Everyone, including the three broadcasters on ESPN, were flummoxed by New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur in the fourth quarter.
Giants running back Saquon Barkley scored a touchdown to cut the Atlanta Falcons’ lead to 20-12. Conventional wisdom in the NFL is to kick the extra point and (probably) make the score 20-13. That way a touchdown and extra point ties the game, or the Giants could have gotten their Mike Vrabel on and gone for two-point conversion and the win after the next touchdown.
The Giants weren’t conventional, however, and analytics analysts smiled and nodded.
The Giants went for the two-point conversion after Saquon Barkley’s touchdown. They failed when Odell Beckham couldn’t haul in a pass and the score remained 20-12, but the logic behind the decision was sound, even as ESPN’s announcers were beside themselves.
“You increase your chances by 50 percent if you go for it and make it there,” Shurmur said after the game. “Then if we score a touchdown we just kick the extra point and win.”
Doug Pederson employed the same strategy
Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson made the same decision earlier this season against the Vikings. The Eagles trailed by 14, scored and then went for two.
The concept is aggressive, but it’s practically going for the win and not the tie and overtime, just as Vrabel did at the end of the Titans-Chargers game Sunday. If a team goes for two and gets it, they’re down by six points. Then a touchdown and high-percentage extra point wins, as Shurmur pointed out. Needless to say, a win in regulation is better than going to overtime. While most teams will play for overtime in that spot, winning in overtime is only about a 50-50 proposition, and probably worse for a team like the Giants that was on the road and not expected to win.
The worst-case scenario when you go for the two-point conversion, as Shurmur did, is if you don’t get it you’ll still have a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion after the next touchdown. Considering two-point conversions are successful roughly 50 percent of the time, odds are you’ll end up hitting one of two attempts.
Going for extra points when you’re down 14 allows you no chance to win in regulation, if there are only two more scores. Going for two gives you a chance to win and avoid a 50-50 shot in overtime. It’s as simple as that.
Shurmur’s two-point conversion decision didn’t end up affecting the outcome. The Falcons hit a field goal to push their lead to 11 points, then in the final seconds the Giants scored a touchdown. Barkley scored the two-point conversion, though the Falcons recovered the onside kick that followed.
Pat Shurmur explains his decision
Shurmur knew, even though the final outcome wasn’t affected, his decision would be dissected. In his postgame press conference, he said he knew the media wanted to know about the two-point conversion so he explained it before being asked.
“I just felt like, we discussed internally the math on that,” Shurmur said. “I thought we had a good play.
“We just didn’t quite get it done. But at the end you saw there, had they not kicked the field goal, I felt good about our second two-point play, which we scored on. I wanted to be aggressive for our guys.”
ESPN’s Seth Walder did a good job after Pederson’s two-point decision earlier this month of breaking down the math. According to ESPN’s numbers given the possibilities of converting the two-point conversions and making extra points, if the team down 14 scores twice (and only twice) but goes for two after the first touchdown, they have roughly a 60 percent chance to win and a 40 percent chance to lose. Kicking two extra points gives the team a zero percent chance to win in regulation, and factoring in missed extra points — they’re no longer automatic, as Baltimore’s Justin Tucker can tell you — it gives that team a 45.5 percent chance to win in overtime and 55.5 percent to lose.
Going from a 45.5 percent chance to win to 60 percent is obviously a massive difference. What Shurmur did made perfect sense, though that won’t keep many from ripping his decision anyway.
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