So your team’s gonna go for two.
Whatever’s about to happen here is amplified by the situation. You’re probably really stressed out. Your team is maybe this close to pulling off a comeback of some grandeur. Perhaps they’re within a whisker of fending off a plucky opponent. If this is overtime, then you’ve devolved into an emotional puddle, and the game may actually be nothing but two pointers if it’s gone on long enough.
The two point conversion is a hack in a sport usually scored in threes, sixes, and ones. From the moment the two pointer debuted in 1958, coaches started worrying about how it would mess with scoring math and lead us to overtime. We all agree that the analytics suggest two-pointers should happen more often, but they still only follow around 1 % of all touchdowns scored. They succeed roughly half the time, and it’s important to understand how.
Hours of gameplay and months of preparation come down to three yards and basically six seconds.
Best-case scenario: everyone knows a two-pointer is coming after the next touchdown. The immediate question after that: how?
It’s vital for any team to have two-point plays that are simply parts of either their low-red zone or third-and-three section on the play sheet. Whatever the choice, your team’s ideally repped it in practice multiple times, to take some of the stress out of preparing the play.
“So what we try to do typically is kinda have a menu of plays that we work on from spring ball, through summer voluntary workouts,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes told Banner Society. “Our players may not know necessarily that they’re two-point plays, but they’re constantly practicing those things.”
What are they likely to see from the defense? Well, your offense is entering the play at a slight disadvantage. You see the 12th defender back there? He’s pretty wide, hiding in plain sight.
The defense is much more concerned with the front of the end zone than the back. Just like a shutdown corner can use the sideline as help, the defense can use the back line for help.
“To me, the 12 yard line in, now you’re becoming wider than you are deeper and you can play things a little bit differently,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell says.
You should expect to see man coverage. If the defense is pretty advanced, they might come out in what’s called “banjo” coverage, a type of man coverage where a DB doesn’t have a specific receiver. Instead, each takes the player that declares he’s coming his direction with the initial steps of his route.
Think of any normal three-receiver bunch set. This is a way to play this that has an answer to anything the receivers do out of trips. It’s high level and takes a lot of communication by the secondary, but when it works it’s hard to beat.
There is only one bite at the apple here, instead of four. This is essentially fourth-and-goal from the three for all the marbles. It seems so close, but you can’t exactly run a Wisconsin 22-car pileup, because you’re traversing at least nine feet and not three.
I know the run still seems so obvious.
Remember what I said about the defense caring more about the front of the end zone than the back?
If your team’s going to attempt a QB run, doing it to to the side with fewer receivers (and therefore fewer defenders) can have a better chance of success.
While the passing game is about spacing, the run game is too. But your team can create space even if it’s under center. Take this play: UNC fakes the hard-nosed fullback dive to the right. Then they sneak the running back out the left side.
Clearly, the result here is not arrived at through grinding for yards with your fullback as much it is getting your speed in space and winning the race to the pylon. But the appearance of grinding helps give you the space to sneak the back out the back door.
The Tar Heels also create space with their alignment below against South Carolina. Observe how laughably wide this wide receiver is at the bottom of the screen, meaning defenders have to worry about all that space and the option.
Still, if your team is going for two a lot, they’re probably not running as much as you might think. Of the teams that have gone for two most often over the last five seasons, nearly all of them have been more likely to throw in those situations. Most of them aren’t close to a run/pass balance.
While both runs and passes each converted 43 percent of the time when looked at in a vacuum, teams passed twice as often as they ran. There’s a reason for that.
“[Passing] gives you more options,” Dykes says. “You want to have as many options as you can when you’re running a play like that.”
So what happens when teams air it out?
When teams decide to pass for two, you’ll likely see a play that looks like the GIF below. It’s a sprint out throw.
Sprint out throws can create new passing lanes and clear up vision in what can be a very hectic tangle of bodies in a condensed space. They can also neutralize a blitz. If it’s coming from the side the QB is sprinting away from, it allows him to buy more time.
But they also cut the field in half (or smaller), making things easier for your QB and giving him less to read. They’re a double-edged sword. The defense can flood an already shrunken part of the field with more people, and if the QB drifts too far to the sideline then his scrambling ability is hampered. They often work, but you give up some creativity and space to just let some shit happen with your wide receivers.
Then there’s the dreaded end zone fade. It’s the bane of anyone who’s ever seen one fall harmlessly to the turf because a receiver didn’t get a clean release off the line. A recent study of a a full NFL season found the fade to be that season’s lowest-percentage two-point pass play, only performing slightly worse than the sprint out.
“You probably don’t want to throw it unless you’ve got on a linebacker,” Noah Riley, the study’s author, says. “Gronkowski on a linebacker is still a good mismatch, but even Calvin Johnson and those guys, you’re not gonna want to throw a goal line fade if you’ve got a corner out there [covering].”
There are ways to throw the ball conventionally that have a better chance of success. Crossers and pick plays are good ways to shake man coverage in a do-or-die situation from right near the goal line.
“If you look at the way people line up, there’s gonna be guys that are positioned in the middle of the end zone for plays,” Dykes says. “A lot of guys are sprinting out and running pick routes, a la Clemson vs. Alabama, because Alabama’s 100 percent man in those situations, so it was really an easy play for Clemson. They just had to run a pick route.”
There’s also just hoping someone gets open if the protection’s good enough/everyone’s exhausted after multiple overtimes.
At the end of the day though, you can scheme it up ‘til you’re blue in the face on either side of the ball, but sometimes you’re just gonna get this:
But your team can do better.
And that brings us to the gadget plays.
We can admit that when they don’t work, the results are quite hilarious.
When they do work they’re the perfect crescendo of “No. No. No. YES!”
But the thing that hopelessly bamboozles everyone is often simpler than what you might remember. Boise State’s Statue of Liberty was a screen with some very literal sleight of hand added to the very literal back side.
Good trick play ideas can come from literally anywhere — even Google.
At their best, trick plays take advantage of the defense’s fervor to defend the end zone and the desperate nature of the game situation. You’re not exactly thinking a double pass is coming with the damn game on the line.
Going for two instead of playing for the tie is often a good idea, both mathematically and emotionally.
Resolving the game instead of stringing out overtime provides a more satisfying final moment, and it also makes the coach look like a brave hero, whether it works or not. Everyone wants to look like a brave hero, so all that’s left to do is pick a play.