by Greg Davis - 10/03/2005
The 1984 Orange Bowl still sticks out in my memory as one of the greatest games I've ever seen. As a 13 year-old kid I watched intently as No. 4 Miami, an overwhelming underdog, stormed out to a big lead over the juggernaut Nebraska Cornhuskers. After trailing 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers rallied with two touchdowns to pull within one, 31-30.
Coach Tom Osbourne was faced with a difficult decision. If he played for the tie and kicked the extra point, in all likelihood, the Huskers win the National Championship-- despite the criticism he would have surely faced. Instead, Osbourne made an incredibly gutsy call and elected to go for two and the win. Of course the attempt failed and Miami went on to claim the title. Osbourne's decision, however admirable it was, likely cost his team the National Championship.
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Much more recently, it can be argued that Carolina Panthers Coach John Fox may have cost his team a chance to win Super Bowl XXXVIII for his decision to go for two with more than 12 minutes left facing a five-point deficit. In this case, the Panthers missed the try for two but then scored six minutes later to take a one-point lead. At this point they pretty much had to go for two, which failed again, to try to make it a field goal game as the fourth quarter began to wind down.
In what would turn out to be one of the most entertaining fourth quarters in Super Bowl history, the Patriots marched right back down the field scoring a touchdown of their own to reclaim a five-point lead. With less than three minutes to play Patriots Coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for two, which succeeded, required very little thought. Down by seven, Carolina went on to tie the game before losing on a last second field goal.
The point is if they had not gone for the first two, they wouldn't have been compelled to go for the second try. Furthermore, New England would have also not had any reason to attempt their two-pointer. The likely score after the last New England touchdown would have been 28-24, instead of 29-22. Maybe New England still wins the game but you never know.
Despite the fact that most observers would fault Fox for his decision, there are many who agree with the strategy and even back up their position with complex mathematical probabilities and charts that would show that Fox actually gave his team a slightly better chance to win by going for two when he did.
Harold Sackrowitz, a professor of statistics at Rutgers University, is one who would favor a lot more attempts. In fact, if Sackrowitz had been calling the shots in the '84 Orange Bowl, he would have favored going for two after Nebraska scored to pull within 31-23. With the conversion rate of success being approximately 40 percent or more, the thinking is that, assuming you score the two touchdowns needed, you are likely to convert on at least one of the two point tries. If it happens to be the first attempt, then you are in position to kick the extra point for the win after the second score. If you convert only the second try then you end up tied, and in this case Nebraska wins the National Championship (in the days before college overtimes existed).
Of course if a coach actually employed this strategy and lost because of it he would likely be run out of town. Given the intense scrutiny coaches are under these days they almost have to take a more conservative approach.
NFL analyst Phil Simms is one who would like to see much fewer attempts saying that the two-point conversion is "ridiculously overused." Maybe coaches are starting to listen to Simms as two point attempts in the NFL have been on the decline in recent years. In the first few years of its inception since 1994 there were roughly 100 attempts per year. In 2003 there were only 68 attempts while last year saw a slight increase back to 74 attempts. Oddly enough, the success rate continues to improve. Last year NFL teams converted 50 percent of their two point tries. This year so far in college percentages are up to 50 percent as well with 24 of 48 successful attempts.
On rare occasions the two point conversion, or at least the decision to try or not, can directly affect the outcome of the spread. In last weekend's Big Ten showdown Minnesota, down eight vs. Purdue, scored a touchdown in the closing seconds and converted the two try to send the game into overtime. Not only was Minnesota able to win in overtime by seven to cover the three point spread, the total for the game also went over as a result. Obviously, in this case the decision was not a questionable one. A rather peculiar decision, however, was made in the Sept. 17 game where Texas pounded Rice 51-10. Texas, a 41-point favorite, elected to go for two after scoring their final touchdown in the closing minutes of the game. Maybe it's just me but it's hard to imagine any scenario where you would go for two with a 41-point lead.
Overall the decisions on whether or not to go for two are often mishandled-- with devastating results at times. Although extremely uncommon, the outcome of your wager can be affected as well-especially if you play money lines. But the easiest way to be victimized or to be the recipient of good fortune would be in a square pool. In other words, if you had the 2-9 square in Super Bowl XXXVIII you should consider sending John Fox a Christmas card.