Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Extra Point and American Football's Great-Granddaddy

Even though I'm a Green Bay Packers shareholder (and so is my daughter), I don't watch football anymore. I still like sports well enough, but between the responsibilities that come with work, child, spouse, and household duties, there's just not enough time in my day to justify a cable subscription.

But that didn't stop me from taking an interest in something NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said about extra points. Specifically, he said the league is thinking about eliminating them.

Why? Because they're too easy to make. "Almost automatic," the commish said. According to his math, the extra point had a 99.6% success rate in the 2013 season.

So why do we even have an extra point attempt after the touchdown? The answer lies in the kicking-oriented days of early rugby, when the extra point wasn't the afterthought of the scoring play, but rather the main event.

Most of us know that American football evolved out of rugby. And in the dawning days of organized rugby, scoring a try -- what Americans call a touchdown -- didn't give the scoring team any points whatsoever. What it did was give the team a chance to take a free kick at the goalposts. The team that scored the most goals -- the equivalent of today's "extra points" -- won. For many years, there were no specific point values assigned for scoring. But in 1886, the Rugby Football Union adopted a system whereby a try would be awarded 1 point, while the goal counted for 3 points.

That's right. The "extra point" was worth three times as much as the touchdown.

Things started off much the same in American football. As documented in David M. Nelson's Anatomy of a Game, an invaluable resource on football history, when point values were introduced in 1893, the touchdown counted for 2 points, and the goal after the touchdown 4 points. Football was undergoing some radical changes around this time that would value the running game as highly as the kicking game, and accordingly, the touchdown was soon increased to 4 points, while the goal after touchdown fell to 2 points. Field goals, however, remained at 5 points for two decades. So the touchdown and the goal-after combined gave a team one more point than they could achieve with a field goal, but missing the extra point was a really big deal, as it devalued the "unconverted" touchdown to being one point less than a field goal.

It wasn't until the advent of the forward pass that the current scoring system began to take shape. In 1909, three years after the forward pass was legalized, the touchdown was worth 5 points and the extra point 1, while the field goal fell to its current 3. The value of the touchdown increased to 6 points in 1912, giving us the scoring values we still use today, a century later.

The 1919 Packers. Source: packerhistory.net.
But that extra point, even though it had been devalued to 1 lowly point, was still not the chip shot it is today. Following a touchdown, the extra point could be attempted in one of two ways:

1. The try-at-goal. The scoring team could move the ball to any spot on the field in a straight line from where the ball crossed the goal line. A free kick could then be attempted from that point.

2. The punt-out. The scoring player could punt the ball back into the field of play, where his teammates could attempt to fair-catch the ball and from there attempt to kick a try-at-goal. Either team was entitled to catch the ball, though, so this was far from a gimme play for the scoring team.

Australian rules football,
a.k.a. "footy."
Source: kidcyber.com.au.
The punt-out was abolished in 1920, but something similar exists to this day in Australian rules football, whereby any player who catches a kicked ball that's traveled at least 15 meters is then entitled to a free kick in the direction of the opponent's goalposts.

The first option still exists, too, in rugby. After a player scores a try, the ball can be placed at any distance from the goalposts, but it must be in a straight line from where the scoring team touched the ball down in the end zone. (Incidentally, the rugby rule that the ball must touch the ground for the score to count is where we get the term "touchdown," even though touching the ball down in the end zone isn't required in American football.)

Once the punt-out was eliminated, the scoring team was simply permitted to set the ball at any distance in front of the goalposts for the kick. In 1922, the extra-point play as we know it today was finally established, when the ball was put into play from scrimmage at the 5-yard line. It was moved to the 2-yard line in 1929, and that's where it remains today, under NFL rules. (College football sets the ball at the 3-yard line.)

So now that the extra point has lost its place in the spotlight and been reduced to an afterthought, what do we do with it? Should it be eliminated just because it's such an easy point? Or should the NFL consider some alternatives?

Goodell said one proposal being considered is to increase the value of the touchdown to 7 points and then give the scoring team the option to run or pass from scrimmage -- the same as the 2-point conversion play, only with a new twist. If the team is successful, it gets 1 point instead of 2. But if the conversion fails, the team loses a point, and the touchdown reverts to 6 points.

I don't know about you, but that sounds ridiculous to me. Unless the game was on the line in the dying seconds, nobody would ever attempt the conversion and risk taking a point off the board.

So what are some other options we can consider to make the play a little less predictable? Let's look at what some other leagues have tried.
  • The short-lived XFL awarded 6 points for a touchdown but prohibited kicked extra points. A successful run or pass on the conversion scored 1 point, but no points were ever taken off the board.

