The NFL owners are convening in San Francisco for their spring meeting. Usually this is a noneventful congregation of the 32 ownership interests working out some leftover pre-preseason business. This year, the owners have deferred the decision on point-after-touchdown rules from the March annual meeting to the spring meeting — a change that will have the most impact on scoring since the league implemented the two-point conversion rule in 1994.
Change seemed to be inevitable when the owners passed a trial rule change for the first two weeks of the 2014 preseason, by moving the line of scrimmage for extra-point kicks to the 15-yard line. After posting a record aggregate success rate of 99.6 percent in the 2013 season, the experimental rule reduced the kick accuracy to 93.2 percent. Two-point conversions were, on average, consistent with the number of attempts in the final two weeks of the preseason.
That was not quite as drastic a drop as the 10-yard difference in extra-point kicks that occurred in 1974 when the goalposts were moved from the goal line to the endline. (Click the chart to enlarge.) By 1976, the percentage of extra-point conversions plummeted below 90 percent, and it took 18 years for the kicking game to recover from that move to a success rate comparable to before the move.
Except for that recovery period, the accuracy of the extra-point kick has been 95 percent or better since the 1950s, so the 93.2 percent rate from the 2014 preseason might be a little lower than what the Competition Committee had in mind. That notwithstanding, the owners have three proposals on the table, and all of them move the spot of the snap for the kick to the 15-yard line, making for a 32-yard kick instead of the current 19-yard kick.
The first proposal is from the Patriots — Proposal 14 — that was implemented last preseason. The line of scrimmage for a run or pass remains the two-yard line. A coach may opt out of his original decision of a one- or two-point play if there is a timeout called or if a penalty occurs on the conversion attempt.
Proposal 14A is from the Competition Committee, which gives its blessing to the Patriots’ proposal with an added provision to allow the defense to score on the conversion attempt. This would introduce a completely new dimension to the conversion attempt, even though it has been a permanent fixture at the college level. Blocked kicks would continue to be playable by either team (for the offense, though, the ball has to be behind the line of scrimmage). If the defense is successful in scoring a touchdown on the conversion down, they get the two points instead.
Finally, the Eagles went a step further from the Competition Committee’s proposal to incentivize the two-point play. Proposal 14B allows for the defensive recovery, but, unlike the other two proposals, it locks coaches in to their initial decision to go for one or two points.
There is a fourth option on the table: none of the above. If 22 of the 32 owners do not agree on any one of the proposals, then the status quo prevails: the conversion snap remains at the 2, the defense is not allowed to recover, and Eagles coach Chip Kelly will still try to find a way to run a swinging gate formation on an extra point (video). There are many anomalies with the proposals that the owners should consider the none-of-the-above option:
Competition Committee chairman is suspended. The proposal from the Competition Committee will not be defended by longtime committee chairman Rich McKay. As part of the punishment assessed on the Falcons franchise for playing recorded crowd noise during home games, McKay was suspended from his influential post on the Competition Committee. Rams coach Jeff Fisher is likely to assume the leadership role for the committee, as he often has a co-leadership role with McKay. While Fisher is more than capable of presenting the committee’s proposal, the owners will not be able to question McKay during the process.
Two different lines of scrimmage. All of the proposals have the run/pass option from either the 1- or 2-yard line, while maintaining the 15-yard line for the kick. Presumably the coach will inform a wing official which option he intends to attempt, although it would be obvious if the kicker is entering the field. This adds another element to the between-downs time after a touchdown. The officials certainly can handle the proper spot for the conversion attempt, but it adds another element of overhead for the crew with a running play clock.
Penalty enforcement inconsistent. By having two possible lines of scrimmage, the enforcement of penalties will alter the administration of the conversion attempt. Under current rules, a defensive foul is assessed a 1-yard (half-distance) penalty on a failed conversion attempt, but if the kick is good, the offense can take the one point off the board so they can run for two points from the 1-yard line. Under the proposed rules, no offense would take the points off the board for a second shot from the 7½. Conversely, if the offense commits a five-yard penalty on a successful two-point try, the defense will accept the penalty to prevent the score. This could give the offense a kick attempt from the 7-yard line (rather than the 20, if the penalty was assessed on an initial kick attempt) or, under the Eagles proposal, force the offense to run or pass from the 7 with no ability to switch to a kicking play. In both the defensive and offensive foul scenarios, the penalty cannot be marked off from any alternate line of scrimmage; it must be enforced from the basic spot of the preceding play.
Increase in dropkicks? One likely loophole to the conversion rule changes is the ability to convert a kick by way of a dropkick. This vestigial relic of the game from an era when the ball was rounder has only been attempted once outside of exhibition play since the 1940s. A successful dropkick is when the ball carrier drops the ball and kicks it as soon as the ball touches the ground, usually on its point, and the kick goes through the uprights. Because this can be accomplished on a running play and not in a kick formation, there seems to be a loophole where a team can dropkick the extra point with the snap at the 2. The only way I see to close this loophole would be to ban the dropkick from plays that snap from the 2-yard line.
One-point safety removed. On the extraordinarily rare occurrence of a safety against the defense on the conversion attempt, the current rule is that it is a one-point safety. This aligns with the scoring structure of the conversion attempt, where a “touchdown” is worth two points, and a “field goal” is worth one. Because the defense could not possess the ball, it made possibility of having a safety even more remote (as illustrated in our “tough quiz“). The Eagles proposal oddly makes those safeties worth two points, or the same value as scoring an equivalent touchdown on the conversion try.
Could it affect the game? Although the counterpoint to the existing rule is to provide a more interesting and less automatic play, these attempts to modify the conversion attempt will increase the number of games decided on a missed attempt. Currently, there is an average of one such game where a missed kick makes a difference almost every two seasons. Does the league want more games, and potentially playoff seedings, determined in this fashion?
The Football Zebras option. I submitted a proposal to the Competition Committee back in February that would keep the current line of scrimmage at the 2-yard line, but both teams would be limited to three substitutes from the touchdown play. My proposal would allow for unlimited substitution if the touchdown was by the defense or special teams or if either team takes a timeout. Although my preference is that there be no changes to the extra-point play, this seemed to be a viable alternative to keep the existing rules, add in new strategic elements, and have a throwback to the so-called Ironman Era of the game. The Committee declined the proposal.