Until recently, NFL coaches had been adverse to taking chances with the game on the line.

Football coaches are by nature conservative. Playing it safe means less heat from owners, fans and media if you fail.

Which is why it was a big deal when Kansas City’s Dick Vermeil went for a winning touchdown instead of a tying field goal two weeks ago against Oakland. And when Tampa Bay’s Jon Gruden went for a 2-point conversion to beat Washington last week instead of kicking an extra point to send the game into overtime.

Funny thing, but the man who made one of the best remembered (and respected) gambles in football history said this week he wouldn’t have done it if the rules had been different.

The decision in 1984 – the days before overtime – was made by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who went for a 2-point conversion in the Orange Bowl against Miami rather than kicking for a tie. The conversion failed and Miami won the national championship, a title that most people agreed Nebraska would have won had it tied the Hurricanes.

“I always felt that if you were going to win a national championship you needed to win the game,” Osborne, now a congressman from Nebraska, said this week. “I didn’t think about playing for a tie. After the fact, everyone just told me, no problem, if you’d tied you’d have won the title.”

But Osborne also said if there was overtime then, he would have kicked the ball and taken his chances in extra time.

That brings up another idea.

Imagine if the extra point kick, perhaps the most boring play in sports, was thrown out and teams had to go for 2, as they do in college if a game is still tied after two overtimes. It would never happen in the staid NFL, but if it did, you can imagine how much time coaches would spend trying to figure out what works best from the 2-yard line.

For now, it remains simply an option, one that Osborne exercised at a huge time in a huge game.

There was less on the line for Vermeil and Gruden in the middle of a 16-game NFL season, although their teams are in playoff contention.

But remember that both were on the 1-yard line rather than the 2 or 3, a point noted by Osborne.

And remember that Gruden first tried to kick the extra point and decided to go for 2 only after the Redskins were offside on the kick, which they blocked. The ball then was moved to the 1.

Vermeil and Gruden probably had the odds in their favor. In both games, both sides were moving the ball so well that the winner of the overtime coin toss was a likely winner, and the coin toss is a 50-50 proposition.

Players are a little less conservative than coaches.

Brett Favre, for example, said he would have pushed for a 2-point try if the Packers had scored on a final drive in Cincinnati, where they lost 21-14 on Oct. 30.

“Hell yeah. It was obvious I was pooped out. I think everyone was pooped out. … I had just had enough,” Favre said. “I was ready to go for two if we had gotten it. I think everyone was.”

And Washington quarterback Mark Brunell, whose team lost in Tampa, thinks Gruden made the right decision.

“They only needed a yard,” Brunell said. “We would probably do the same thing. We were moving the ball. If we had won that toss, there was a good chance we were going to go down and at least get a field goal. I think it was a smart decision. I wish he’d kicked it.”

One of the more amusing aspects of the gambles was the reaction of the conservative coaching fraternity.

“This league is very by-the-book: This is how everything should be,”‘ Buffalo coach Mike Mularkey said.

“I don’t know why it’s got to be that way. Sometimes you have to take some chances and do some things that are off what everybody is expecting. I’ve been involved with teams that came from behind to score to tie it, never saw the ball and lost the game. I know what they were thinking: Our defense has not held up in the last couple drives, and right there our offense had some serious momentum going.”‘

But others stuck to conventional wisdom.

Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher recalled the biggest play in his franchise’s history, the last one of the 2000 Super Bowl when the Titans’ Kevin Dyson was tackled at the St. Louis 1-yard line as time ran out. That gave St. Louis a 23-16 victory.

If Dyson had gotten in?

“In that particular case I would have not gone for 2,” Fisher said.

“I felt like the momentum had changed; had we gotten the chance to win the toss, we would have been attacking a tired defense.”

Since the 2-point conversion was put into the NFL in 1994, the success rate is 44 percent, so going for it is a risk.

And more NFL coaches misuse the 2-point conversion than use it correctly.

In 2002, for example, Jim Fassel, then the Giants’ coach, went for two and failed in the third quarter of a game with Tennessee. That eventually left his team ahead 29-21 instead of 30-21 late in the game, allowing the Titans to score, tie it on a 2-pointer and win in overtime.

That same season, the acclaimed Bill Belichick went for 2 and failed with the Patriots trailing 21-16 in Denver. Then the Broncos kicked a field goal to make it 24-16 meaning that if the Patriots had scored (they didn’t), he would have been forced to go for 2 again.

In fact, in that Kansas City-Oakland game, Vermeil’s decision could have been unnecessary.

After the Raiders, trailing 20-9, scored to make it 20-15, Turner went for 2 and failed. When the Raiders scored again, he had to try a 2-pointer and made it, making it 23-20, the same score it would have been had he kicked twice.

Thus the first 2-point try forced him to attempt the second. If he had failed again, the score would have been 21-20 when the Chiefs got the ball to the Oakland 1 with 5 seconds left.

Vermeil certainly would have kicked a field goal to win the game.

Without Vermeil’s example, would Gruden have done the same?

We’ll never know.

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