How a Punter Changed Pro Football Forever

Tom Tupa.

Why you should care

Because every position matters.

The Cincinnati Bengals had no idea it was coming. After all, the move hadn’t been pulled off on a professional football field for nearly 30 years. But as the Cleveland Browns prepared to kick a customary post-touchdown extra point at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on that afternoon in September 1994, they were just moments from altering the game forever.

After catching the snap, 28-year-old punter Tom Tupa shot up, dashed through the scrum and powered across the goal line — scoring the NFL’s first-ever 2-point conversion. And the coach who called the play? Current New England Patriots whiz Bill Belichick, better known these days as the greatest coach around.

From that moment on, 2-point conversions became a staple of NFL football. But before Tupa’s feat, they were a long time coming. Although it had existed in college football for decades, the option wasn’t introduced into the NFL until 1994 (although the American Football League allowed it through the 1960s before merging with the NFL). And despite heavy lobbying, not everyone was excited about it. “The reason coaches didn’t like it is because it was another way to second-guess them,” former Dallas Cowboys exec Gil Brandt told The New York Times in 2010.

In a way, Tupa was the perfect player to pioneer the 2-point conversion. He was actually a trained quarterback, having played the position throughout college at Ohio State University, where he also earned All-American honors as a punter. He even stayed at quarterback during his first several, though unsuccessful, years in the NFL. But Tupa’s debut as a starting punter in 1994 helped reverse his fortunes — thanks partly to his multifaceted experience, says football historian and Pro Football Journal editor John Turney. “He was a good enough athlete to take the snap and run it,” Turney says.

It wasn’t Tupa’s last time in the spotlight. He scored another two conversions later that same season, earning him the nickname “Two-Point Tupa.” Then, five years later, came another memorable game, during his stint with the New York Jets. After starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde ruptured his Achilles tendon during the first game of the 1999 season, head coach Bill Parcells sent in Tupa to save the day. He didn’t quite do that — the Jets narrowly lost to the Patriots — but he posted a 60 percent completion rate that game and threw for 165 yards, including two touchdowns. 

Tom Tupa #7

Tom Tupa of the New York Jets during a game against the New England Patriots.

Source Ezra O. Shaw / Allsport / Getty

And he did it all wearing mismatched punters’ shoes, prompting one broadcaster to comment that Tupa’s left sneaker looked “like a slipper.”

But Tupa’s achievement was also part of a broader shift toward increased competition in the NFL that began in the 1970s but culminated in the ’90s, says Turney. Besides approving the 2-point conversion and shifting kickoffs to the 30-yard line, the league enacted a bundle of other offense-friendly tweaks. Teams were experiencing a generational change as old owners gave way to new ones looking for a more exciting edge. “They were looking to liven up the game for a TV audience,” says Turney. In 2015, meanwhile, the NFL bumped back the extra point to the 15-yard line, rendering a field goal a more challenging 33 yards.

Fast-forward to today: Not only has the 2-point conversion boosted suspense, but it also continues to challenge coaches faced with the dilemma of having to decide between instinct and statistics. In recent years, success rates for 2-point conversions have hovered around, or slightly above, 50 percent. During the first five games of last year’s season, for instance, coaches went for two 47 times — 19 more tries than in the same period the previous season.

But that hasn’t made it any easier for play callers under pressure to make a game-altering decision.

So while metrics geeks might argue that going for two is statistically smart, they’re doing so far from the action of the football field, and thereby the pulse of the game. On the other hand, Turney adds, it’s a valid argument to push coaches to get more creative and take more chances. “It’s an interesting debate — it’s one of those things where nobody knows exactly who’s right or wrong,” he says.

Either way, it might behoove fans to remember one thing: Never underestimate the punter.

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