In the fourth quarter of yesterday’s Carolina Panthers game against the Green Bay Packers, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had a decision to make. The Panthers had just scored a touchdown to pull within eight points of the Packers with just under 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter on the road in a snow storm at Lambeau Field.
The Packers were running the ball at will against the Panthers defense and had already scored three times on the ground up to that point. With the score sitting at 24-16 and no guarantee that Carolina would be able to stop the Packers from scoring again, what should Rivera do? Should he go with the status quo and take the near-guaranteed extra point to pull the Panthers to within seven, or should he trust analytics, take a bigger risk (but with a bigger reward) and go for two to pull the Panthers to within six?
Instead of trusting his gut, Rivera opted for what the analytics suggest and went for the 2-point conversion. A lot of fans were mad about the 2-point attempt (especially after it failed), but despite the fact that it didn’t work it was the right decision. I have been critical of Rivera in the past for failing to trust something other than his gut feeling, so I have to give him the credit he deserves here: regardless of the end result, he made the right call.
Yes, even though the 2-point conversion failed, Rivera made the correct decision to go for it. Why? Because you should always go for two when you’re losing by 14, 11 or four points with 10 minutes or less remaining in a game. (Note: Rivera went for it with 11:58 remaining, but that extra 1:58 doesn’t really change whether or not he should have done it.)
You’re probably thinking that it’s dumb to go for two points when kicking the extra point will put you down by seven, because then you can just score another touchdown and kick the extra point to tie the game. Well, the math checks out on that, but analytics show that you increase your chances of winning if you go for the 2-point conversion to cut the deficit to six instead of settling for a deficit of seven.
The reason you should go for two every time when you’re losing by either eight or four points late in the game is explained below, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight:
If you’re down 8 points after scoring a touchdown (with 10 minutes left), you should go for 2, because the difference between being down 7 points (if you make the extra point) and being down 6 points (if you convert the 2) is greater than the difference between being down 7 points and being down 8 points (if you miss the 2-point conversion). Note that this is backed up by the numbers but should also be apparent intuitively.
If you’re down 4 points after scoring a touchdown (with 10 minutes left), you should go for 2, because being down 2 points instead of 3 helps you more than being down 4 points instead of 3 hurts you. This one is a bit more counterintuitive, but if you think ahead, the second point means a future field goal could win the game (and if you don’t convert, you just have to adjust to go for winning touchdowns instead of tying field goals).
Here’s a little more analytics for you: Going for two has a similar success rate as kicking the extra point. Here’s a little more clarification from FiveThirtyEight:
According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, there have been 1,045 two-point conversion attempts since 2001, with teams converting 501 of those tries. That’s a 47.9 percent conversion rate; given that a successful attempt yields 2 points, that means the expected value from an average 2-point try is 0.96 points.
Interestingly, that’s almost exactly what the expected value is from an extra point these days. Since the NFL moved extra-point kicks back to the 15-yard line last season, teams have a 94.4 percent success rate, which means that an extra point has an expected value of between 0.94 and 0.95 points.
(Note: This article from FiveThirtyEight was written in 2016, but the math checks out today.)
To put this in layman’s terms: If you’re down by 14 points in the fourth quarter and you score a touchdown, that means you’re currently down by eight. If you go for two and make it, you’re now down by six and can take the lead with a touchdown and extra point. If you miss, you’re still only down eight and can tie the game later with a successful touchdown and 2-point conversion. In other words, you’re just as likely to go one-for-two on 2-point conversions as you are to go two-for-two on extra points. The 2-point conversion comes with the bonus of giving you a chance to win with an easy kick if the successful 2-point try comes first.
I know you’re probably asking yourself “So why not just go for two on the second touchdown?” and the answer to that is because if you fail on the 2-point conversion on the first try, you have time to make up the points later. If you go for two on your second touchdown and fail, you likely don’t have time to score again.
Let’s take yesterday as an example. Let’s pretend that Ron didn’t go for two and the score was 24-17. Let’s also pretend the Packers didn’t stuff McCaffrey at the goal line and he scored a touchdown to make the score 24-23 with no time left on the clock. The general rule of thumb is ‘play for overtime at home, play to win on the road’. If Rivera wanted to go for two but failed, the game is over and the Panthers lose 24-23. They wouldn’t have had time to make up for the missed 2-point conversion.
Now, let’s go back to what the situation actually was: the Panthers were down 24-16 due to the failed 2-point conversion on the first touchdown. That throws a wrench into the plan and forces the Panthers to go for two at the end of the game if McCaffrey scores to make it 24-22, but that doesn’t mean the initial idea was wrong. The results do not mean the process was bad. It just means that sometimes it doesn’t work out like it should.
Going for two when down by 14 points gives you a better chance to win the game than tying the game and trying to win in overtime, especially on the road. (And especially in Green Bay, Wis. during a snow storm when you can’t stop Aaron Jones or Jamaal Williams from carving your defense like a Thanksgiving turkey.) While it didn’t work out the way Rivera wanted it to, I applaud him for going against his gut and doing something that most coaches won’t do — try to win the game on the road by being aggressive, and trying to maximize the team’s chances of success instead of just accepting the status quo and settling for a potential overtime loss.