To go for two, or not to go for two? A response to Stewart Mandel


Ok, I know this doesn't really have anything to do with Northwestern, but one of my favorite things about football is debating coaches' tactical decisions, and I thought it was interesting enough to warrant discussion, and the character limitations on Twitter (I'm @Loretta8_SoP if you want to follow me) keep me from saying anything insightful there, so you guys get a whole story on it.

In Missouri's upset win over #1 Oklahoma on Saturday, some debate arose over a decision made by Sooner coach Bob Stoops. Down by 15 in the 4th quarter, Oklahoma scored a touchdown with 6 minutes remaining, then went for a 2-point conversion. The conversion failed, and  Stoops was roundly second-guessed, by angry Oklahoma fans and by a much more credible source, the excellent SI writer Stewart Mandel. Mandel's argument was as follows:

Personally, I don't see why you wouldn't want to keep your team within one score for as long as possible. Whether you get the two there or not, you're still going to need another touchdown. But if you miss, as OU did, you now need a touchdown and a field goal, which would seem significantly harder to pull off in the last 6:06 of a game than just a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The contrarian philosophy, however, and the one Stoops apparently subscribes to, is to go ahead and find out sooner than later whether you're going to need one or two more scores so you can plan accordingly.

I agree with Stoops' decision, and after the jump I explain why.

Some people might say "what difference does it make? It doesn't matter whether you score 8 points then 7 or 7 points then 8, either way the game is tied." The difference, as alluded to by Mandel, is that you find out earlier how many more scores you'll need, and that's a big advantage. Let's look a hypothetical example:

Say Oklahoma kicks off after the touchdown, stops Missouri quickly and gets the ball back, but then their offense stalls immediately and faces 4th down and 5 at their own 30 yard line with 3:30 left in the game. Should Stoops go for it, or punt the football? Well that depends on what they did after the touchdown...

Down by 9: Clearly the correct decision is to go for it. There isn't enough time left to punt and then get two scores.

Down by 7: Here, punting is certainly better. There's enough time to stop Missouri, get the ball back, and score a touchdown. Plus, if you don't convert, Missouri is already in field goal range and score points even without getting a first down.

Down by 8: Now things get more difficult. The vast majority of coaches I think would punt here, because they assume their team can still get the ball back, score a touchdown, then get a 2-point conversion to tie.  But the 2-point conversion is a long way from a lock, so you could easily get a touchdown and still fail to tie the game. If you somehow knew that the 2-point conversion would succeed and you could tie in one possession, then punting is correct; conversely if you knew the 2-point conversion would fail, then it's a two possession game, and going for it is correct. But there's already a way to know if the 2-point conversion will succeed: attempt it after the first touchdown. By finding out as soon as possible, you have more information in the future and it's easier to make the correct decision.

There are only two counter-arguments that I've heard:

1. You're more likely to convert the 2 when attempting to tie the game than when attempting to cut the deficit to 7.

I don't see why the odds would change at all in the two scenarios; the starters are going to be out there either way.

2. If you go for two down by 9 and fail, you lose momentum, and it's better to keep the game within reach as long as possible.

Again, I don't find this argument particularly persuasive. Certainly you lose momentum if you don't get the two, but at least you have time to recover. If you kick an extra point after the first TD, then fail to get the two after the second touchdown, you've lost momentum here too, but as said earlier you have more time to recover the earlier you miss the two.

As for the psychological aspect of keeping the game within reach, I don't buy these types of arguments in general. If your team is going to quit down by 9 points with 6 minutes left, then there are much bigger problems than whether or not to go for two. Momentum certainly plays a role in football, but it's impossible to quantify and I think it's better to stick with logic over intangibles.

So that's my opinion on this issue, if you disagree, feel free to let me know. And let's hope NU never finds itself far enough behind this season that we even have to worry about what the right play is.

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