    (Incidentally, the NFL experimented with this option in the 1968 preseason, when NFL teams matched up against those from the American Football League. The two leagues would officially merge two years down the road, and this preseason experiment was an attempt to blend the rules of the two leagues. The AFL allowed teams to kick for 1 or run or pass for 2, while the NFL awarded only 1 point for either method -- which meant that nobody in the NFL ever did anything but kick, unless the hold was botched or the play otherwise broke down. The 2-point conversion was added to college football in 1958, and the AFL used it from the beginning, but the NFL didn't add it until 1994.)
  • The World Football League of the mid-1970s granted 7 points for a touchdown and also prohibited kicked extra points. The "action point," earned by run or pass, counted for 1 point -- but again, no points were removed for an unsuccessful attempt.
  • The Arena Football League gives 6 points to a touchdown and allows teams to either kick the conversion for 1 point or attempt to run or pass for 2 -- same as the current NFL rules. But it also awards 2 points for a successfully dropkicked extra point.
I don't like the idea of meddling with the point system. The beauty of a touchdown is that it's worth exactly as much as two field goals, and then you essentially get a chance to tack on another point (or two) as a bonus. Changing a touchdown to 7 points throws out of balance a scoring system that's served the game well for a century now. There's a reason it hasn't been meddled with, and the one league that did go with a 7-point touchdown didn't last very long.

My proposals, not that anyone asked:
  • Go the XFL route. Leave the touchdown at 6 points and require a run or pass for the extra 1 point. No placekicks.
  • Eliminate the kick but introduce two distances for the conversion. A successful run or pass from the 2-yard line counts for 1 point, while one taken from farther back -- let's say the 7-yard line -- counts for 2 points.
  • Allow conversions by run or pass, but also allow for dropkicked extra points, as the arena game does. Dropkicks are still a huge part of the rugby game, which uses a fatter, more egg-shaped ball than football does, but they fell by the wayside in American football when our ball was slimmed down to facilitate the forward pass. (Rugby never adopted the forward pass.) With the pointier ends of the American football, the bounces are unreliable, and that's why there's been only one successful dropkick for points in the NFL in more than 70 years (here's looking at you, Doug Flutie).

    Under this system, placekicks for the extra point would still be prohibited, but the dropkick could work in tandem with either of the first two options.
  • Continue to allow placekicks, but back up the spot of the kick. When you add up the spot from where the ball is currently kicked to the back of the end zone, you get a distance of about 19 yards that the ball has to travel to score an extra point. If the line of scrimmage for the kick was moved from the 2-yard line to, say, the 20, you're talking about a 37-yard kick. Still easy for most NFL kickers, but much less of a sure thing. Or offer the option of an even longer kick for 2 points.
But what I'd really love to see is the adoption of the rugby conversion. Touchdowns scored in the corners of the end zone would make the extra points much more challenging, because the ball would have to be brought out in a straight line from where it crossed the goal line. When that happens in rugby, the poor kickers have to work magic to hook their kicks through the posts, and sometimes they have to walk the ball back a long way just to get a reasonable shot -- but it sure is exciting to see when a kick from an extreme angle is successful. Check this one out.

Football fans would certainly have to get used to a few unfamiliar sights. The rugby conversion can be taken from as far back as the kicker wants, and he kicks the ball alone from a tee, not from scrimmage. His teammates aren't involved in the play, and because the play is a free kick, the defense has to stand in the end zone and can't start to move toward the kicker until he begins his approach to the ball. One huge advantage is that the risk of injury would be nearly eliminated on the play, and that's something the NFL is greatly concerned about these days.

Just one little change like the rugby conversion could alter the entire red-zone strategy of the game. If the scoring football team wanted to take its extra point from as close to the center of the field as possible, it would have to try to punch the ball into the center of the end zone. Defenses, in turn, would clog up the middle and try to force ball carriers to the corners.

The rugby kick today counts for 2 points (versus 5 for the try), and given how hard it can to be to make the conversion, it would seem sensible at first blush to retain that point value for American football. The downside, however, is that if the scoring team makes its touchdown in the center of the field, we'd end up right back where we started with a chip-shot extra point. So maybe the rugby-style conversion would be worth only 1 point in American football, or maybe you award 1 point for a kick taken from inside the hashmarks and 2 points for one taken from outside. There are lots of possibilities. The rugby-style conversion could even be used in conjunction with an option to run or pass for the extra point(s). If a team decides the angle for a kick is too extreme, for example, it could choose to run a play from scrimmage instead. You could even retain the current placekick option, only moved farther back. So maybe you end up with a variety of options for the extra point -- something like this:
  • Rugby-style free kick, taken from a straight line from where the touchdown was scored: 2 points outside the hashmarks; 1 point inside
  • Run or pass from a scrimmage play at the 2-yard line: 1 point
  • Run or pass from a scrimmage play at the 7-yard line: 2 points
  • Dropkick from a scrimmage play at the 2-yard line: 2 points
  • Placekick from a scrimmage play at the 20-yard line: 1 point
  • Placekick from a scrimmage play at the 30-yard line: 2 points
Anyway, instead of getting rid of extra points, as Goodell has proposed, let's consider some of these other options that would retain a historical part of the game but could make it a lot more exciting -- and competitive -- without altering the scoring system.

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