Was Pete Carroll crazy going for two with a seven-point lead against the Patriots?

BY Chris Chase • November 15, 2016

At the start of Sunday's late-afternoon game, the Pittsburgh Steelers recovered an early Dallas Cowboys fumble, marched to the end zone and took a 6-0 lead on their visitors. And then, as he's done occasionally since the extra-point rules were changed last year, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went for two.

At the end of Sunday's primetime game, the Seattle Seahawks scored a touchdown on the New England Patriots to go up seven points, with the extra-point pending. And then, despite a whole slew of arguments to the contrary, Pete Carroll went for two, hoping that going up nine points would be the knockout punch to the Pats that kicking the extra point for an eight-point lead would not.

Both failed. But the Seahawks ended up winning the battle, defending the end zone from a sticky Pats' first-and-goal situation with 30 seconds left in the game. The Steelers lost in the long term, falling to Dallas in a crazy battle with three lead changes in the final two minutes. All of this has made two-point talk the topic of the day and leads to a number of questions.

1. Had Pete Carroll gone temporarily crazy when he went for two up seven points with 4:24 left?

Absolutely not. There are so many variables at play that it's impossible to play the "what if" game (although the Seahawks have nothing on the Steelers in terms of future variables, as we'll discuss). Carroll would have been roasted in the press if New England had scored on that last drive and went on to win in overtime. Get the biggest lead you can and force the Pats to successfully convert two different plays: a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Two is harder than one, right?

Carroll had a different idea. He was playing the Pats, a team for whom an eight-point deficit with more than four minutes remaining barely gets the pulse raised on Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Why keep them on life support when you can effectively pull the plug on their hopes by making the conversion and going up two scores? The numbers don't lie.

2. What are the numbers?

Last year (and historically), teams have converted their two-point conversions a little less than half the time (about 48 percent). Extra points were good 94 percent of the time. Thus, teams kicking the extra point should expect 0.94 points per kick. Teams going for two in 2015 would have expected 0.96 points per conversion, making the conversion a better play in the long term. (Numbers via Pro Football Talk.)

This isn't the long run, though. This is not the house always winning because when you play long enough, the blackjack odds always tilt in a casino's favor. This was a hyper-specific situation. The odds are thrown out the window.

3. So, good move or bad move for the Seahawks?

Regardless of all that, I love the move. It shows confidence in your offense and in your defense and accepts the fate that if one unit can't convert a play from the 2-yard line and the other can't keep another team from driving to the end zone, then overtime is a fair fate for the two failures. The reward -- winning -- is worth its weight in hypotheticals.

But that's just an opinion. Respected NFL Twitter (that's literally what I labeled a column in TweetDeck) was as divided on Carroll's call as any play I've seen this season. There were good points to be made for both cases, many of which I've illustrated above. This, for me, is the clincher, though: Going for two makes even more sense because Carroll's kicker, Steven Hauschka, is a pedestrian 16-of-19 (84 percent) on extra points this year and had an infamous shank in that 6-6 tie game against the Cardinals. He can be depended upon, but when there's another option, Hauschka has given Carroll a reason to go the other way.

Go back to those numbers from above and replace them with Hauschka's kick percentage from 2016. Carroll could expect to score an average of 0.85 points by kicking the extra point and close to one point for going for two. No brainer.

4. Does going for two early in a game (a la Mike Tomlin) make sense?

As for the aforementioned Mr. Tomlin, his case is a bit different. Going for two after your first drive of the game is brash and bold and exactly what football fans have wanted for years. Don't punt on fourth-and-two from the opponent's territory. Go for two occasionally. Don't be bound to decades of safe NFL coaching. It makes all the more sense when your team is 14-of-17 on two-point conversions over the past three seasons.

The problems are obvious, however. Pittsburgh missed that first one and then, after scoring another touchdown that made it 12-3, tried to get the points back by going for two again. That also failed. Instead of 14-3 it was 12-3. At worst, it should have been 13-3 if you believe in cutting your losses. But like a gambler who keeps losing then doubles his bet the next time thinking this has to be the one, teams that miss early have the tendency to chase to get those points back. (I search in vain for stats on this so will have to make my own.)

It's easy to be against Tomlin and guys like Jack Del Rio because the instant their team fails a conversion, you start adding imaginary points to their total and coming up different scenarios of how the good could have turned out if they'd merely kicked extra points every time. "If they'd kicked two extra points, they'd be up a field goal instead of by one point." "They kept it a one-possession game by failing on the conversion." "Now you're down four points instead of three because you went for it." That's all legit, but so it going up eight points, converting it and then doing those same scenarios that consider the advantage of being up by one more point than usual.

"We want to be aggressive," Tomlin told reporters. "That's not out of line with our personality. Not only recently, but in recent years."

That's fine, but one gets the feeling Pittsburgh doesn't have as much a strategy about two-point conversion usage than that attitude toward them ("be aggressive"). In the end, the Steelers went for two a total of four times Sunday, with the last two coming in obvious late-game situations. They failed every time, reverting back to the mean a little (they're 14-of-21 now in the last three years) and becoming the first team in NFL history to go 0-for-4 on conversions in one game.

Hey, there'll be days like this.

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