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Longer extra point forcing NFL kickers, coaches to pay attention

Josh Brown has been kicking in the NFL for 12 seasons, and he has missed exactly two of 387 extra-point tries in that time, for a success rate of 99.5 percent. He has not missed one in the last four seasons, the most recent two of which were played in the treacherous wind of New Jersey's MetLife Stadium. And he has something to confess: He wasn't entirely focused when he kicked a lot of them.

"In the past, when it was a 20-yarder, you can have a moment where you fade away," said Brown, who is the New York Giants' kicker. "Anybody who says they haven't is just lying to you. As good as we are, sure, you take it for granted. It's like a layup. You should make it. I don't think you can afford to do that anymore. We did it to ourselves, because we were so accurate."

Indeed, the new 33-yard extra point is a backhanded compliment of sorts from the NFL to its kickers. Kickers had made the old 20-yarder so automatic -- just seven kickers missed an extra-point attempt in 2014, and only one, Green Bay's Mason Crosby, missed two -- that it had become essentially a guaranteed bathroom break for America. To the annoyance of a group so diverse as to include both Commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick -- two men who probably don't see eye-to-eye a great deal -- the extra point was a non-competitive play.

It might not be anymore. Although kickers missed just one 33-yard field-goal attempt last season and just six in the last three seasons combined, they have already missed five extra-point tries through the first two weeks of preseason games. Some of that is undoubtedly because teams are trying out kickers who will not make it to their final rosters. But what to make of someone like San Diego kicker Nick Novak, who had missed one extra-point try in his previous seven seasons? He clanged one off the upright last weekend, and suddenly the Chargers have a full-blown kicking competition. For now, the NFL seems to have accomplished its goal: It has made the extra point just iffy enough that viewers -- and kickers -- will have to pay attention.

This, of course, has created a new source of potential heartburn for those involved in the extra point, particularly those who play in outdoor stadiums that often feature bad weather. Steve Weatherford, the Giants' punter who serves as Brown's holder, said he now has to remember that if there is a bad snap or he bobbles the hold and the play is abandoned, he can't just throw the ball up, because what used to be a dead ball can now be intercepted by the opposing team and returned for two points. And while the move to the 15-yard line as the extra-point-kick line of scrimmage produces mostly shrugs, the possible ramifications are nerve-wracking.

Coaches worry about what penalties will do to the extra point. A personal-foul penalty by the offensive team would make the extra point a 48-yard try -- quite a difference from a 20-yarder or even a 33-yarder. On the other hand, a defensive personal foul would put the ball on the 1-yard line -- at which point, Giants coach Tom Coughlin believes, most teams would try for the two-point conversion instead of kicking for one. Indeed, as much as a 33-yard extra-point attempt still would seem to be well within the realm of automatic for professional kickers, it does open up variables that simply didn't exist when the kick was from just 20 yards.

"The trajectory of the ball is a little lower, so the opportunity for blocks is greater, because the elevation from the 2-yard line, getting the ball up fast and high, made it harder to block," Pittsburgh Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith said. "Is it a difference in percentages at the end of the day? I sure hope not. If a guy is missing a lot of kicks, you've got to get a new kicker."

During training camps, coaches and kickers have pondered how they will approach the new extra point. For kickers, it is little different than practicing field goals. Matt Bryant, the Atlanta Falcons kicker who has missed just four extra-point attempts in his previous 13 seasons, said he had often lined up for the extra-point kick and pretended he was about to kick a 50-yard game-winning field goal, essentially using the extra point as practice. Now, he says, he might be using a field goal as practice for the new extra point. Coaches, though, face a fundamental question that goes to the root of their coaching philosophies: Is the extra point now risky enough that it is better to go for a two-point conversion instead?

Before approving the rule change, the NFL considered whether to also move the two-point-conversion line of scrimmage in from the 2-yard line, an idea advocated by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The idea was rejected, and the two-point conversion will remain the same distance. Tomlin says he and his coaches talk about the options all the time, but have not yet solidified what their strategy will be, because so much will depend on the weather and field conditions, the time left in the game and the score. Tomlin also has a built-in advantage: He has a formidable quarterback and surrounding cast in whose hands he would be comfortable placing the ball for a conversion try.

Dan Quinn has the Falcons practicing the two-point conversion -- from offense and defense -- more because he anticipates more teams trying it, particularly when the weather turns bad late in the season. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he expects there might be some teams -- and Detroit might be one of them, he proffered -- that go for two every time.

That will warm the hearts of statisticians, who have long argued that coaches should have gone for two far more often and much earlier in games than they did, even when the extra-point kick was a virtual gimme. The rules change might finally convince coaches -- who are mostly risk-averse by nature, knowing they will have to explain to irate owners and outraged fans if an outside-the-box decision goes awry -- that the two-point conversion is worth a try.

In the last three seasons, teams were a combined 90 of 186 on two-point tries, for a success rate of 48.4 percent. Kickers made 94 percent of 33-yard field-goal attempts in those same three seasons. If those numbers hold true, coaches should try for two more often.

"From a math point of view, the key thing is whether or not the success rate from kicking is more or less than twice the success rate of going for two," said Harold Sackrowitz, a statistics professor at Rutgers who has examined the extra point vs. two-point conversion debate. "If you could drop success rate for kicks to 92, 93 percent, that would make a big difference in terms of what the optimal strategy would be."

Sackrowitz also hopes that the rules change might alter end-of-game strategy.

"If you take the last few seconds of a game, say your team is behind by seven and scores a touchdown," he said. "Now you're behind by one and time is running out. Do you go for one or two? Typically, teams like to go to overtime. If you only have a 94 percent chance of getting into overtime, where there is only a 50 percent chance of winning -- if you went for two, you might have a higher-percentage chance of winning. I would expect more teams to try to win it in regulation than go to overtime."

Then he reconsidered.

"I guess I don't really expect them to do it. But the odds might favor that."

Only one thing is certain about the change to the extra point. The fear among kickers that a longer extra point producing more two-point tries would be the latest step by a league trying to marginalize its kickers -- a complaint that began when the kickoff line was moved up to reduce returns -- seems to have subsided. Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who is starting his 20th season and has not missed an extra-point try since 2009 (his career rate is 98.6 percent), was no fan of making the extra point longer. But nobody will be running to the bathroom after a touchdown is scored this season. And teams might have to run for their checkbooks when they consider their kicking situation.

"We've always talked about making kicking and punting less important than it is," Vinatieri said. "If anything, this makes us more important."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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