In Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers attempted four 2-point conversions — and were successful on exactly zero of them. The failure led to many fans calling for head coach Mike Tomlin’s head. Some even wanted him gone right then and there, middle of the game be damned.
But everyone needs to just calm down for a second. If you look at the math, Tomlin was completely right to go for two points against the Cowboys, at least on the first conversion and probably on the later ones, too.
First of all, before Sunday, the Steelers were 14 of their last 17 2-point conversion attempts. Perhaps more importantly, last season they converted eight of 11 2-point attempts, a league record, and were 2-for-2 this season coming into the game against the Cowboys. (I say “more importantly” because the league changed the rules on extra points at the beginning of last season, making prior attempts less relevant.) Pittsburgh currently sits atop the NFL for 2-point attempts (with six) alongside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 3-for-6.
So let’s say Tomlin set Sunday’s game plan looking at that 10 of 13 number from the past two seasons. That’s a 77 percent success rate on 2-point conversions. To figure out the value of a conversion attempt, you multiple the chance of success times the number of points you get for a success: .77 x 2 = 1.54. That means that for the past two years, every time the Steelers have gone for two, the conversion has been worth an average of 1.54 points. (You can also do the math the other way. The Steelers generated 20 points on those 13 tries, and 20/13= 1.54 points per try.)
In 2015, once the line of scrimmage was moved way back, NFL kickers made 94 percent of extra points, so, statistically, each kick was worth .94 point for a team.
Now do the subtraction. Tomlin could go for two and generate 1.54 point, or he could kick and get .94 point. 1.54 – 0.94 = 0.6, so Tomlin was, statistically speaking, generating 0.6 point every time he went for two.
But let’s say the Steelers were just really, really lucky on their last 13 two-point tries and should only expect to hit at the league average in the future. Before this week — when the league went just four of 12 on two-point tries — the league success rate was 59 percent. That means that, for the league as a whole, a two-point try was worth 1.18 points, or almost a quarter of a point more than a kick.
That’s not a lot, but points are points, even if you have to assemble them a little bit at a time. At the beginning of games, before situational factors based on score and time elapsed come into play, it makes sense to go for two, and Tomlin should be applauded for his aggression — as Bill Belichick is in many other situations.
Besides, other factors pointed in favor of the Steelers. On Sunday, Pittsburgh had been successful in finding open receivers — or Le’Veon Bell — for short-yardage passes, and the Cowboys were severely lacking at defensive back. The Steelers spend a lot of time running 2-point conversions in practice, and, with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Bell leading the offense, Tomlin and the rest of the staff have to really believe that these guys can get the job done.
There’s an intangible, too: Pittsburgh’s players say they like Tomlin’s aggressiveness and think it can help dictate the tone of the rest of the game.
The problem is that, once you go for a 2-point conversion and are unsuccessful, you can put yourself in a position where you need to keep trying.
The second decision was more marginal than the first, because an extra point would have put the Steelers up by 10, which is considerably more valuable than a nine-point lead (because the lead would have been a touchdown and a field goal) but which isn’t that much less valuable than an 11-point lead (two touchdowns are still required to beat you). But the Steelers’ second touchdown came before the end of the first quarter, so it’s hard to fault Tomlin much for still playing the basic odds and going for two.
When the Steelers scored their third touchdown, Tomlin had little choice but to go for two. The game clock was inside of eight minutes in the fourth quarter, and the Steelers led by just one point. Adding a kick would still let the Steelers be beaten by a field goal, and the Cowboys have a talented and reliable kicker.
The same logic held true after the Steelers scored their final touchdown, with less than a minute left in the game, and again led by a point. Note that, after Dallas scored a touchdown in the interim, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett used logic very much like Tomlin’s and tried a two-point conversion — Garrett decided to try to go up by seven because being up six wasn’t worth much more than being up five. The attempt failed.
For what it’s worth, since the 2-point conversion was implemented in 1994, no team had ever gone 0-for-4. The Steelers were the first team to fail at converting more than at least three attempts since the Tennessee Titans in 2002, when they went 0-for-3.
After the loss to Dallas, tight end Jesse James told reporters, “It didn’t really cost us. … We had a chance to win. We had our shot, and we didn’t follow through.” Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who nearly made a play on the third conversion failure, echoed James’ sentiments.
“Just because we failed today, that means nothing,” Toussaint said. “We work hard at those, and we know we can execute them. We just know we’ve got to do it a little bit better.”
For his part, Tomlin was unapologetic about his decisions.
“We want to be aggressive,” Tomlin said. “That’s not out of line with our personality.”
And he’s right; it’s not out of line with the persona Pittsburgh has cultivated over the past couple of years.
In reality, Tomlin’s decisions didn’t cost the Steelers the game versus the Cowboys. Leaving four points on the board — or eight, if Pittsburgh had successfully converted every attempt — isn’t the best coaching move, but it wasn’t the reason Dallas won. Pittsburgh’s defense got gashed on the run and allowed too many big throws over the top, and the Steelers couldn’t generate much of a semblance of a running game.
And last time I checked, while four more points on the board would have been great, the Cowboys won by five. (I realize the dynamics of that final drive would have been different if the Steelers hadn’t had to defend against a field goal, but lots of things could have changed the dynamics of the game, in which the Steelers just had a few too many problems.)
If Tomlin’s decision on conversion attempts had been successful, he would have been heralded. “Riverboat Tomlin,” people would have called him. Headlines would have read: “Tomlin’s aggressiveness pays off in win over Dallas.”
You can’t like the aggressiveness when it pays off and not like it when it doesn’t. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing.
And, based on the mathematical probability of success when going for two points, the Steelers and their fans should absolutely take the approach that Tomlin showed yesterday.
Image credit: Steelers.com