Go for two? Bucs have been among NFL's busiest at it
For most NFL teams, going for a two-point conversion is an odd quirk, mandated by the scoreboard late in a game and causing stress even for coaches who have had success with the occasional attempt, like the Bucs' Dirk Koetter.
"The two-point thing, it's an interesting little strategy side-light of the whole NFL," Koetter said Wednesday. "It doesn't come up in every game, and when it does, it can definitely throw the game into disarray."
The Bucs, by just the happenstance of late-game situations, have been among the NFL's most active and most successful with two-point conversions -- they're 4-for-7, with only the Steelers (an outlier here) having more attempts in the entire NFL, and only the Raiders (5-for-6) with more successful conversions. The Bucs had totaled one successful two-point conversion in the previous three seasons combined from 2013-15.
Bucs also benefited from another team's two-point attempt Sunday, as Atlanta, ahead by one point, 28-27, with 4:32 left after a touchdown against the Chiefs, did what most teams would do: go for two, so a field goal only ties the game. There's little functional advantage to being ahead by two as opposed to one point that late in a game. Kansas City, however, intercepted the pass attempt and Eric Berry went all the way for a score and a 29-28 lead -- that win is why the Bucs are tied for first in their division.
Saints coach Sean Payton, speaking to Tampa reporters on a conference call Wednesday, was still haunted by a finish much like that, when he was at Indiana State and was close to a wild upset at Kansas -- here's the game story from 25 years ago.
"We scored late in the game to go up by one and that's going to be a huge upset," Payton said. "Much like the Atlanta game, we went for two with a pass play that was intercepted in the end zone and went back 108 yards the other direction, and it was the first year that rule had changed. I remember everyone, by the time that cornerback hit the 40-yard line or 50, realized what it was going to do to the score. So jumping forward, obviously, I haven't forgotten that."
The Saints lost a game similarly against the Broncos -- they scored a touchdown with 1:22 left to tie the game, but what would be the go-ahead extra point was blocked and returned by Denver for a two-point conversion. In Week 1, the Saints lost 35-34 when the Raiders, instead of tying the game after a touchdown with 0:47 left, went for two and converted. Oakland's Derek Carr has thrown for five conversions, the only NFL player with more than the Bucs' Jameis Winston.
The Bucs' seven attempts this year have been scoreboard-driven, rather than any knock on kicker Roberto Aguayo -- against the Chargers on Sunday and against the Raiders, they scored to go up five points late, and converted in both cases to go up by seven rather than risk losing on a opponent's late touchdown.
In the loss to the Rams, they twice scored touchdowns to get within five points late, where a two-point conversion would put them within a field goal, missing both times in that game. Perhaps their best two-point conversion came in the third quarter at Carolina, where a touchdown put them down two and the Bucs converted to tie the game, eventually winning on a kick in overtime. And twice in the loss to the Falcons, the Bucs went for two down a significant number of points, going 1-for-2 there.
Of the 82 two-point attempts in the NFL this year, about two-thirds have come in the fourth quarter, and only 10 have come in the first half of games. The Steelers are out on an island there -- they've gone for two six times in the first half this season, while the other 31 teams have combined to do so just four times. Pittsburgh went for two four times in a 35-30 loss to the Cowboys and missed all four, bringing much scrutiny to their outside-the-box strategy. Across the league, NFL teams are within a single conversion of hitting 50 percent -- and in terms of the risk of a defensive score, of 64 pass attempts on two-point conversions, Berry's is only interception all season.
Winston's throw to Mike Evans on Sunday put the Bucs up seven points, letting the defense know that a touchdown and extra point wouldn't beat them late in the game. Evans is one of just three players in the entire league to catch two two-point conversions, along with Oakland's Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts. And teams are 3-for-5 on two-point conversions against the Saints this season -- only the Panthers (four) and Falcons (six) have given up more conversions this year.
The Bucs are converting 57 percent on two-point attempts and Aguayo is 24-for-26 (92 percent) on extra points, but Koetter guarded against putting too much weight in success rates that are built over an entire season, rather than specific percentages against certain defenses in certain situations.
"Man, that whole two-point chart, the percentages, if you did over the course of a year, you'd be ahead," Koetter said of the temptation to go for two more often. "But just ask those teams that get in that thing in a game where they have to do it four or five times and you make one or two, nobody's going to do it over the course of a year. So you're not going to have a chance to get in that 50 percent range. It matters how you do that week and then different teams have different defensive philosophies. Some teams are going to come all out and blitz you, some times are going to play zone, sometimes you don't know what a team is because there's not many to go on, on tape."