In 2015, when the Steelers were eight for 11 when going for two in the wake of the NFL’s new rule that pushed back the extra-point and made it a 33-yard attempt, that seemed damn sexy, didn’t it?
Head coach Mike Tomlin was known as a bit of a riverboat gambler already, someone who trusted his players enough to take chances, and this new rule, well, it certainly highlighted that personality.
Back in the summer, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, months removed and months away from any ramifications, boldly exclaimed that he wanted to go for two after every touchdown in 2016, damn, that seemed even sexier, right?
And, after Pittsburgh converted on its only two two-point conversions of the year prior to Sunday’s affair with the Cowboys at Heinz Field, you probably felt as emboldened as anyone else that your team, with its high-powered offense, would always convert them.
I know that’s how I felt.
Here’s the thing about percentages: sooner or later, they catch up to you.
The NFL wanted to extend the extra point because the old way—from 19 yards out—was just too boring, too automatic (over 99 percent conversion rate in 2014). If you make the extra point a little less automatic, some aggressive-minded coaches (like the one employed by the Steelers) might see the incentive in going for two as a means to dictate the action to the other team.
If you go ahead 8-0, that may prove to be demoralizing to an opponent and could certainly force someone to have to take a similar risk later in the game just to try and tie the score.
But while the old extra point was converted at a 99 percent clip, two yards—even in the wide-open era of the offense-preferred NFL—have never been secured at anywhere near that rate.
On Sunday, in the Steelers heart-stopping and heartbreaking 35-30 loss to Dallas (their fourth-straight), you saw Tomlin’s riverboat mentality backfire and those percentages catch up to him, as he elected to go for two after a two-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to running back Le’Veon Bell.
Unfortunately, after a rare unsuccessful attempt (at least up to that point in the Steelers short history of approaching the lengthened extra point), Tomlin was forced to go for two following Pittsburgh’s final three touchdowns.
Two years earlier, old tendencies being what they were in the era of the 19-yard extra point, the Steelers would have been up, 34-30, as Dallas drove for the possible winning-score.
Obviously, needing a touchdown to win and not a field goal—the reality that presented itself on Sunday, as Pittsburgh clung to a 30-29 lead—the Cowboys may have felt compelled to pass for the end zone in the waning seconds, as opposed to handing it off to running back Ezekiel Elliott from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line.
Under those conditions, the Steelers would have had the upper-hand and a much better shot at winning.
Tomlin is being roundly criticized for electing to go for two points after every touchdown on Sunday, and it’s hard not to be critical of the coach. Had he elected to trot Chris Boswell out after even three of the touchdowns, the lead still would have been four points (33-29), and Dallas may have been forced to be more aggressive with its play-calling on that final, fateful drive.
Instead, the Steelers couldn’t convert a single two-point conversion and, thus, only had a single-point lead after scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left.
So, when is it acceptable to go for two points? When the percentages dictate it, right? If that’s the case, why did the NFL even bother to move the extra point back in the first place?
As it pertained to the old way of doing things, teams were already playing the percentages with the extra point vs. two-point try, and they very rarely went for two unless some graphic told them to.
If you have the attitude that a team should never go for two unless the math says so, why did the NFL change the rule in the first place?
The NFL wanted to make things more interesting—they were sick of you and I heading to the fridge or bathroom after every touchdown.
You may have even wanted to make things more interesting and exciting.
There are consequences to gambling, excitement, making things more interesting.
And those consequences came home to roost for Mike Tomlin and the Steelers Sunday evening at Heinz Field.