The math is clear. The NFL is introducing its most significant scoring rule change since adding the two-point conversion 21 years ago, and in a league where games are won and careers are made on the tiniest edge, this is something worth obsessing over for coaches.
Especially the Chiefs’ coaches.
The Chiefs beat the Titans 34-10 in their third preseason game Friday night at Arrowhead Stadium. The third practice game is always the most important, which is sort of like saying One Direction’s first album was their best, but still.
They looked good. Especially Alex Smith, and the offense. Seven different receivers caught passes in the first half, Smith’s three possessions with the first-string offense resulted in 17 points, and the defense showed some nasty. Start the season already.
But when we do, Friday’s game is a nice reminder that the games will look a little different. And the Chiefs might have some room here to take advantage.
You know that the NFL, after years of watching automatic 19-yard extra-point kicks serve as boring lead-ins for another round of light beer ads, moved the kicks back to the still-routine-but-not-robotic distance of 33 yards.
Not that Andy Reid is giving even the vaguest of vague indications about whether he’ll operate differently with the new rule.
“That probably could vary from game to game,” he said.
If you watched on Friday, you saw Cairo Santos’ friendly reminder that NFL kickers sometimes miss from that distance. And then, convenient as heck for our purposes here, you saw the Chiefs get the point back with a well-executed draw.
All of which underlines the point that the Chiefs are at the top of the list among teams well-positioned to make some profit on the rule change.
First, some numbers. Over the past two seasons, NFL kickers hit 92.9 percent of their their field goals from 30 to 35 yards. Over the same time, teams converted 61 of 128 (47.7 percent) of their two-point conversions. Relatively simple math shows a slight advantage (2.5 points per 100 attempts) in going for two.
Thinking it through, the Chiefs’ particular math probably tilts further to the side of two-point conversions.
Santos is a fine kicker, if in a relatively small sample. This is not about bashing him. He hit 83.3 percent of his field goals overall and 85.7 (six of seven) from 30 to 39 yards last year. Around the league, kickers hit 83.9 percent of all field goals and 90.1 percent from 30 to 39 yards.
The Chiefs’ advantage is in their offense. Their personnel. Their system. Fans and media spend a lot of time talking about what the Chiefs lack on offense. Mostly, they lack a downfield passing game, and the offensive line is suspect, at least.
But, in two-point conversions, downfield passing is irrelevant and the importance of the line holding up past the initial burst is greatly diminished. What matters is what the Chiefs do best: timing, creativity, and versatility.
Jeremy Maclin, for instance, is getting most of his touches close to the line of scrimmage. His touchdown last week against the Seahawks would make for a great two-point conversion option: lined up in the backfield, running straight at a linebacker, waiting for the defender’s hips to turn on an option route.
Jamaal Charles is a terrific weapon in these situations. Tough enough to run between the tackles, fast enough to get to the edge, skilled enough to help as a runner, receiver or blocker.
Much of the same can be said about Travis Kelce. Putting him in the game doesn’t telegraph run or pass. He’s quick enough to create a window against a linebacker, and physical enough to win a one-on-one battle in tight space.
Also, and this is probably obvious, the distance puts a premium on what Smith does well. He’s typically very accurate on short routes, can move his feet to create new angles, and is excellent at running through the expected and quick reads likely on these types of plays.
“The touchdown I had tonight is a good example of that,” Kelce said. “That was a small window, Alex put it right on the money, and I got my big butt in the end zone. That’s the kind of thing you’re talking about.”
Now, obviously these decisions will be largely dictated by the score and time. Nobody, not even Chip Kelly, is going for two every time. Also, it’s worth noting that Andy Reid did not go for two at all his first year with the Chiefs, and only twice last year. Both attempts — passes to Anthony Fasano and Dwayne Bowe — failed.
The rule change has changed the math. When one point was automatic, the system meant only the desperate should go for two. The system is now tilted the other way, so that teams who convert both opportunities at the league average rate are rewarded for risk over the long haul.
It makes sense, by the way, that both conversion rates will rise a bit. Kickers can pick their hash mark, so their 33-yard extra points should be a slightly more comfortable experience than their 33-yard field goals. And if the rules are favoring more two-point conversion attempts, then teams should be spending more practice time on it, ostensibly improving their success.
Reid is by nature cautious, even by the standards of NFL coaches. So it would be surprising if the Chiefs load up on two-point conversion attempts.
But Reid is also a terrific play caller, and for most of the last two decades as been among the game’s most forward-thinking and creative offensive minds. He and his team both have the skill set to take advantage of the new rule.
He isn’t saying anything at the moment. But he has to know that in a sport that often turns on a razor’s edge, his ability to adjust could end up making an important difference.