Analytics will be in the spotlight during the 2015 NFL season more than ever because of a rule change involving the extra point.
After a few years of trying to change the rule, the NFL and its owners voted 30-2 in May to move the extra-point try from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line.
However, if teams want to go for two points, the ball will remain at the 2-yard line.
The rule change also says the defense can return a blocked extra point or failed 2-point try for two points. Under the previous rule, the ball was dead on a failed try.
The NFL experimented with the longer kick for two weeks in last year’s preseason. Kickers made 94.3 percent of their 33-yard extra points.
The question in 2015: Kick the extra point or go for two?
Brian Burke, creator of Advanced Football Analytics, has worked with numerous teams over the years on the odds of certain in-game scenarios, such as 2-point and fourth-down conversions.
Burke is 50-50 on the change.
“I know its intent,” he said. “It’s important to keep the game interesting, but they may have made it more complicated than it needed to be. The ball is in two different spots now for the extra-point. Overall it’s a better solution. Kicking in general can improve, maybe make narrower posts.”
Burke has studied analytics for nearly 10 years. Each year, teams contact Burke and his company for advice.
“It was a hobby of mine and interesting to me,” Burke said. “I started the website and got phone calls from media and different outlets, and that’s when teams started to call me to consult with them.”
PATs from the 2-yard line had a conversion rate of 99.5 percent, while the all-time success rate of the 2-point conversion is 48 percent. The 32 teams attempted 59 2-point tries last season, converting on 47 percent. Eight teams, including the Cowboys, did not attempt a 2-point conversion.
“More teams will go for two,” Burke said. “It’s twice the risk, but twice the reward. Kicking it is just half the risk, but half the reward.”
Keith Goldner broke the percentages down further. Goldner is chief analyst at numberFire, an analytical company.
According to Goldner, with the ball moved to the 15-yard line, the success rate drops six percentage points to 93.6 percent. The expected point total that comes from a 2-point try is .960, which is higher than expected from an extra-point try from the 15-yard line.
Going for two, under these new rules, is probably smarter, according to Goldner. A lot goes into the decision, and of course, the rate of hitting a 2-point conversion can increase with a little more practice.
“This obviously depends on your personnel and your opponent’s personnel, but running the ball by the goal line has a higher success rate than throwing the ball,” Goldner said. “I am personally a proponent of spreading the field and running the ball into open gaps, depending on how the defense lines up.”
Another reason 2-point attempts might increase is because dual-threat quarterbacks are becoming the norm in the league.
“It will make teams more likely to miss extra points, and as a result, more likely to go for two in general,” Goldner said. “In reality though, as many coaches are highly risk averse, it probably will not have a dramatic immediate effect on coaching tendencies.”
Dallas was among the 30 teams to vote for the PAT change, even though Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey has not missed an extra point in four seasons, hitting on all 179.
“It’ll just be interesting to see how it affects the game,” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t say it’s going to be uncomfortable. We played with it a little bit last preseason, and it wasn’t anything crazy. It’s just going to take getting used to.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is OK with the change, particularly the defensive benefit of the new rule.
“Obviously, it makes the extra point that much more challenging,” Garrett said. “I’m glad they did the thing where the defense can return it and get two points. I think that’s a good rule, and I’m glad they kept it at the 2-yard line [on 2-point tries].”
Either way, the percentages will be looked at closely.
That’s where analytics come in.
Burke played football during his high school days — tight end and defensive end — before joining the Navy, where he was a longtime pilot.
“The military is heavy on numbers, so I thought why not football,” he said. “I applied some of the same ideas and concepts. I used to have endless debates with people about sports that would never end, so I created software from grad school and put stats online, and it started to answer many questions.”
Goldner also has a sports background. He played for a two-time state championship tennis team in high school in Pennsylvania, before attending Northwestern University.
“As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I read Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side,” he said. “In that book, Lewis details a mathematical study by Ben Alamar [currently of ESPN Analytics] discussing why passing is much more efficient than rushing in the NFL. After reaching out to Ben Alamar, I was able to intern with him at the Oklahoma City Thunder for several years. I would later intern at the Philadelphia 76ers and in the ESPN Research department before eventually starting at numberFire.”
Burke focuses more on fourth-down and 2-point conversions, replay challenges and onside kicks.
“Some teams use my tools and models for themselves, and I provide help for teams to make the right decision,” he said. “I’ve worked closely with teams over the years. My tools and models have now been the standard around the league.”
One scenario Burke can recall is when the overtime rules changed. Before, the game would end with any team scoring first. Now if one team kicks a field goal, the other team has a chance to play offense.
Burke said that teams shouldn’t rely on long field-goal tries in overtime.
“When the rule changed, teams weren’t sure how to handle some fourth-down decisions,” he said.
“Long field goals are bad on first possessions. You don’t want that. Punting in long field-goal range might be better.”
Staff writer Charean Williams contributed to this report.
Dallas Cowboys’ key dates
Tuesday Team reports to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
July 30 First full team practice.
Aug. 9 Blue/White Scrimmage
Aug. 13 Preseason game: Cowboys @ San Diego, 9 p.m.
Aug. 23 Preseason game: Cowboys @ San Fran., 7 p.m.
Aug. 28 Break camp in Oxnard, Calif.
Aug. 29 Preseason game: Cowboys vs. Minnesota, 6 p.m. AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Sept. 3 Preseason game: Cowboys vs. Houston, 7 p.m. AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Sept. 13 Regular-season opener: NY Giants at Cowboys, 7:30 p.m,, AT&T Stadium, Arlington