A regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that impacted the week of NFL play.
And so it is done. The NFL's new extra-point rule has accomplished its goal. After a league-record 12 misses or blocks Sunday, and 18 over the past two weeks, we can conclude it has made the kick more difficult, added a level of uncertainty to its outcome and cascaded into strategy in ways we might not have anticipated.
Drama is up, without a doubt, but is the play itself more entertaining? Of that, I'm not convinced.
So here's my renewed suggestion for further polishing the change: Move the two-point conversion line from the 2-yard line to the 1. Based on my discussions with coaches over the past two years, that change would incentivize teams to attempt fewer kicks and go for two more often. Which play would be more interesting to watch (and perhaps fail)? A two-point play from scrimmage or an extra point attempt?
With no disrespect to place-kickers, the answer seems clear to me. I'd rather watch a team try to score from the 1-yard line than agonize through the psychological challenges kickers seem to have encountered with the extra point.
Let's quickly review where we are with this. For the second consecutive season, we're seeing a midseason dip in extra-point efficiency. The chart provides the details. It's worth noting that even amid the hysteria of the past two weeks, those 18 failures have still been accompanied by 98 makes. Even in one of the worst dips in NFL history, conversions are still coming at a rate of 84.5 percent.
NFL coaches have responded in a measured way, as Chase Stuart detailed in this excellent analysis for FiveThirtyEight.com. Two-point attempts are up, but overall their frequency is still pretty tame; they've come after only 7.6 percent of touchdowns since the start of the 2015 season. Why? Most coaches view it as a low-percentage, one-dimensional playcall from the 2-yard line.
Since the start of the 2001 season, as the second chart shows, teams have thrown the ball on 73.6 percent of two-point plays from the 2-yard line. On the relative handful of occasions when two-point plays have been placed at the 1-yard line, via penalty, playcalls have flipped to 63.4 percent rushing plays.
Two-point plays from the 1-yard line have been converted at a rate of 73.6 percent since 2001, which is still lower -- and thus brings more uncertainty -- than the success rate of 33-yard extra points even in the worst of times.
Reasonable or not, coaches view the challenge of a one-yard gain much differently than when they need two yards. So if the two-point play were moved to the 1, the thinking goes, more coaches would feel comfortable eschewing the still-high percentage of the kick in favor of a play with twice the potential point reward.
Some coaches pushed back at that idea when the point after touchdown (PAT) rule was being formulated. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, for instance, said it would motivate coaches to use unconventional formations to ram the ball over the goal line. Harbaugh envisioned jumbo packages that put two offensive linemen in the backfield to plow the way for a quarterback sneak; Harbaugh predicted it would devolve into a "rugby" play that ultimately would put quarterbacks in harm's way.
Sometimes coaches know the game best and can see unintended consequences long before the rest of us. (Mostly because they're the ones who conceive of them during strategy sessions.) On other occasions, their fight is reflexive in a way that defends the game from the unknown.
Time would tell which side Harbaugh's concerns would fall. As I admitted last week, the NFL has unquestionably dramatized the PAT play despite criticism that the new rule was too much of a compromise to achieve its desired impact. A true spike in two-point attempts would seem the best possible outcome -- from the standpoints of entertainment, strategy and uncertainty -- and there's no reason to give up on it yet.
Nelson and the catch rule
The 2016 season hasn't brought many true debates about the NFL's catch rule. Perhaps we're all numb and accepting of the idea that the decisions might not always make sense, but a touchdown awarded Sunday night to Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson seemed to draw the ire of many.
The play occurred in the second quarter of the Packers' 42-24 loss to the Washington Redskins. Nelson grabbed the ball with two hands in the back of the end zone after a 13-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers. He got both feet down, and when you watch the replay, you see Nelson spin 180 degrees to avoid Redskins cornerback Josh Norman.
Even so, Norman managed to dislodge the ball with his left arm. At full speed, it looked like the kind of "bang-bang" play that senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has encouraged referees to call incomplete.
Referee John Hussey ruled it a touchdown, and the play was upheld on review.
The NFL rulebook requires a receiver, whether in the field of play or in the end zone, to "become a runner" in order to establish possession for a legal catch. That means, according to the rule, he must be "capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession."
Now go back to Nelson. He still had the ball once his feet were on the ground. His spin could be interpreted as being capable of warding off contact and being able to tuck the ball away, even though he failed to accomplish it.
For consistency's sake, this seems to be the kind of bang-bang play the NFL would prefer to have ruled incomplete. Given Hussey's initial ruling, it was too close to the rulebook definition of a catch to be considered a clear and obvious mistake on review. So it stood.
The dangers of the Wildcat
On one such occasion, Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson covered Bradford, ran toward him at the snap and decked him at the line of scrimmage. Referee Clete Blakeman's crew penalized Peterson for unnecessary roughness on the play, a call that seemed out of place because Bradford does not receive quarterback protection when lining up as a receiver.
The NFL rulebook, however, allows referees to use their judgment in such situations to determine whether a defender is "unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead."
Bradford was lined up to the right side of the formation, and the play called for running back Matt Asiata to run over the left guard. So perhaps it was reasonable for Bradford to be considered "out of the play." He clearly wasn't anticipating contact, but as a receiver he theoretically should have.
You could argue that at the time Peterson hit Bradford, he didn't know he would be out of the play. Conceivably, the Vikings could have run a pass out of the Wildcat. Peterson told reporters that he thought Blakeman's crew viewed Bradford as a "defenseless receiver" and thus merited protection from certain types of contact.
Regardless, the penalty was one of three roughness calls against the Cardinals on the Vikings' game-clinching drive. It was a reminder: Fair or not, beware of any and all hits to the quarterback in the modern NFL.