Sunday, December 14, 2008

Useless Sports: The Extra Point

It's been a while since I've been motivated to post anything here at Immaculate Inning... the way baseball season ended for this Yankees fan, plus my first real semester of graduate school that included actual work to do are my excuses. For the both of you who still check this site, I've got a treat for you today. We're going to talk about one of the most useless features of modern sport: the extra-point.

Sports historians tell us that the Point After Try (or PAT) has its roots in the precursor to American football- rugby. A "try"-- placing the ball in the end zone--  did not score any points for the team, but triggered a kicking attempt parallel to the spot in the end zone where the ball was placed. When touchdowns became more important in American football the point totals were adjusted, but the basic principle is that a TD is worth twice a FG... unless of course you make the PAT.

Up until the 1980s, the last part of the equation was not a sure thing, as the graph found here shows. However, the percentage of missed extra-points after 1984 (when defenders were banned from taking running leaps at the line of scrimmage) has never exceeded 5%; the last time it exceeded even 2% was the 1993 season. In 2008, the percentage is staggering: up to and including Thursday's Bears-Saints game, there have been 957 extra-point attempts, and only four missed attempts. The 99.6% success rate is the best in the history of football, surpassing the 99.2% rate in 2004. It's possible that we may be confusing increased ability with statistical noise, but that has not stopped other bloggers from calling for a modification of the Point After Try.

Because we at the Immaculate Inning like to champion the rare event, let us look at the four ignoble kickers who have missed this year.

Taylor Mehlhaff, New Orleans Saints When Martin Grammatica went down to injury on October 8, the Saints re-signed Mehlhaff the man Gramatica defeated in training camp. The left-footed rookie sixth-round pick out of Wisconsin played just three weeks for the Saints, making two out of three field goal attempts, and missing the first extra point of the 2008 season. The failure made Mehlhaff famous on two continents, as the miss came in an October 27 game against the Chargers played in London. As you can (kind of) see in this video, Drew Brees had just completed a 12 yard TD pass when Mehlhaff lined up for the point-after, and you can hear in the video the result- clank! Even the American-football naive fans at Wembley had mind enough to boo his performance. So, too, did the Saints, who cut Mehlhaff two days later.

It was suggested in the ESPN-comments of that article that the Saints had no confidence in Mehlhaff to begin with, and would "frequently" go for it on fourth down. The Saints did go for it twice on fourth down at Wembley, from the 1 yard line (not suspicious) and another time on 4th and 2 on the Chargers' 14 (quite suspicious). The previous week, the Saints were held to only 7 points and Mehlhaff did not attempt an field goal; they went for it on a 4th-and-one from the Carolina 37, which is no-man's land for FGs for anyone. The fourth-quarter failed conversion on a 4th and 2 from the Carolina 3 yard also makes sense as the Saints were down by twenty points at the time. In his first game against the Raiders, Mehlhaff missed his first attempt (31 yards), made his second (44 yards), and the Saints never went for it on fourth down. As always, don't trust ESPN commenters, but it may be that the extra point did spell doom for Mehlhaff; making PATs is important for a Saints team that leads the NFL in touchdowns scored.

Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions By far the most experienced kicker of the four, Hanson has 16 years kicking in the NFL, and has made 98.5% of his extra points. This season, he was unlucky November 2 in Chicago, under some pretty terrible conditions. The muddy field was causing players to slip around all day, and the Lions struck for the first time in the second quarter on a Kevin Smith 1 yard TD run. Hanson slipped and fell in the mud during his PAT attempt, rose to his feet and attempted to complete the try, but it was blocked by Alex Brown. The play became immensely important later in the game, as the Lions got the ball back with 1:04 to go and 87 yards to make up a 27-23 Bears lead. Had Hanson completed his extra point, the Lions could have tied with a field goal.

Jeff Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers We didn't have to wait long for the next missed PAT. The seven year NFL veteran missed an extra-point in Washington on November 3. The Steelers had scored right before halftime on a 1-yd QB sneak by Ben Roethlisberger, who injured his arm on the play. Led by backup Byron Leftwich, the Steelers rallied again for a big drive to open up the third quarter, capped by a 1-yard TD run by Willie Parker. According to the play-by-play, Reed's PAT was wide left. This was a significant event for Reed, who had not missed a PAT since 2003, his sophormore season. Weather did not seem to be a factor; the NFL's gamebook reported 51˚F and no wind that day. Teams typically have their backup QB receving the snap on field goal attempts- was there a switch made when Leftwich entered the game? No, because Reed's holder all day was punter Mitch Berger. However, this ESPN fantasy football page notes that Berger's hold was bad. It is unknown whether Berger's botched hold has anything to do with the fact he was released following the game. He's back with the Steelers now though after four weeks as a free agent, so I guess there's not that many hard feelings.

Matt Bryant, Tampa Bay Bucs Also a seven-year NFL veteran, Bryant missed a point after last week at Carolina. Jeff Garcia had just completed a 15 yard pass to Antiono Bryant (no relation) to bring the Bucs within a touchdown at 31-23 with under two and a half minutes to go. The kicker who two years ago knocked through the third-longest field goal in NFL history (62 yards) lined up for the point-after. Julius Peppers busted through the line and blocked the kick (his seventh since entering the league in 2002, second most over this span). Bryant's subsequent onsides-kick attempt was also not successful, and Carolina went on to win the game.

So, that's it on missed PATs in the 2008 NFL season. Just nine were missed all of last year, and since 2003 (the season I grew tired of copy-pasting PAT stats) there have been 6,520 PATs, of which 6456 were made, for a grand average of 99.018% over the last five-plus seasons. So I ask, any NFL fans out there, what is the purpose of retaining the extra point? Other than tradition, what good does it do the game to have an event which is successful over 99% of the time? I can't think of a single scoreboard-impacting event in American sports that has anywhere near a 99% success rate; the closest may be the penalty kick in soccer, but that's another topic. Meanwhile, while typically you don't see defenses going all-out on the PAT unless there is something at stake, there is still the significant risk for injury to the very large men in that line of scrimmage.

On the other blogs that have discussed this, one of the objections to eliminating point-afters was that it would renew the importance of the field goal. While I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that it could just be that a touchdown is worth 7 points unless a team wants to make it 8 with a conversion attempt. Making the team play the same from-scrimmage football that got them to the end zone seems a much fairer way of handing out extra-points. And at a current rate of just 50%, the two-point conversion is much less of a sure thing.

As it stands, at the professional level, the point after try is the most worthless waste of time in modern sports.

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