“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” – John M. Keynes.
Last Thursday night, Chip Kelly was widely criticized for an unconventional decision that turned out to be unsuccessful. Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter against the Chiefs, Michael Vick threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant. The photo above shows how the Eagles lined up for the point after. Philadelphia’s two-point conversion attempt — a play known as the the Swinging Gate — was stopped, and it was stopped in particularly ugly fashion. That made it easy to point a finger and laugh at the college coach doing something silly.
But without the benefit of hindsight, there was nothing silly or even suboptimal about the decision. Putting aside the specifics of the play — we’ll get to that at the end — the main criticism seems to be that it was “too early” to go for two, or that the Eagles were “chasing points”, or that it was simply “unnecessary.” All of those are buzz words for saying that the Eagles should have behaved conventionally.
At a baseline level, let’s recognize that a team has a roughly 50/50 chance of converting on a two-point conversion. For a good offense with a mobile quarterback, that number may be even higher, but let’s just use the 50/50 number now. If that’s the case, then teams early in the game should be indifferent between kicking the extra point and going for two. Consider this hypothetical example: if a team had the option of kicking the extra point or flipping a coin — and heads gave them two points, tail giving them zero — would choosing to flip the coin be a poor decision?
Late in games, perhaps. But early in the game? I don’t see any reason to think that the difference between having six versus seven points on the board in the first quarter is more significant than the difference between having seven or eight points. Suppose you were told that your favorite team would score first quarter touchdowns in back-to-back games. Option 1 provides that your team would the extra point both times, while Option 2 is that your team would make the two point conversion once and fail on the attempt once. So you get eight points in one game and six points in the other.
Which would you prefer, Option 1 or Option 2? And why? And, if you prefer Option 1 to Option 2, how much more preferable is it? What would you be willing to trade to land in Option 1 — how many yards on the ensuring kickoff?
I would be indifferent between Options 1 and 2, but even if you preferred one, I don’t see how anyone could strongly prefer Option 1 to Option 2. The value to having 8 points is real, which is why it is never “too early” or “unnecessary” to go for two in a world where teams convert on two-point attempts half the time. Those are red herrings, because going for two is only a high-variance strategy; is it not a high-variance, lower-expected value option. Once you understand that, then nearly all the criticism about Kelly’s decision disappears.
As for the actual play call? I think it was a good one. Keep in mind that the Eagles did not pigeon hole themselves into going for two — based on how the Chiefs reacted to that formation prior to the snap, Philadelphia could have switched back to a normal extra point formation or simply taken a delay of game penalty with minimal harm. But Kansas City did not react well to the play pre-snap: The Eagles split two players out wide to the right, and Kansas City countered with two defenders to that side. But in the middle of the field, Philadelphia had the snapper, holder, and kicker, while the Chiefs kept four players in the middle of the field. I’m quite certain the special teams coach was not pleased with how the Chiefs responded to the situation, because that left K.C. with only five defenders to the defense’s right, while the Eagles were able to match up five blockers to that side and Zach Ertz, the eventual ballcarrier.
That’s a matchup Philadelphia should win more often than fifty percent of the time, and perhaps significantly more often than that. As it turns out, Lane Johnson blew the block, Tamba Hali made a nice play, and Kelly and the Eagles had egg on their face. Failing unconventionally has its drawbacks.