While NFL fans continue one of their favorite pastimes – the second-guessing of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick – a broader question needs to be considered following the injury to star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Instead of debating whether star players should play on special teams, the deeper issue: At a time when the NFL is so concerned about player safety, why does the league continue to have conversion kicks?
Gronkowski is expected to miss is 4-6 weeks after breaking his forearm while blocking on an extra point attempt with 3:55 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday's blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Since the start of the 2009 season, all but 22 of 3,186 extra points have been converted, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That's 99.3 percent. Furthermore, of the 22 conversion kicks that have been missed, only three (all of them in the 2010 season) had any impact on the final outcome of the game. That's three out of 672 games. Of those three games, none of the outcomes had any impact on the playoff race. And before you start to mention the impact on draft positioning, let's get serious: The last thing the NFL should be concerned with is the impact of PAT kicks on draft positioning.
To put this in another perspective, the NFL is continuing to use a play that puts players (stars or otherwise) at risk for the incredibly narrow chance that its failure might impact a game. The chance of it having an impact on the playoffs is even less (or, in this case, zero so far since the start of 2010).
Remember, this is the same league that changed the kickoff rules to restrict contact even though kickoff returns are potentially one of the most exciting plays in a game. There's a far greater chance of a kickoff return TD than there is of a missed PAT kicks (nine return TDs vs. only four missed PATs this season).
Now, this is not a call to completely eliminate the PAT kick at all levels of football. At the high school and college levels, the PAT kick is far less likely to be made and has a much bigger impact on the game. At the NFL level, it's as automatic as a politician twisting facts during a campaign.
The elimination of the conversion kick can come with stipulations at the NFL level. For instance, if a kicker gets hurt before or during a game, a team could be forced to kick the PAT. When the Detroit Lions lost kicker Jason Hanson temporarily to an injury two years ago (he was hit during a field goal attempt), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had to kick in his place on one conversion. Suh missed, leading to one of the three aforementioned games that was impacted by a missed PAT.
This doesn't get in the way of the two-point conversion rule. The rule can simply be amended to say that a team can opt for one point automatically or choose to go for two, getting only six points for a touchdown if a two-point attempt fails.
Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, also chairman of the NFL Competition Committee, said Tuesday that the committee has considered the elimination of the PAT in the past. However, members of five teams that were surveyed Tuesday said they would prefer to keep the play. As one PR man, who was relaying the response of his team, said in an email: "They still putt 1-footers in professional golf."
True, but there isn't a 300-pound man trying to hit the golfer as he putts.
Instead, the NFL puts 22 players on the field for a superfluous play and puts coaches in a no-win situation. Belichick (he just happens to be the unlucky one right now, but every coach in the league should be concerned) are being told that they should come up with a class system for certain plays. In other words, if you're up by 20 points or more with 10 minutes left in the game, certain guys should play on point-after attempts rather than others.
Yeah, that's going to play well in the locker room.
While it's fair to say that Belichick brings some of this upon himself by running up 59 points in a game, that's missing the point, no pun intended. Would the clamor of criticism against Belichick be all that much less if Gronkowski had gotten hurt on the second PAT kick of the game?
[NFL power rankings: Do Texans hold on to top spot after narrowly getting by Jags?]
Of course not. Belichick is a skeet target for many members of the national media. But all coaches get second-guessed when an important player gets hurt on certain plays that the public deems to be useless. In Miami, Jimmy Johnson got criticized for using linebacker Zach Thomas on special teams early in Thomas' career. Never mind that Johnson was trying to reinforce the idea to his entire team that every single play was important.
That mindset was critical in the 1990s when coach Marv Levy led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Star defensive end Bruce Smith, Fred Smerlas and Darryl Talley all played on special teams. It was a point of pride. In New England, guys like Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel played on special teams as the Patriots won three titles and nearly went undefeated in 2007.
So really, the question is not whether a starter or great player should be in the game. The question is really about whether the play itself should be part of the game.
1. Houston Texans (9-1): Overtime desperation win over Jacksonville? Thirty-seven points allowed to the Jags? Yuck.
2. Atlanta Falcons (9-1): Six turnovers by onetime MVP hopeful Matt Ryan in home win over Arizona? Double yuck.
3. San Francisco 49ers (7-2-1): Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick? As Harry once asked by the Bay, do I feel lucky? Well do ya, Jim?
4. Baltimore Ravens (8-2): They do whatever it takes to get by in some games. But is that really good enough?
5. Green Bay Packers (7-3): Five straight wins despite all those injuries is pretty impressive. But they better block.
28. Arizona Cardinals (4-6): Coach Whiz, um, about that quarterback change. … What the heck we're you thinking?
29. Cleveland Browns (3-7): Was that a valiant effort in Big D or typical Cowboys malaise? Matchup with Steelers will show.
30. Oakland Raiders (3-7): Could Dennis Allen be a one-and-done at coach? Don't be surprised if that happens.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9): Chad Henne, this is the best shot you will ever have to prove that Miami was a mistake.
32. Kansas City Chiefs (1-9): Players performing as if they want general manager Scott Pioli to be fired. What a goal.
THIS AND THAT
• I know I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but it bears repeating in the aftermath of further news that Browns vice president Bryan Wiedmeier has a Grade 4 brain tumor. If you are a fan of the NFL, please pray for Wiedmeier. At a time when NFL executives get criticized for putting profit ahead of the quality of the team, Wiedmeier is a man who has always understood the importance of the game. Beyond that, there are few men who have conducted themselves with his level of integrity and devotion to fairness. Our country would be far better off if our business leaders were all like Wiedmeier.
• Along the lines of classy people, Steelers owner Dan Rooney never ceases to impress. Roughly 30 minutes after his team suffered a narrow loss to Baltimore on Sunday night, Rooney stepped into the Ravens' locker room to congratulate and shake hands with Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "He has done that every single time we have played, win or lose," Harbaugh said. "That's classy. That's what you should write about."
• On the subject of the Steelers, give the team credit for maintaining a very positive attitude toward wide receiver Plaxico Burress, which helped lead to his return this week. Although some Pittsburgh fans thought Burress had been a troublemaker while there, the team didn't share that view. In fact, as far back as 2008, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert openly talked about how much he liked Burress and wished him well. "The reason we didn't re-sign him when he was a free agent [in 2005] was purely a football decision," Colbert said back then. "He wanted to be a No. 1 guy somewhere. We had Hines [Ward] and we weren't going to become a big throwing team. No hard feelings, we understood and he understood, even if he didn't really like it at the time."
• The AFC playoff picture could feature an interesting debate over the integrity of season finales. In the final game, Cincinnati (5-5) will play Baltimore and Indianapolis (6-4) will play Houston. Depending upon a number of factors – not the least of which is a Dec. 16 matchup between the Ravens and Denver – there is a chance that both Baltimore and Houston will have nothing to play for in terms of playoff seeding. That means that both the Bengals and Colts better be focused on the next five games if, as expected, they are battling for the final playoff spot.
• Kudos to ESPN's Adam Schefter for his story on how Los Angeles politicians have tried to talk Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson into moving to Los Angeles. But the real story behind that is that L.A. isn't getting the kind of interest it expected from NFL teams over the downtown stadium project. In fact, at the October owners meeting in Chicago, the league continued to talk about other sites besides downtown and the City of Industry. While that is gamesmanship on the league's part, the reality is that the city's hope of getting a team by March is still considered a long shot, at best. That fact has outgoing mayor Antonio Villaraigosa getting more desperate by the day. Villaraigosa badly wants to be the man who helped bring the NFL back to Los Angeles so that he can use that in pursuit of higher office.
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