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The Rouge and the Two-Point Conversion
It may be the social media circles I ride in, but I've enjoyed the attention received by Saskatchewan earning a rouge in Thursday's game and the potential rouge in Friday's Winnipeg-Calgary game. Canadian football does not have touchbacks. Downing the ball or being tackled in the end zone following an opponent's kick results in a rouge or single, which scores one point for the opponent; it is akin to a safety. (Punting or kicking the ball into the opponent's end zone that then goes out of bounds also scores one point.)
In Thursday's game, an American rookie on Edmonton's squad failed to run or kick the ball out of the end zone late in a tie game, with the result that Saskatchewan earned a rouge that proved to be the difference in the final score.
Click to enjoy: https://twitter.com/SickosCommittee/status/1677282813161230343
In Friday's game, Calgary missed a 47-yard field goal attempt, and Greg McRae, the Winnipeg return man who is also an American, understood the need to get the ball out of the end zone. McRae fielded the ball on the left side of the field, ran from left to right behind the goal line far longer than any special teams coach desires, and then turned it upfield and made a spectacular return before being tackled on Calgary's 12-yard line.
Click to enjoy: https://twitter.com/CFL/status/1677511108872253441
Besides adding excitement and strategy to the game, the primary value of the rouge is that it rewards teams for gaining favorable field positions, even when they fail to earn a touchdown or field goal. I'm not advocating that American football adopt the rouge, though trying it in a few test games or in one of the spring leagues would be fun. Instead, adding the rouge to the American game parallels college football's adoption of the two-point conversion in 1958. Just as most Americans would not think of adding the rouge today, many did not support adding the two-point conversion 70-some years ago.
Today, we think of the two-point conversion as a normal part of football because we've grown up with it as part of the game. Only the six percent of Americans who are older than 75 recall football without the two-point conversion and would remember when adding the two-pointer was a controversial decision.
Two-point conversions in American football began in the mid-1930s. The new six-man football game awarded two points for converting via kick because kicking required individual talent and teamwork missing from most six-man teams. That set a precedent for awarding two points to teams converting the hard way.
The idea of awarding two points for converting by run or pass in 11-man football originated with Michigan's former coach and athletic director, Fritz Crisler, who chaired the NCAA Rules Committee during the 1950s. Crisler believed in the power of two, having pioneered two-platoon football, preferring helmet decorations that were too ugly, and promoting the two-point conversion. He first publicized his two-point idea in 1953 and brought it before the committee several times before it was adopted. Crisler considered the kicked extra point the "dullest play in football," so reducing its frequency would make games more exciting, cut down on ties, and force coaches to make strategic decisions during games.
Crisler's rationale makes sense today, but many objected to what was the first change in the game's scoring rules since touchdowns went from 5 points to 6 in 1912. When Crisler broached the idea in 1953, one scribe noted that the rule would impact few games since the Big Ten had only 16 ties in the previous decade of league play. He also raised the question of whether tie games were something football needed to avoid.
Others objecting to the two-point conversion did so due to the belief that football should do away with conversions altogether. Those folks opposed the one-point conversion and absolutely hated the two-pointer. As one sportswriter argued, the two-point conversion doubled the value of the most senseless play in football.
Another group disliked the two-point conversation for its value relative to field goals and touchdowns, arguing that a run from three yards out should not be one-third the value of a 99-yard touchdown run or two-thirds the weight of a 30-yard field goal.
Interestingly, many coaches expected the two-pointer to quickly become the primary method of converting. As Terry Brennan, Notre Dame's coach, noted:
On first thought I'd say that every team is going to go for the two points instead of the one point place kick, just to get all the points it can.
It turned out that is exactly what happened. As an NCAA report profiling the history of the two-point conversion noted about the 1958 season:
In the 578 games played in 1958, there were 1,371 two-point conversions attempted — a record that still stands. What's more impressive is there were only 1,295 PAT kicks attempted that year, making 1958 the only year in college football history where two-point conversions were attempted more often than PAT kicks.
Wilco, Daniel, 'The art of the 2 point conversion: When and why to go for it,' NCAA.com, October 12, 2017.
Due to less accurate kicking in the 1950s, teams made only 48.6% of their one-point conversions that year while converting 51.8% of the two-point attempts in 1958.
In 1959, however, the NCAA widened the goal posts from 18 feet 6 inches to 23 feet 4 inches, dramatically reducing two-point attempts. Then, the onset of the more-accurate soccer-style kickers in the 1960s and 1970s relegated the two-point conversion into the limited-use category, where it remains today.
In the end, the point is (or the two points are) that adopting a new rule that allows teams to pick up another point on occasion could bring a substantive rethinking of game strategies. That is not necessarily a bad thing, just as the two-point conversion did not harm the game despite many objecting to it when introduced in 1958. Thinking about potential rule changes today helps us understand the challenges rule makers and coaches of earlier eras faced when deciding to make a change. Sometimes they got it right, and other times wrong, but that is how the ball bounces.
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