Zorn's Decision to Go For Two
Apparently I have a fairly recognizable voice, because when I asked Jim Zorn a couple questions about his two-point conversion strategy yesterday, people immediately started e-mailing me links to "The Chart." There are charts everywhere; see here, here and here. Those are all identical, and all three say that you should go for two when up by 12 points, as Zorn did on Sunday.
Still, the critics criticized the move, especially since 1) It failed (due, Zorn said, to Clinton Portis taking the wrong path before the shovel pass), and 2) the Lions then scored a TD to draw within five, and 3) the Skins then hit a late FG to push the lead back to eight, and 4) the Lions then began driving again, with the possibility of tying the game with a TD and two-point conversion of their own.
"We've been over this before, but, unless you go for two all the time, you don't go for it there," the Misters Irrelevant wrote, and click that first link for an extended, extended argument about the merits of Zorn's two-point strategy in the comments. Andy Pollin also argued on ESPN 980 that Zorn's strategy was proved faulty by events, which is like saying betting straight-up on two-touchdown favorites is proved faulty every time an underdog wins.
But the thing I didn't, and still don't know, is at what point in the game do you start turning to The Chart? So I asked Zorn.
He said he probably wouldn't use his chart in the first half, but that he starts looking at it late in the third quarter, and "fourth quarter for sure you're looking at it." He said his chart has "a couple little parentheses on it," which I don't see in the online versions, and he offered to give us a copy.
"I don't follow the chart strictly, because I had a two-point situation in the Cleveland game and I passed on it," he said yesterday. "I don't know if you knew that, I passed on it because it was just early in that third quarter, there was a lot of time left, there was gonna be some scoring and so we held off. So I didn't go strictly by the chart last game. I did this game, and I was gonna kick it, and then I started thinking about it, and I thought, 'You know what, we should go.' And I asked Greg [Blache], I said, 'Do you want to defend a 13-point lead or a 14-point lead?' And he said, 'I want to defend a 14-point lead.' I screwed up, because I should have said, 'Do you want to defend a 12-point lead, a 13-point lead or a 14-point lead.' "
I don't know if the math here is correct, but this version of The Chart breaks things down by time remaining in the second half. And according to that version, every single time you lead by 12 in the second half, and probably in portions of the first half, you should go for two, assuming NFL teams convert on two-point attempts at least 38 percent of the time, which they do.
Zorn's decision was thus correct with 11:29 left in the fourth quarter, and would have been similarly correct with 11:29 left in the third quarter.
His approach is no doubt influenced by his offensive assistant Chris Meidt, the dude with a BA in math, an MBA in information sciences and a stated proclivity for play-calling and two-point aggression. "One year, I think we scored 52 touchdowns and 54 points after touchdown," Meidt said in that story, "so we were better than perfect, because we went for two a lot and probably faked a kick once a game."
Anyhow, I just looked back at the box scores, and there wasn't a time in the Browns game when the Skins might have passed on a conversion, as Zorn said yesterday. But with 8:08 left in the third quarter against the Eagles, Washington scored a touchdown to go ahead by one, and sure enough, every chart says Zorn should have gone for two.
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