Football fans take extra points for granted.
If a team, trailing by 7 points, scores a touchdown as time expires, we assume that the game is headed to overtime. We don’t get caught up in the fact that the touchdown itself only earned the team 6 points and that it will have to successfully execute another play to get the 7th.
When a team is in the red zone, we give the game our full attention. But once that team puts the ball into the end zone, we don’t hesitate to take a trip to the bathroom or to get some more salsa.
The extra point is just a formality. We don’t need to stick around and watch a team attempt a 1-point, 17 (NFL)- or 18 (college)-yard field goal that it never misses.
So far this season, 28 of the NFL’s 32 teams have converted 100 percent of their extra points. (This stat does not include two-point conversions.) Washington, Seattle, and Philadelphia have only missed one extra point kick; Jacksonville has missed two.
Point-after attempts are only interesting on those rare occasions when a kick is blocked or missed or when a team decides to go for two points. And, unless a kicker is injured or Oregon is playing, we can usually use arithmetic to predict when a team is going to go for two.
The extra point is an oddity in American team sports. A team gets a chance at a bonus point when it scores in a particular manner. It’s like something you’d find in a video game.
So where does this idea come from? Why not just award either 6 or 7 points for a touchdown and move on?
When Harvard Met Rugby
Tradition says that Rutgers and Princeton played the first ever American football game on November 6, 1869.
But that game, and many early football games that followed, resembled soccer more than it resembled modern American football, or even rugby. There was no such thing as a touchdown. Goals were scored only when a team kicked the ball between two posts.
Schools such as Yale and Columbia joined their New Jersey brethren in playing this soccer-style game. But students at Harvard favored a version of the game in which players could carry and run with the ball.
The Crimson had trouble finding an opponent in the States willing to play by Harvard rules, so they went north. In the spring of 1874 Harvard arranged a two-game series with McGill University in Montreal. The teams played on back-to-back days.
The first game, which used Harvard rules, saw the Crimson crush its Canadian opponent by a score of 3-0.
McGill fared better the following day, playing according to its rules of football, which its players called rugby.
Rugby’s DNA can be found in many current-day games: most obviously, rugby league and rugby union, but also Australian rules football, Gaelic football, Canadian football, and American football.
In rugby, a team earns a “try” by touching the ball down in its opponent’s goal area. In the earliest versions of the game, the touchdown itself scored no points. It allowed a team to try to kick a goal. A successful goal would convert the try into points.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) rejected an 1875 proposal that would have awarded a point, or goal, for three tries (touchdowns). But later that year the RFU agreed that, if teams were to score the same number of goals, the team that had recorded the most tries would be declared the winner.
McGill’s version of rugby did award points for touchdowns. But when Harvard brought the game back home, the Crimson reverted to the traditional model, in which a touchdown only earned a team the opportunity to kick a goal.
The first ever football game between Harvard and Yale featured this Harvard style of rugby. The Crimson won 4-0.
Walter Camp Changes Everything
During the second half of the 1870s, the rugby-style game replaced the soccer-style game at American colleges. But schools didn’t always agree on rules or the proper number of players on a side. At the same time, there was a desire to Americanize football and distinguish the game from its European ancestors.
A Yale student named Walter Camp would take the lead in codifying American football.
Camp’s rules replaced the rugby-style “scrum” with a “scrimmage” that began with one player snapping the ball to a player called the “quarter-back.” (Originally, the snapper used his foot to snap the ball.)
By 1882, four touchdowns had become the equivalent of one field goal, and two safeties had become the equivalent of one touchdown. This system could be confusing, so Camp introduced a points system in 1883. His initial point values were:
- Safety: 1 point
- Touchdown: 2 points
- Field goal after a touchdown (point after try): 4 points
- Field goal: 5 points
Camp assigned a point value to touchdowns, but the ultimate objective was still to kick a goal, and the field goal after the touchdown was worth twice as much as the touchdown itself.
This system didn’t last long. The idea of “points” was a good one, but the point values weren’t quite right. A couple months later, Camp introduced a revised scoring system:
- Safety: 2 points
- Touchdown: 4 points
- Field goal after a touchdown (point after try): 2 points
- Field goal: 5 points
For the first time in the sport’s history the touchdown itself had become more valuable than the field goal that followed. The try was worth twice as many points as the conversion.
The point values changed again in 1897. The combined value of a touchdown followed by a successful field goal was still 6 points, but the touchdown was worth 5 points and the field goal worth only one. The goal after the touchdown, which had once been the primary means of scoring, was now just an “extra point.”
The value of the regular field goal was lowered twice, and settled at 3 points in 1909. The value of a touchdown increased to 6 points (twice as valuable as a field goal) in 1912.
The two-point conversion, in which a team earns two points for taking the ball into the end zone instead of one for kicking it from the field originated in American college football in 1958. The NCAA hoped that the rule would lead to fewer ties and make games more interesting.
The American Football League (AFL), founded in 1960, included the two-point conversion in its rulebook, but the rule didn’t survive the AFL’s 1969 merger with the NFL. The NFL didn’t adopt the two-point conversion until 1994.
So when you’re watching football over Thanksgiving weekend, consider sticking around for the extra point instead of getting up for a fourth serving of stuffing. They may seem frivolous now, but once upon time the field goal after the touchdown was everything.