NFL is a perfect example of complexity creep

The NFL has voted to adopt a new rule that extra point attempts are snapped from the fifteen yard line, whereas two point conversions will continue to be run from the two yard line, but with the additional rule that if the defending team can run it back, they can score two points.

This rules change should be taught in game design class as a perfect example of how not to pick rules. Having an offensive play with an option to do a kick instead is part of the core rules, and an extra point follows those rules. You can fake or botch a kick and run the ball in, you can line up (as Oregon often does in college) to go for it and then kick instead if the other team defends properly. With different places to snap the ball, they are effectively now two distinct plays, both of them seem more arbitrary, and the whole thing is inelegant as hell.

Football is not an emergent property of a simple idea like basketball or soccer, instead being the result of a century of tinkering. I would guess that all alternate timelines have soccer, and most of them have basketball, hockey and tennis, but many of them never got anywhere near football. If everyone forgot about football, the game would be impossible to recreate because the intermediate steps are not good games. The rules for football need to be complicated in order to properly balance offense, defense, fairness, strategy, player safety and spectacle.  Games that are never quite over are not a naturally occurring phenomenon; the endgame in particular is engineered to make sure comebacks are possible.

Partially as a result of this, football is a complicated sport, sufficiently complex that many of my friends have no idea how the game works or what is going on. A large part of why the game hasn’t caught on in other countries is that you need someone to tutor you in how the game works or you will not understand it. The rules and strategy of the game are so complex that every coach in the NFL regularly botches basic strategy, because no one person has the time to learn how to play all aspects of the game properly.

What the NFL does not appreciate is that complexity and elegance are also key values that need to be considered when choosing how they want to play their game. The right response to a problem is not to add a new hack to the rules set! The right response is to figure out how to get what you want in a simple and elegant fashion.

What goal is the NFL trying to accomplish here? The stated problem is that the extra point has become so reliable that it has become a ‘ceremonial play.’ Is that a problem? It is a small problem, in the sense that it takes up a few precious seconds of television time that could be better spent on something else. It does serve an important purpose, however, which is to give a confirmation that the touchdown is final. With all the penalties, and with all scoring plays automatically reviewed, kicking the extra point is as good a way as any to say that the play will stand, which gives it a purpose. Since you can set up for the play while they do the review, very little time is lost unless you would otherwise proceed to the kickoff right away, but that is a reasonable thing to want to do.

Certainly making the extra point optional is the natural response to this problem. If a play does not matter, get rid of it; games being decided by botched extra points is not something many people would miss. Kicking the ball off without going for two scores you a seventh point, or you can line up to go for two instead. Simple, quick and effective, with if anything one rule less than we had before rather than one rule more. A 93% extra point from the fifteen yard line is still a waste of a play that could be better spent elsewhere if that is your true objection.

Their true objection probably was not the wasted time, however; their true objection is that they want teams to use the two point conversion more and kick fewer extra points. Making extra points harder certainly helps incentivize this. Let’s suppose this is the true (or at least primary) objection and goal. What should the NFL have done?

One possibility would have been to keep the rules the same and send all the coaches (and announcers, so they don’t put the wrong pressure on the coaches) back to school to learn basic strategy, because teams should already be going for two far, far more than they do. For example, a team is down 14 with 3:00 to go, and scores a touchdown. If they go for two, and succeed, a touchdown wins the game. If they fail, and they get another touchdown, they can go for two again; if they fail to get a touchdown or the other team scores, they lose the game regardless. So even if you only succeed 40% of the time, which any reasonable team can do, you should obviously go for it. This situation comes up constantly, but the chance of this happening in a real game is basically zero. A cool puzzle is to solve for all situations where the break-even point is substantially below 50%.

Alternatively, teams could hire an endgame specialist, and have that person bark orders in the coaches’ ear in such spots.

A second possibility is to make ties unequal. Right now, if the game is tied after regulation, overtime is played as a level playing field. If the playing field in overtime was not level, that would give one of the teams strong incentive to avoid ties, and one good way to do that is to go for two! Possibilities include the home team getting the ball in overtime, the team that ended regulation with the ball keeping it, or the last team to score having or not having the ball, or breaking the tie with some statistic that could then be tracked by the teams (could be yards, time of possession, fewest penalties, you name it). This does mean adding an extra rule, and it would lead to cries that such a thing is unfair, so it is almost certainly a non-starter, but it is a space worth exploring. Bowl games get lots of two point conversions this way at the end, because often neither team wants the game to go to overtime!

A third possibility, which I would have advocated for, is to do the natural, logical thing and move the ball to the 1.5 (or if necessary, even the 1) yard line for both extra points and two-point conversions. Instead of making extra points worse, make conversion attempts better. If you think you can make it more than half the time, which is an excellent reason to go for it that even football coaches can understand.

A fourth possibility, which I also would have advocated for, is to make the goalposts narrower, which makes all field goal and extra point attempts harder. Field goal kickers have gotten a lot better, and making their life harder would improve the game while adding danger to an extra point attempt as a positive side effect.

Every rule of a game, or law of a land, adds complexity and that complexity is a much bigger cost than people realize. Reducing the number of rules and making the remaining ones as simple and intuitive as possible is more important than getting a particular corner case to go the way you want it to.

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