Paterno's Fuzzy Math Didn't Add Up

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno took strong exception to folks who wondered why he did not go for two while up four late in last Saturday's game against Northwestern, saying only an "idiot" would have eschewed the conventional PAT. You'll be surprised to discover who falls into that category.

Dick Vermeil has an impressive resume. Currently the head coach of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, he earned a bachelor's degree from San Jose State in 1958 and a master's degree the following year.

As an assistant coach at Stanford from 1965-68, he worked with, among others, Bill Walsh and Jim Mora. In 1969, he became the first special teams coach in NFL history, working under George Allen with the Los Angles Rams. He later served as offensive coordinator at UCLA, running backs coach with the Rams (under Chuck Knox), and eventually was named head coach at UCLA in 1974, leading the Bruins to a Pac 8 title in 1975.

Vermeil became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976, guided the team to a Super Bowl in 1980, and retired following the 1982 season, only to begin a long broadcasting career. He returned to the NFL in 1997 with the St. Louis Rams, and directed that team to a Super Bowl win in 1999. He retired again shortly thereafter, and resurfaced in Kansas City in 2001.

An amazing resume, to be sure. And Vermeil boasts another distinction:

He is an idiot. At least that's what you'd think after listening to another coaching icon, Penn State's Joe Paterno.

Paterno drew mild criticism after last Saturday's 34-29 win over Northwestern for choosing to kick an extra point rather than going for two after the Nittany Lions scored the go-ahead touchdown with 51 seconds remaining in the game.

The touchdown pass from Michael Robinson to Derrick Williams — sans PAT — gave Penn State a four-point lead (33-29). Because a Wildcat field goal could not beat the Lions, folks who enjoy dissecting the intricacies of the game wondered why State did not go for two to increase the lead to 35-29, which would have given it a mathematical chance to remain tied had Northwestern closed regulation with a desperation touchdown (and tied it 35-35 before the PAT).

For the record, in the three seasons prior to this one, Penn State opponents had failed on 11.6 percent of their point-after kicks.

It was harmless Sunday morning quarterback banter. Yet at his Tuesday press conference, Paterno seemed both confused and irritated when someone asked why he did not go for two.

“Why would we go for two? What's the difference?” he growled. “If we had made two, it makes it six. They score, kick the extra point and we lose anyway. … You don't know what you're talking about. Not on that.

“There isn't a guy in his right mind who wouldn't…” he added before stopping in frustration. “You have to remember, we kick a field goal at the end of the game, we win the game. We didn't have to score a touchdown. … We weren't even thinking about scoring a touchdown at the end of the game. We just wanted to get the ball in position to kick a field goal and win it.”

The relevancy of Penn State hoping for a winning field goal while trailing 29-27 was lost on everyone else in the room. After all, once the touchdown was scored, it became a moot point. None of which is to mention the fact that in Kevin Kelly, the program has a true freshman kicker. By any rational assessment, priority one should have been scoring a touchdown, with Kelly getting a shot if the drive stalled.

But Paterno went off on the field-goal tangent again on his radio call-in show Thursday. Then he callously condemned the go-for-two crowd that had the nerve to disagree with him.

“Any idiot that thinks I should have gone for two doesn't understand the game of football,” he said.

Which is where Vermeil comes in. According to, in the early 1970s, while he was offensive coordinator at UCLA, Vermeil helped develop what would come to be known as “The Chart.” It is a breakdown of score scenarios — with all the relevant mathematical equations factored in — indicating when teams should go for two-point conversions after a touchdown (and when they should go for one).

To this day, coaches at all levels of the game refer to The Chart (see related graphic) after scoring, particularly in late-game situations.

Part of the rationale for the chart was to provide a quick reference for coaches who are so wrapped up in a game that they may not be thinking clearly enough to crunch the numbers. Especially coaches who are not particularly adept at math, such as, say, a certain English literature major from Brown.

And make no mistake, over the past several years, Paterno has proved beyond question he is no math whiz. Even in what was at the time a landmark victory — Penn State's 29-27 win over Ohio State in 2001 that made Paterno the all-time Division I-A win king (324) — a poor decision on an extra point was nearly devastating.

In that game, Penn State overcame a 27-9 third-quarter deficit to take a 28-27 lead on a touchdown pass from Zack Mills to Eric McCoo early in the fourth quarter. The Chart said go for two, so a field goal can't beat you. The Lions kicked a meaningless extra point to go up 29-27.

And sure enough, late in the game, Ohio State marched down to the Penn State 17. Needing only a field goal to win, Buckeye Mike Nugent attempted a 34-yarder. It was blocked by Jimmy Kennedy and PSU averted disaster.

Last season, Penn State trailed Minnesota 16-0 in the third quarter in a game in Minneapolis. Late in the period — after their previous eight drives had resulted in six punts, one missed field goal and one lost fumble — the Lions finally punched in a score. They trailed 16-6 before the PAT. A successful two-point conversion would have put them within one score — 16-8. A missed two-point conversion would have made it 16-6, meaning a touchdown, conventional extra point and field goal would have still tied it.

Yes, The Chart says to go for one when trailing by 10. But given the struggles of the PSU offense — it managed three points the previous week vs. Wisconsin, Mills was nursing an injured shoulder and Robinson was out with a concussion — at least attempting to make it a one-possession game seemed to make sense. Remember, including this touchdown, Penn State had scored exactly 10 points in its last six quarters of play.

The Lions kicked the extra point, trailed 16-7, and needed at least two more scores to win. And sure enough, on their final three drives, they got close to the end zone once. A march to the Gophers' 16-yard line ended in an interception with 4:12 left in the game.

But Big Ten coaches are not always so reluctant to go for two. Late in 2004, a certain team was winless in conference play, struggling to get a victory … somehow, anyhow. On the road, down by two with the fourth quarter winding down, it capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a short touchdown run to take a four-point lead (20-16).

There's that number again — four. The Chart said go for two. The head coach of the team in question did and converted, making it 22-16. After a terrific goal-line stand, the team ran out the clock, taking a safety as time expired to win 22-18.

The team?

Penn State of course, whose victory at Indiana sparked the six-game winning streak the Nittany Lions carry into Saturday's home date with Minnesota.

The head coach?

You'd have to be an idiot not to know his name.


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