Let’s start with this caveat: I don’t care about the extra point one way or another. I don’t care if the NFL keeps the extra point, and I don’t care if they eliminate the extra point. Maybe that speaks directly to its worthlessness, I don’t know. I figure the whole extra point talk is a wag-the-dog strategy to make people look one way while the NFL’s more vital issues -- concussions, safety, the game becoming better on television than in person and so on -- roam unbothered in another direction.
And here I am chasing that wagging tail ...
But there is something about this whole extra point business that bothers me a little bit. It’s something I probably won’t explain well enough. But let’s give it a try.
Best I understand it -- and I admit I don’t fully understand it -- the NFL is talking about getting rid of the extra point for three basic reasons:
1. It’s all but automatic. It seems that 99.7% of all extra points were made this year.
2. It’s boring.
3. There’s a possibility of injury during the extra point (Rob Gronkowski, for example). So Roger Goodell mentioned the idea of eliminating it. The plan I’ve seen thrown around most is a weird one. It offends my mathematical sensibilities, which is odd because I never thought I HAD mathematical sensibilities. In the plan, a touchdown would be worth seven points. But coaches basically would have the option of giving back one of the points for the opportunity to go for two points. It’s a Let’s Make a Deal, you can keep what’s behind Curtain No. 1 or go for what’s behind Curtain No. 2 kind of plan, and I loathe it because it’s clumsy and unsound and obviously not thought through.
The thing that bothers me is not the plan -- there might be interesting ways to do this -- but something a bit more ambiguous. The arguments against the extra point are generally true. The extra point is almost automatic (though this was a particularly good year for kickers). The extra point is not exactly riveting (though you could argue that it’s more riveting than the Viagra commercial that would take its place). The extra point does offer an untimed play that could cause an injury (though the threat of injury, compared to other football plays, is relatively small -- eliminating the extra point for safety is like saying that boxers should be lifted into the ring because they could pull a muscle climbing in themselves).
Anyway, let’s grant all of that. Boring, automatic and needlessly risky, all at least partially true, that’s why i really don’t care if they eliminate the extra point. Peter King and Tom Tango and others have made the point that if you were inventing football NOW you would not have an extra point in it, and I concede that too.
But -- and here comes the weird turn -- I wonder about our modern attempts to eliminate every single moment from our lives that is not obviously captivating and compelling and thrilling. I think about my daughters. They have to be doing something absorbing every minute of every day. If we have a five minute car ride, they want to bring along books to read or games to play. If we are in a restaurant waiting they beg to borrow our phones to pass the time until food arrives. If there is nothing going on, you can see how hard it is for them to process it, how desperately they want something to hold their attention.
This has always been a kid’s thing. I was terrible with boredom. But now it’s an adult thing too. Louis CK has already done the ultimate bit on cell phones but it’s so true how much we need something to divert our attentions every moment of every day. I was on a shuttle bus to the airport -- five minutes, no more -- and I was checking my email on my phone, and I looked up. There were 10 other people on the bus. All 10 were looking at their cell phones, and this included the driver. I considered this for a moment before going back to my own phone.
People keep doing books and movies about vampires or monsters or zombies, but the thing that scares us more than anything is boredom. That’s the ghoul constantly on our tail.
So we run from boredom. We find ourselves wanting to distill life into only the interesting parts. We want to just skip over the quiet moments and get to the good stuff. But does that really make life more interesting? Don’t we lose something if every book starts with something exciting and every movie begins with a bomb? Did you see the movie “Man of Steel?” I didn’t think it was even possible to make a Superman movie I would not like. I loved the Christopher Reeve Superman stuff even with the whole weird “Can you read my mind” flying sequence. I loved the cartoons. I even loved repeats of the old black and white TV show where the most exciting thing George Reeves ever did was bend fake steel bars and hold out his chest and let rubber guns bounce off.
But “Man of Steel” drove me nuts because it was nothing but explosions and destruction and devastation. Every minute, another building crashed. The special effects were absolutely extraordinary, mind-blowing, but after a while even the most amazing of these effects, even the most remarkable of the crashes felt, well, boring. I think this is what happens when you try to fill every single minute with something thrilling and shattering and shocking. The quiet moments matter.
So, am I saying that we should keep something boring like the extra point so that football has a few quiet moments? No. Not exactly. I’m saying that sports are already FILLED with quiet moments that don’t really make a lot of sense. Why does the home run hitter actually run around the bases? Why does a manager have to walk out to the mound to take out a pitcher? Why does the pitcher have to throw the four balls in an intentional walk? Why does a player have to actually slap an opposing player when everyone knows he’s intentionally fouling at the end of a basketball game? Why do basketball teams get so many timeouts? You can think of a million of these. Especially in football. Why does the center have to snap the ball to the quarterback, why does the game have to begin with a coin toss, why do teams get so much time to huddle, why do we have to watch a quarterback kneel to run out the clock, why do they still measure first downs by having the chain gang come out, why do they still have kickoffs when so many go through the end zone, on and on and on.
Would football games be better if some or all of these things were just suddenly gone? I kind of doubt it. The thing about quiet moments is that they give our games a rhythm, a pace, a few seconds to breathe. They leave room for something to click around in our minds and imaginations. What I worry about with my daughters -- aside from all the obvious stuff -- is that they will lack the patience to stay with a story through a long set up, that they will settle for cheap entertainment, that they will not look hard enough to see the beauty in seemingly colorless things. Can we really not sit through extra points anymore?
And there’s this too: There’s a strange beauty to the extra point. Think of all the things a team has to do to make an extra point -- line up until the precise moment, block everyone who might rush in, snap the ball eight yards back to a kneeling holder, who has to catch the ball and set it up and spin it so the laces face out, and then a kicker has to kick it through uprights. The fact that NFL teams has perfected the art form to the point where kicker makes 99.7% of all extra points, in a weird way, a testament to human performance. Maybe, instead of getting rid of it we might marvel instead. Heck, it only takes a few seconds.