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In first season, new PAT spot has big impact

The NFL got exactly what it wanted.

More doubt. More drama. More hard coaching decisions. And, above all, fewer trips to the bathroom by fans in the middle of a play.

Last Sunday was the epitome of what the league was seeking when it decided to change the extra-point attempt from a 20-yard gimme into a 33-yard adventure. Eight PAT kicks were missed, including one by the Buffalo Bills’ Dan Carpenter, and one was blocked and returned for the first two-point score off of a block in league history (as part of another rules change). There also were eight misses the previous week, which equals the total for the entire 2014 season.

“They wanted us to miss,” Carpenter said. “Frankly, they wanted it, and that’s what they’re getting.”

And there are four more weeks left on the schedule … with the likelihood of foul weather playing a larger role than it has so far.

You have to hand it to those deep-thinkers on Park Avenue. When the alteration to a long-standing and widely ignored portion of the NFL rule book was made last summer, the common reaction from non-kickers was, “What’s the big deal? A 33-yard kick is still a chip shot, right?”

Hardly. Thirteen yards might be the actual measurement of the difference, but it doesn’t begin to explain the impact of the new distance.

“It’s a whole other animal,” Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman said. “You can push or pull” a 20-yard kick “and you’re not going to get harmed. But now you push or pull it a little bit, it’s coming back and biting you in the butt.”

Extra points, which were made roughly 99 percent of the time and therefore too “boring” for many fans to even bother to watch, are being made at a rate of 93.3 percent and all but eight kickers with at least 19 tries have at least one miss. Two-point-conversion attempts – which the league set out to encourage by creating the longer PAT kick – are up but only slightly.

There are more strategic considerations on the part of the kicking operation and offensive play-callers, all because a bunch of suits in New York wanted to keep maximum eyeballs on TV sets at all times.

“I know the rules committee wanted more excitement, post-touchdown, with the extra point, whether it’s two points or one point,” former longtime NFL kicker John Carney said. “But I think they got more than they bargained for. It wasn’t a subtle change whatsoever, and we’re not seeing a subtle adjustment in their performance.

“My guess, if you were to ask the competition committee, would be that they felt the percentage of success would go from 99 percent down to maybe 94. And I’m sure we’re getting closer to the high 80s right now. With a few games in inclement weather, we might get to high 80s as far as success rate is concerned. The competition committee didn’t realize the gravity of this rule change.”

Start with the job security of kickers, already the least secure of players. When you really think about it, intentionally making a fundamental part of their occupation more difficult and/or effectively eliminating them all together from at least one aspect of the game is a pretty rotten thing to do.

For all practical purposes, they’ve been punished for being too good at something that, even from 13 yards closer, not everyone can do with the same level of consistency.

“Yes, the kickers had become very proficient and very consistent with making the 20-yard extra point as the PGA golfers are with 2-foot putts,” said Carney, who provides coaching for kickers, punters, and long-snappers at the professional, high school and college levels in California. “Yet, the PGA is not asking them to pick up their 2-foot putts so the golf match is quicker and people aren’t bored at home. He’s still got to make the putt. And we see golfers miss that putt and change the course of the match.”

“Everybody says, ‘Well, it’s not a big difference and people are still making over 95 percent of them,’ but I don’t think people realize the number” of misses “increased because of the attempts,” Crossman said. “You’re going to have some guys kick 50 or 60 extra points at the end of the year. You’re talking about 50 or 60 33-yard field goals. Now, if you’re making 95-96 percent of those, everybody thinks that’s a great deal. But at the end of the day, you’re missing two or three extra points.”

At 33 yards, almost everything in the extra-point-kicking process is different.

It starts with the mentality of the kicker. He no longer can think of the PAT in the same terms as he once did. He can’t allow himself to be swept up in the celebratory mood that follows a touchdown – at least for the team that’s either leading or is still within striking distance. He has to gear his mind toward setting up for a field goal. Carpenter cited this as something with which he has had trouble in his four extra-point misses, which rank second in the NFL behind the six of Jacksonville’s Jason Myers.

Consider the new form of preparation for extra-point tries. It used to be that kickers could do minimal warming up on the sidelines before taking the field for a PAT. Now, he has to almost always be kicking into the net rather than just doing so when the offense reaches the 50-yard line. He has to be ready for the quick score on a long touchdown pass or a punt return or a kickoff return or an interception return or a scoop-and-score on a fumble recovery. He has to always be thinking field goal, because that’s always going to be the type of kick he attempts.

“And there’s a lot of strategy in kicking the extra point now,” Carney said. “You see a lot of kickers kicking the extra point from the hash marks” rather than the middle of the field, “which I believe is the smarter way to go about it for a number of reasons. On the hash mark, you have some visual cues on the ground for aiming purposes. If you kick it down inside the hash mark, the ball goes through the goal posts. Whereas, in the middle of the field, the 23-yard line, where they’re kicking it from, there’s no visual cue whatsoever because there’s no marking on the field. You’re in the dead man’s zone between the 20-yard line and the 25-yard line.”

Kickers aren’t the only ones impacted by the new distance. Teams have been forced to expand their menu of two-point plays and are preparing to use them more extensively.

So far, only the Pittsburgh Steelers – per a conscious decision by coach Mike Tomlin – are going for two more frequently than the rest of the NFL, especially when they are at Heinz Field. And they’re doing well with the strategy, converting on all but three of 10 attempts (they’ve also hit 21 of 23 extra-point tries).

Expect more teams to follow Tomlin’s lead through the final weeks of the season and into the playoffs.

“We haven’t had any weather games yet, really,” Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I think that’ll definitely factor into that.”

Multiple kickers, coaches, and league executives with whom I’ve spoken say the longer PAT is here to stay. What will be interesting is the consequences of the first season of the play no longer being automatic. How many jobs will be lost, especially if there are game-changing misses in the playoffs … or even the Super Bowl?

“The end result is some of these kickers are going to be valued and appreciated more for their accuracy and efficiency,” Carney said. “And some kickers will be exposed because they either haven’t figured out how to approach this adjustment or they’re just, frankly, not accurate enough on a day-to-day basis from 33 yards.”

Regardless, the NFL will be happy because it got what it wanted.

Don’t be surprised if …

… There’s a shootout between Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints’ defense is atrocious and the Bucs’ D is looking more ordinary as injuries mount. Although Winston is having a solid rookie year, my money is on the guy who has been involved in many more of these types of games and come out on top in quite a few of them.

… If the New York Jets stumble against the Tennessee Titans. I have a sense the Jets are putting a little bit too much stock in the fact that cornerback Darrelle Revis is returning from a concussion that caused him to miss the last two games. Leaving him alone on the proverbial “Revis Island” in his first game back could prove costly against Marcus Mariota, who despite being a rookie is capable of burning him more than once.


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