(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)
The personnel is the same. Playbooks are intact. Philosophies are most assuredly unchanged. Yes, it was difficult to elicit much more than a shrug during a series of training camp conversations this summer about the NFL's new 33-yard extra point, one that promises a measure of new drama but is in no way expected to be a game-changer when the regular season begins next month.
Head coaches I spoke with predicted the status quo for their team and throughout the league. The extra-point kick will remain their default decision after touchdowns, and there is every expectation that a high percentage will be converted. Weather and the (very) occasional matchup advantage could alter their plans, but the frequency of those instances will be minor.
"There are going to be a few games where it's going to make a difference for specific reasons," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Here's how Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put it: "There will be instances where it is significant, and there will be many instances where it is insignificant."
That's a tepid buildup, I know. But if any of those moments impact the course of the season, you'll wish you had done your homework. So while we have a moment, let's break down every aspect of the new rule, examine the analytics involved, consider each of a dozen-plus scenarios the league has identified and finally look at the recent history.
(In the first 17 games of the 2015 preseason, place-kickers missed two of 56 extra-point attempts from the new distance. Coaches called for 13 two-point attempts, and their teams converted six. More notably, a similar change in the Canadian Football League has brought extra-point conversion rates down from 99.4 percent to 84.1 percent during its ongoing 2015 season.)
The line of scrimmage for extra points was moved from the 2-yard line to the 15, making it a 33-yard kick. Two-point conversion plays remain an option from the 2-yard line. Both plays are now "live," meaning either team can scoop a loose ball and record a two-point score by carrying it into its respective end zone.
Extra points have been nearly automatic in recent years. Last season, they were converted at a rate of 99.3 percent.
Recent history suggests the success rates from the new distance won't be much lower. In 2014, NFL place-kickers converted 95.1 percent of their 33-yard field-goal attempts (39 of 41). From the larger range of 30-35 yards, they hit 95.3 percent (161 of 169).
Based on those figures, and assuming a similar number of extra points are attempted in 2015 from the new distance as they were in 2014 from the old distance, we can project about 58 missed extra points during the regular season this year. For context, consider that place-kickers missed an average of 6.5 extra points in each of the past four seasons from the previous distance. Viewed another way, 1,172 of 1,230 extra points would be converted.
NFL coaches mostly keep their distance from analytics, a study of data that suggested -- even before this rule change -- they should go for two points more often than they did. Given the new extra-point distance, I asked Brian Burke -- the founder of Advanced Football Analytics and now a senior analytics specialist at ESPN -- to update strategy recommendations.
Teams converted two-points plays 47.5 percent of the time in 2014, about the same as the recent five-year average (48.1). That means a two-point conversion in 2015 offers about twice the reward (two points versus one point) for twice the risk (95.3 percent probability of a one-point kick versus 47.5 percent for a two-point conversion.)
All of which make the two-point play an even smarter call, Burke wrote in an e-mail.
According to Burke: "Analytically speaking, coaches should now generally be indifferent to the extra-point and two-point conversion, at least during most of the game until time becomes a factor. Rationally, if a scoring team believes it has a better-than-typical chance at a successful conversion (better than 47 percent), it should go for two. And if they believe that kicking conditions are poor (less than 95 percent), they should also go for two."
In other words, analytics suggest going for two rather than attempting a 33-yard extra point if teams feel good about a matchup or if there are any factors -- weather or otherwise -- that could further inhibit the potential success of a 33-yard extra point.
The human element
Analytics notwithstanding, and despite the uptick in Week 1 preseason attempts, there is no league-wide expectation that coaches will change their game-management approach.
Consider the Ravens. In his three-year career, place-kicker Justin Tucker has never missed a kick shorter than 37 yards. Despite the analytics, Harbaugh and most other coaches prefer the near guarantee of one point, even if it is slightly less likely than before.
"I have a lot of confidence we'll make the extra point," Harbaugh said. "There will be wind, weather and field conditions later in the season where coaches feel like they have a better chance to make it from two. Or, they could be worried about their kicker and feel good about the offense or a specific matchup they saw. Maybe that changes the numbers a bit. But most coaches, I think, are going to kick about the same as always."
Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he would consider the two-point play more often if the NFL had moved it to the 1-yard line. As it stands now, he said, "We expect our kicker to make those [33-yard] kicks all day long."
It's possible, said Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, that teams with big and/or mobile quarterbacks could be more aggressive on two-point calls. The Carolina Panthers might like their chances with Cam Newton near the goal line. The same could be said for the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson.
Otherwise, McCarthy said, "Is it worth going for two based on a 2 or 3 percent production difference? If you do it purely by the numbers, it doesn't change."
