PHOENIX -- We still don’t have any idea of what constitutes a legal catch judging by the eyeball test, the NFL has yet to figure out how to fully maximize its replay review system with cameras recording every possible disputable play or call and the playoff field expansion that has been talked about for years now keeps getting pushed off into the future.
So naturally, it’s the movement aimed at changing the lowly PAT that stands perhaps the best chance to produce some actual news this week at the NFL’s annual owners meeting at the Arizona Biltmore hotel, with the point-after-touchdown up for debate and a bit under siege. The game’s most unappreciated play is under serious review, with the conversation of how to transform it from largely ceremonial to actually competitive inspiring a range of options and opinions around the league.
Move it to the 15 and make for 33-yard extra point tries? Move it to the 1 and jack up the appeal of teams going for the two-point conversion? Narrow the goalposts to increase the kicker’s degree of difficulty, as the most recent Pro Bowl experimented with? Go along with the Colts’ proposal for a 50-yard "bonus" point kick after a successful two-point conversion (the eye-roll-inducing nine-point touchdown)? Or do nothing at all, leaving the PAT as is, anachronistic or not?
"I don’t think it’s broken, and I don’t think it’s an urgent problem that we need to fix, that’s for sure," Steelers president Art Rooney told me early Monday morning. "If we really want to do something, just move the line of scrimmage to the 1 to encourage people to go for two more often. That’s the counter proposal our coach (Mike Tomlin) made last year, and I think that’s the best suggestion I’ve heard so far. That at least gives you a little more of a decision to make and a little more drama.
"But I don’t sense that there’s a great urgency to make a change to the play, or that there’s a consensus on what the change should be if we do make one."
Not everyone shares Rooney’s preference for non-action, however, including his counterpart with the Giants, John Mara. The New York team president and CEO senses growing momentum for moving the PAT to the 15, as the New England Patriots have proposed to the league’s rules-making competition committee. Mara won’t go so far as to predict a change to the point-after is forthcoming this week, but he did say the recommendation has a chance to gain approval from at least 24 of the league’s 32 owners. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell echoes Mara’s sentiments, telling The MMQB’s Peter King that "there’s a chance" there will some sort of change to the PAT this week in Arizona.
"There’s some support for it, and it’s a possibility," said Mara, who is on the nine-person competition committee and favors moving the PAT to the 15. "I think a lot of the coaches are a little uncomfortable doing anything with the extra point. They say, ‘What’s wrong with having a ceremonial play?’ They don’t want their kicker lining up for a 33-yard extra point to tie or win the game at the very end. A lot of coaches have expressed that, so that’s why I’m not sure whether this will pass or not, but it’s got a little bit more momentum I think that it has had in the past. It’s just hard to say anything definitive though until we get in the room and everybody gets up to speak. But it’s got some momentum, even though getting that 24th vote is going to be tough."
While New England’s Bill Belichick authored the Patriots’ proposal to add 13 yards to the length of the PAT, Rams coach and longtime competition committee member Jeff Fisher perhaps spoke for the majority of the league’s coaches when he derided the 33-yard extra point at last month’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
"Personally I don't want to kick a 19-yard field goal to win a game, and then miss a 35-yard extra point in Green Bay when it's 20 degrees to lose a game," Fisher said. "So that's my position. I think it would be too drastic of a change, me personally."
One league source told me the league’s coaches seem to be united behind the idea of moving the PAT to the 1, thus making it a change designed to entice more two-point conversion tries, rather an effort to lower the accuracy and success rates of kickers.
"Coaches want to put it at the 1, because it leaves their kickers alone and puts the two-point play into the game at a higher rate," the source said. "But the owners and club executives are generally more in favor of putting the ball at the 15, which the competition committee is expected to push for."
The competition committee feels that last year’s preseason experiment to push the line of scrimmage for point-afters to the 15 was largely successful, in that kickers converted at a 94.3% rate from that distance in the two-week trial period (133 of 141 attempts). That’s at least less than the foregone conclusion territory that PATs represented in the 2014 regular season, when kickers converted 1,222 out of 1,230 attempts, or 99.3% of the time.
"That’s the kind of discrepancy that we looking for with the experiment, so that study told us what we needed to know," a competition committee source said. "There was just enough added difficulty at 94 percent as to add some excitement back into the play."
Dallas executive vice president Stephen Jones acknowledged that with Goodell’s support clearly thrown behind some modification of the PAT, there’s increased focus on adding more drama to the game’s most automatic play.
"If we’re going to support something [in the way of change], I think it’s going to be difficult probably," said Jones, a member of the competition committee. "But we’ll see. It’s important to the commissioner, which should make it important to everybody. But I’m more of the move-it-to-the-1-yard line guy, to encourage the two-point conversion."
Belichick has spoken rather passionately in recent years about the need to either eliminate the point-after or lengthen it considerably in order to make it a competitive play, and at last year’s annual meeting proposed to the competition committee that PATs be moved back to the 25 yard line, creating a 43-yard point-after. The league opted for the 15-yard in its preseason experiment, with competition committee co-chairman and Atlanta Falcons team president Rich McKay saying Monday afternoon that there has been no discussion or proposal about the total elimination of the point-after try.
"It’ll just make the game more exciting for fans,’’ Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Monday, of the New England 15-yard line proposal. “It adds another whole dimension by encouraging people to go for two. I’m sure the coaches feel it’s a little bit more responsibility on them, but we hope it happens.’’
Mara on Monday even raised the slight possibility that the two most likely PAT changes could even be combined, perhaps if the support for both is found to be roughly equal. In that instance, teams could have their choice between going for two with the ball placed at the 1, or kicking for an extra point at the 15. Whatever is decided in the way of change, Mara said, it will be implemented in the 2015 regular season, and not require another preseason experimental period.
But here are two scenarios that will not unfold here as a result of the PAT debate: When it comes down to it, the Colts probably won’t even vote for the laughable "bonus point kick" proposal that they authored, and no one I talked to views the NFL quite ready for the option of narrowing the goal posts in order to make a kicker’s job more challenging. It’s considered too dramatic a change at this point.
"We’re not there yet," Mara said. "I think eventually that’s what you’re going to see, but I think we’re a few years away from that. That’s very possible."
Moving the line of scrimmage back on PATs could be an incremental step that eventually leads to narrowing the goal posts, a second member of the competition committee told me.
"I’m not into that yet," Jones said. "I’m not sold on that. That’s pretty drastic. I thought the Pro Bowl deal was tough, and it affects every part of our game, not just extra points."
Getting 24 votes from ownership to approve a change is still a high bar, and that could mean the most likely scenario for the PAT’s immediate future looks exactly like its past, and status quo in 2015. But if there is any meaningful news that comes out of the league’s annual meeting this week, it’s the lowly point-after that could be on the move. As battles go, the NFL has waged far larger.