Why you should care
Because one of the game’s greatest is on his way out — and this is one way he might be able to go out on top.
The play, I’m sure, haunts Peyton Manning’s dreams: He was 30 minutes from his second Super Bowl ring when the Saints attempted the most unexpected onside kick in NFL history. It was exactly the kind of decision that could get the coach fired, if the coach weren’t named Sean Payton and it didn’t work. But New Orleans recovered the kick, seized momentum and came back to upset the Colts in the 44th Super Bowl. Payton goes down in football lore; Manning resumes pursuit of ring number two.
Fast-forward six years, and 39-year-old Manning is preparing for Super Bowl 50 — his fourth, and first as an underdog. Literally nobody east of Colorado gives his Broncos a chance of beating Carolina on Sunday night, but Peyton really wants that second ring. So what can Denver do to try to stop the well-balanced Panthers? Take a page out of the other Payton’s playbook and do something nobody, anywhere, expects them to do: Go for two.
That’s right. Manning and Gary Kubiak should “Sean Payton” Carolina on Sunday night. We’re talking two-point conversions galore. Not just after the first touchdown, but after every touchdown. This Sunday and each following.
Now, before you reasonably call my life’s experiences into question, recognize that even Bruno Mars is back, going for two himself by joining Coldplay for his second halftime performance in three years. And for good reason. Mars was the undeniable highlight of Super Bowl XLVIII, which saw Peyton’s Broncos get squashed by the Seahawks 43-8.
But this is a new year and a different Broncos team, and it would only be fitting for Manning — a player known more for his acumen than his arm — to go out on top and ahead of the curve. Besides, though kickers will tell you otherwise, the death of the extra point is imminent. Last year, following the NFL’s preseason decision to move the extra point back by 13 yards, two-point attempts shot up 60 percent. Some teams have made hay. In Pittsburgh, for instance, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers both attempted (11) and converted (8) more two-point tries in 2015 than any NFL team in the past seven years.
The math is simple. For the two-point conversion to be a valuable proposition, your team needs to convert on more than 50 percent of its attempts. In essence, succeed more than you fail, and you’re better off forgetting about your kicker, at least following touchdowns. That’s what coaches like Kubiak are bound to realize when they see that missed extra points were up nearly eight times this season following the rule change. Currently, the average NFL offense converts two-point attempts at a rate of roughly 48 percent. Denver, the past three years, slots in slightly higher at 50 percent. But as teams like Pittsburgh continue to show that higher success rates are attainable, teams around the league may begin to realize they’re leaving points on the board with each score.
Capitalizing on conversions isn’t just an idea being thrown around by data geeks. Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott told OZY he thinks it’s only a matter of time before more NFL coaches adopt Tomlin’s strategy. And to him, the argument in favor of the two-point conversion extends beyond the scoreboard. “It allows your defense to be more aggressive and take more chances,” Lott tells us. The simple fact that a team has eight or 16 points instead of seven or 14 changes the balance of the game, he insists, because it forces extra possessions and alters the decisions your opponent is making.
It’s precisely these unquantifiable elements that make the two-point conversion a plausible strategy for the Broncos on Sunday night. Because even if we assume Denver’s top-ranked defense will manage to contain Cam Newton to some degree, nearly every other analytical comparison favors the Panthers. More likely than not, they’re going to get their points. But can Manning keep up? We think so.
Unless, of course, he’s only there for the halftime show.