Place-kickers themselves face one relatively significant decision: Where to place the ball for extra points. As always, they'll have the choice between either hashmark or the middle of the field. A Pro Football Focus offseason study revealed that conversion rates on field goals from 30-35 yards over the past two seasons went this way:
Left: 91.6 percent
Center: 97.6 percent
Right: 93.8 percent
Not all place-kickers prefer the middle, however, despite those percentages. The Vikings' Blair Walsh said it's easier for some to use the hash because it provides a fool-proof line for the long-snapper and holder to set up.
"If you're in the middle of the field, there's no line for the holder to put the ball down," Walsh said. "So that's the way we're looking at it."
Tucker said he'll take close note of the field conditions at the 33-yard line, which is likely to be more worn than at the 2-yard line, among other factors. "I'm really not concerned about those percentages," he said.
The longer kick and its conversion to a "live" play has spawned questions about the possible outcomes. What happens when an extra point is blocked? What if there is a penalty? What circumstances would lead to a two-point attempt from the 1-yard line?
The list below, culled from an NFL memo circulated among teams, covers just about every scenario you can think of. It mimics an extra-point attempt by the Packers against the Chicago Bears.
1. Try from the 15-yard line. Kick is blocked and returned by the Bears across the Packers' goal line.
Result: Two points for the Bears.
2. Try from the 15-yard line. Kick is blocked and recovered behind the line of scrimmage (LOS) by the Packers and advanced across the Bears' goal line.
Result: Two points for the Packers.
3. Try from the 15-yard line. Kick is blocked and recovered beyond the LOS by the Packers and advanced across the Bears' goal line.
Result: Try no good. Ball is dead when recovered by the Packers beyond the LOS.
4. Try from the 2-yard line. Pass is intercepted and returned by the Bears across the Packers' goal line.
Result: Two points for the Bears.
5. Try from the 2-yard line. Pass is intercepted by the Bears, then fumbled, and recovered by the Packers and advanced across the Bears' goal line.
Result: Two points for the Packers.
Result: Try no good. Ball is dead when recovered by Nelson.
Result: Try no good. Ball is dead when recovered by Fuller.
8. Try from the 2-yard line. Pass is intercepted by Allen, who takes it out of his own end zone and then goes back into the end zone on his own where he is tackled.
Result: Safety, one point for the Packers.
9. Try from the 2-yard line. Pass is intercepted by Allen and returned to the Packers' 3-yard line, where Allen fumbles. Lacy bats loose ball from field of play into Packers' end zone and out of bounds.
Result: Safety, one point for Bears. Bat is legal, but result of play is a safety.
1. Try from the 15-yard line. Packers line up for kick. Offside called on Bears. Kick is good.
(a) Try good, enforce offside penalty on kickoff.
(b) Re-try for two points from the 1-yard line.
2. Try from the 15-yard line. Packers line up for kick. Offside called on Bears. Kick is no good.
(a) Re-kick with snap at 10-yard line.
(b) Re-try for two points from the 1-yard line.
3. Try from the 2-yard line. Packers line up to go for two points. Offside called on defense. Try is no good.
(a) Re-try for two points from the 1-yard line.
(b) Attempt kick with snap at 10-yard line.
4. Try from the 2-yard line. Packers line up to go for two points. Holding called on offense. Try is good.
(a) Re-try for two points from the 12-yard line.
(b) Attempt kick with snap at 25-yard line.
5. Try from 15-yard line. Packers line up for kick. Holding called on offense. Try is good.
(a) Re-try kick with snap at 25-yard line.
(b) Attempt for two points from the 12-yard line.
The CFL example
North of the border, the Canadian Football League took a similar approach when its 2015 season began on June 25.
Extra points were moved from the 12-yard line to the 25, lengthening the kick from 19 yards to 32 yards on the CFL's modified field. Through early this week, CFL place-kickers had missed 20 of 126 attempts. Their conversion rate of 84.1 percent is roughly the same as their rate of field-goal conversions from similar distances last season.
The league also moved its two-point conversions from the 5-yard line to the 3, sparking a sharp increase in attempts. (The CFL has already had 33 attempts through eight weeks compared to 23 attempts during the full 20-week season in 2014.) A further consequence has been a small increase in overall red-zone efficiency around the league, which CFL director of officiating Glen Johnson attributes to the additional practice teams have devoted to two-point-conversion plays.
"For us, it's gone really well," Johnson said. "When the success rate goes from 99.6 to 84, it has become a play that really matters. And we've already surpassed the total number of two-point attempts as we had all of last year. It's become a more exciting play for us, no question."
There are some basic differences between the CFL and NFL rule changes, of course. Most importantly, CFL place-kickers weren't nearly as successful from the 32-yard range in recent years as those in the NFL have been. Also, the NFL's decision to leave the two-point play untouched suggests a less liberal reaction from its coaches than in the CFL.
Ultimately, however, there is one big similarity. Everything is relative, so like the CFL, the NFL will have a more competitive and interesting play after touchdowns than it once did. That won't be evident in every instance, or even in most of them, but the potential will exist on each occasion.