys kick winning field goal at end
Vikings 26, Jaguars 23 (OT)
2012, Week 1: Jaguars miss second-quarter extra point, end up losing in OT
Photos by Top image: Christian Petersen / Getty Images. Bottom image: Kansas City Star / Getty Images. Charts: Andrew Healy