Going for 2 down 8 points: Explaining NFL analytics strategy – ESPN

  • Seth Walder, ESPN AnalyticsSep 24, 2024, 05:23 PM ET

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 11, 2019. We’re bringing it back after the Green Bay Packers successfully pulled it off as part of a comeback victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The move raised eyebrows, but for others it was a high-stakes embodiment of a long-standing strategy in analytics circles: Going for two down eight late in the game is generally the correct move. And more and more, it’s a move head coaches are willing to make.

An NFL team is down by 14 points in the fourth quarter, and it scores a touchdown to pull within eight. The consensus says the team should kick the extra point, right? Not so fast.

In analytics circles, attempting a 2-point conversion when down eight points late in the game has long been discussed as a slam dunk decision that NFL coaches should make. Recently, it has become a choice that some coaches actually do make.

Between 2000 and 2017, there were only two instances in which a team was down 14 points, scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to eight and went for two on purpose (excluding aborted PAT attempts). And one was in a snowstorm, when kicking can be adventurous. Since the start of 2018, it has happened 24 times (including playoffs), the most recent being the Packers’ attempt on Sunday.

So what is going on, and why do advanced statistics favor this strategy? Here is your guide to a trend that is gaining steam in the NFL:

Start with the basics: Why should teams attempt a 2-point conversion down 8 points?

Because the odds of converting a 2-point conversion once in one try are higher than failing twice in two tries.

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Assuming the team is going to score another touchdown — none of this matters if it doesn’t — and prevents the opponent from scoring again, going for two now gives it an informational advantage that indicates what to do after its next touchdown.

  • If the team converts on the first 2-point try, it knows it only needs a PAT on the second touchdown to win.

  • If it fails, the team knows that it has to go for two again the second time to have a chance to tie.

Kicking two extra points maximizes the chance to reach overtime. Attempting a 2-point conversion when down eight points late maximizes the chance to win the game, which is the ultimate goal.

Has this ever worked in the NFL?

Only three teams ever had gone for two when down eight and come back to win the game prior to the Packers in Week 3, according to Elias Sports Bureau data. One of them was the 1998 San Francisco 49ers, but that 2-point attempt was unintentional. According to the play-by-play, a bad snap on a PAT resulted in a failed rush attempt. Another was a snowstorm game in 2013, when the Philadelphia Eagles attempted a 2-point try on every touchdown they scored.

The third was the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021 against the Cleveland Browns when the Chargers succeeded on a two-point conversion mid-way through the third quarter. The Chargers eventually won the game, but it wasn’t as clean as Green Bay’s win, as there were six scores after the 2-point play.

The reasons it hasn’t worked very often:

  • By definition, the team that attempts the 2-pointer is losing by eight points late in the game, which is already a long shot.

  • Most importantly, there just aren’t that many teams that have tried it.

That doesn’t mean the numbers behind the strategy are wrong, though, and the strategy could continue to pay off.

Matt LaFleur had the Packers go for two down 8 in the fourth quarter, and the successful try paved the way for their comeback win. Morry Gash)/AP

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation …

OK, let’s pretend it’s Doug Pederson’s Jacksonville Jaguars who are down by 14 points at the start of the fourth quarter. They score a touchdown to cut the deficit to eight and have two options: kick the extra point to make it a 7-point game, or try for a 2-point conversion to cut it to 6. Considering league averages, let’s make a few assumptions about what happens next:

  • The Jaguars are going to score another touchdown before the end of the game, and that touchdown will be the only remaining score in regulation.

  • The Jaguars expect to successfully kick PATs 94% of the time and convert 2-point conversions 48% of the time — which are the league average rates since 2015.

  • The Jaguars expect to win half of the time in overtime.

So let’s say the Jaguars follow our advice and attempt a 2-point conversion on the first touchdown. Here are the four ways the game can go, along with the percentage chance of each occurring:

  • Convert on the 2-point attempt, successfully kick an extra point after the second touchdown and win: 45%

  • Convert on the 2-point attempt but miss the extra point and tie in regulation: 3%

  • Fail on the first 2-point attempt but succeed on the second and tie in regulation: 25%

  • Fail on both 2-point attempts and lose: 27%

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That leaves Jacksonville with a 45% chance to win, a 28% chance to tie in regulation and a 27% chance to lose the game. Since teams win half their overtime games, we’ll add 14% to both the winning and losing sides. The result? The Jaguars have a 59% chance to win and a 41% chance to lose, assuming they score again and stop their opponent from scoring.

So … is that better than the alternative — kicking both extra points and going to overtime?

Yes, if the Jaguars actually make it to overtime at all, where they’d win half the time. Let’s play out what happens if they ignore our advice.

  • Successfully make both extra points and tie in regulation: 88%

  • Miss the first extra point, convert the 2-point conversion on the second TD and tie in regulation: 3%

  • Miss the first extra point, fail on the 2-point conversion for the second TD and lose: 3%

  • Make the first extra point but miss the second and lose: 6%

That’s a 91% chance to tie in regulation and a 9% chance to lose. Or, after accounting for overtime, 45.5% to win, 54.5% chance to lose. What if they want to kick the extra point on the first touchdown but try a 2-point conversion on the second?

Doug Pederson is one of the NFL’s most analytically inclined coaches. Melina Myers/USA TODAY Sports

This is also not a good idea. Here are the numbers:

  • Successfully make the extra point, convert the 2-point conversion on the second TD and win: 45%

  • Successfully make the extra point, fail the 2-point conversion on the second TD and lose: 49%

  • Miss the extra point, convert the 2-point conversion on the second TD and tie in regulation: 3%

  • Miss the extra point, then fail on the 2-point conversion on the second TD and lose: 3%

That’s 45% to win, 52% to lose and 3% to tie in regulation — or 46.5% to win and 53.5% to lose after overtime.

Shouldn’t we consider teams’ strengths, weaknesses and relation to league averages?

That’s usually a good practice when making decisions, but, in this instance, it will not swing the result.

Let’s say the team expects it can convert 2-point conversions at an astonishingly low 40% — well below league average and, perhaps, only what a team might expect in the worst of circumstances …

  • Convert on the 2-point attempt, successfully kick the extra point after the second TD and win: 38%

  • Convert on the 2-point attempt but miss the extra point on the second TD and tie: 2%

  • Fail on the first 2-point attempt but succeed on the second and tie: 24%

  • Fail on both 2-point attempts and lose: 36%

Even in this scenario, going for two leads to a higher win rate than kicking the PAT. That’s not even considering that, if the team is this bad at 2-point conversions, it probably doesn’t have a full 50% shot at winning in overtime, either.

How soon is too soon for this strategy?

FiveThirtyEight has a 2-point chart (the section titled “When you should go for two”) which indicates the viability of going for two at every score, at every stage of the game and depending on the expected conversion rate.

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The chart indicates that going for two when down eight is actually the better decision for the league-average team for most of the game. In fact, starting around midway through the third quarter, it’s indefensible to kick the extra point. The chart also indicates the strategy is backed by ESPN’s win probability model.

These two conclusions are important because so far we have been working under the assumption that the only other score in the game will be another touchdown by the losing team. The win probability model verifies that this is the correct decision despite the fact that it is working under no such guarantee.

Which teams have tried this recently?

From 2018 through Week 2 of the 2024 season, the down eight/go for two gambit had been attempted 24 times. The play was converted on 14 of those tries, but only the 2021 Chargers ultimately won the game … until Sunday, when the Packers pulled off the cleanest example of the strategy to date. No team has attempted the strategy more in that span than the Eagles (five times), who are widely viewed as one of the most analytically-inclined teams in the NFL.

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