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Bad Idea Time: Safeties should be worth 11 points

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Make football’s rarest scoring play its most valuable, and let the ensuing chaos overtake everything.

Safety signal by a referee Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

A safety should be worth more than a touchdown. This feels obvious.

Safeties are much rarer than TDs, for starters.

For every non-garbage time FBS drive that ended in a safety between 2007 and 2019, about 133 ended in touchdowns, according to data from Brian Fremeau, who pulled from more than 220,000 possessions. About 27% of drives end in a TD, and 0.2% end in a safety.

Safeties are also more difficult to score than TDs.

A field goal is rarer than a TD, too, by a little more than 50%. But a field goal isn’t harder to get than a touchdown. If you fail to score a touchdown, a field goal is usually the easy fallback.

A safety is different. It requires your offense, defense, and/or special teams to work together to create great field position. Then it requires you to get a tackle for loss or force a fumble through the end zone at a time when the opposing team is on DEFCON 1 to prevent you from doing that.

In other sports, hard and rare achievements are especially rewarded. Yet safeties continue to be undervalued.

Grand slams are worth more runs than solo homers. A shot from outside the arc is worth more than one from inside.

A safety being worth two points is like if a half-court shot were only worth one, or if you got max points in Skee-Ball for rolling the ball into the farthest outer ring. Any seven-year-old in an arcade could tell you that’s nonsense.

Even though a safety earns you the ball back, the play remains far less valuable than a TD. The average drive nets 2.1 points, meaning a safety’s worth an average of about four points. The post-safety drive still makes a safety worth about three points less than a touchdown.

That’s absurd, given how hard safeties are to pull off. Touchdown drives are hard, but they still happen at least once or twice a game for even the worst teams. Conversely, even the best team might not score a safety all year.

Why this value discrepancy? There’s no clear reason.

In 1893, Walter Camp published his Book of College Sports, the foundation for the modern rulebook. Camp explained the concept of a safety ...

A “safety” is made when a side are so sorely pressed that they carry the ball behind their own goal line, and not when it is kicked there by the enemy.

... and said a safety would be worth two points, but never elaborated on why. It’s particularly curious because Camp was discussing how score values for different plays had changed over time. Touchdowns had been two, four, and five. Kicking conversions had been four, two, and one. But safeties have held steady at two since 1883.

We have a rule that doesn’t make statistical sense, has no obvious historic ground, and – most importantly – isn’t much fun. The rule should change.

Behold the answer: Make the safety worth 11 points.

  1. It has to be really valuable, because it’s really rare and really difficult.
  2. The most unusual scoring play becomes a lot more fun if the scoreboard treats it as such.
  3. But it has to be reasonable, because you don’t want the game to effectively end on a safety.
  4. For maximum fun, it has to be a prime number, because football is already based around threes and sevens. If a team gives up a safety, you don’t want them to get even with a mere field goal or two. If the team allowing the safety scores a touchdown, make them go for two in order to get back within a field goal. Part of the penalty for giving up a safety is that your coach now has to be bold, making the incentive not to surrender one even stronger.

The ramifications of the 11-POINT SAFETY are many, and they are dazzling.

Suddenly, the offense’s objective might not be to score a touchdown.

If a team is down 10 in the last few minutes, are they still trying to score seven? Maybe not, especially if they’re running low on timeouts.

In this situation, a different path to victory is to somehow give the other team the ball back as close to the goal line as possible. Maybe this means going out at the one on fourth-and-goal. Maybe it means fumbling intentionally. The trailing team wants the opponent to take the ball as far back as possible, creating a possible safety.

The defense knows the offense wants 11 points, so coverages will get crafty.

Here’s a real red-zone defensive formation from Alabama:

Here’s a red-zone defensive formation from Alabama if Nick Saban’s only goal were to not let the other team stop at the one-yard line:

Look at that realistic formation. Are you not entertained?

The coffin corner punt suddenly becomes even more valuable.

It’s preposterously hard to drop a punt out of bounds at the one- or two-yard line against a rush. It’s why college and pro punters almost never try, instead lofting their shorter-distance punts high in the air to force a fair catch around the 10.

But with the 11-point safety in effect, the coffin corner is a nuclear missile. The punting game will become high-stakes target practice. If the Big Ten knows what’s good for it, everyone in that league will relentlessly advocate for this reform.

Does this mean a team trailing by nine might punt on second-and-goal from inside the 10?

Yeah, it definitely puts that in play. This post is called Bad Idea Time.

Also, the INTENTIONAL SAFETY will wither and die.

Every year, a few teams decide that instead of risking a blocked punt or a fumble, they’ll have a player run out of his own end zone for a safety. Bill Belichick is one of many NFL coaches to do it successfully. In 2007, Pitt finished off the most shocking rivalry upset ever by having the punter step over his own end line while leading by six:

That was a funny way for a sub-.500 team to ruin a rival’s championship dreams. But if you want max fun, you want teams to have to risk a blocked punt or a bad snap in key moments. If a safety cost 11 points, teams would be forced to chance it.

Could we take this exercise to a logical conclusion and simply make the penalty for giving up a safety a forfeit?

That’s not what I’m proposing here. It’s a whole different idea. But if you only want to watch the world burn, then forfeit via safety is merely a form of natural selection.