Time and time again we see football coaches make risk averse decisions because it will protect them from criticism. The most obvious of these choices is whether to go for it on 4th & 1 when in FG range, on 4th & 2-5 between the other team’s 40-50 yard line, and my personal favorite, whether to go for two.
Announcers will almost always say coaches “shouldn’t chase the points” early in the game, or should “kick the extra point and make it a one-possession game” when a team scores a touchdown down 15 to get within 8. Both of these assertions, notably the second, can be objectively incorrect, yet if coaches made the opposite decisions they would almost certainly be vilified in the media when unsuccessful.
During the 2016 season, the success rate on extra points was 93.6%, meaning on average teams scored 0.936 points per extra point attempt. The success rate on two point conversions was 48.6%, so on average teams scored 0.972 points per two point conversion attempt. Based on this alone, teams would score more if they went for two every time.
Obviously looking at this purely as an average over the course of the whole season across all teams is not fair for every team’s individual situation. If your team has a terrible offense and an amazing kicker, your odds may flip in the other direction, but if you have a top tier offense why not consider going for two every time? Or more specifically, say your team has a solid offense that struggles to make big plays – why not go for two each time to maximize the potential of each scoring opportunity? Either way, there’s a discussion to be had and a coach can make a rational argument in either direction in almost all situations.
On the other hand, the second scenario of kicking the extra point to go down 8 points, especially well into the 4th quarter, is often objectively the wrong decision. Everyone agrees that down 8 a team needs a touchdown and two point conversion to tie the game. If you believe that a team’s chance of actually converting the two point conversion is the same no matter when the play occurs, then postponing that 2 point conversion until later in the game serves no purpose.
Let’s operate under the scenario that the team will not convert the two point conversion. If the team decides to go for two after the first score and doesn’t it get it, they will be down 9 and the coach will get destroyed by the announcers since it is no longer a “one” possession game. But in reality, the coach now knows he needs two scores in order to win the game and plays the game accordingly, likely taking more risks & playing faster. If the coach waits to go for two later and doesn’t convert, he will have likely coached as if they only needed one more score to tie the game which diminishes the chances of winning.
This can easily be described through a practical situation. A team is down 28-13 and scores a touchdown to go down 28-19 with 4 minutes left. The coach subsequently decides to kick the extra point leaving his team at a 28-20 deficit. His defense then produces a stop and the offense gets the ball back and methodically drives all the way down the field burning all their time-outs in the process and scores a touchdown as time expires to go down 28-26. Unfortunately, the two point conversion comes up short and the game ends. No one bats an eye or considers criticizing the coach.
In an alternate reality, the coach decides to go for two right away and fails to get it, leaving his team down 28-19. His defense gets a stop and the offense scores quickly conserving all their timeouts to go down 28-26 with 1:30 remaining. The coach then tries an onside kick, fails to get it and ultimately comes up short when the opposing team gets the first down they need to end the game. The coach is universally criticized for his decision to go for two early.
Everyone would agree that being down 28-26 with 1:30 remaining and all your timeouts is better than being down 28-26 with no time left, correct? The information gained from attempting the two point conversion earlier gave the alternate reality coach a better chance of winning than the first coach who followed convention. Going for two early gives you the highest probability of the worst outcome, scoring no points after the touchdown, but it also gives you the highest probability of the best outcome, and allows you to coach fully understanding the nature of the situation. The article below does a better job explaining this concept than I ever could:
The day an announcer accurately assesses this situation will be a very, very happy day.