The safety in football has been an afterthought of a scoring play for over 125 years. Since Walter Camp explained it in his 1893 rulebook, there’s never been an established reason, historical or statistical, for why it counts for just two points despite being the most uncommon means of scoring. And according to Alex Kirshner, even with the novelty of getting the ball back after you score, the average safety is still worth only about 4.1 points in total, making the more common means of scoring—the “touchdown”—significantly more desirable in practically every situation.
But a few times in recent NFL weeks, teams have had to settle for a safety when the prospect of a touchdown has slipped literally through their fingers, and they’ve paid dearly for that combination of bad luck and arbitrary scoring. Yesterday evening, that misfortune befell the New Orleans Saints, who were punting the ball away late in the second quarter while down 14-7 against the Chiefs. The returner, Demarcus Robinson, saw the ball pop out as he tried to escape tacklers inside the 10 (not a good idea), and everyone watched as it hopped and skipped into the promised land.
It was an exciting moment, but one that necessitated calm and care. The Saints could not afford to poke the ball out of the back of the end zone and lose five points. One of the men in black and gold had to recover it tactfully, and with grace. Alex Anzalone, unfortunately, was not that man. The Saints were awarded two, heard the first-half buzzer sound on the ensuing kickoff, and then lost the game by a field goal.
The Saints’ safety must have stirred up some bad memories for the Seattle Seahawks from their upset loss to the Giants earlier this month. In another play from the end of the half—which, of course, renders moot the get-the-ball-back gimmick—the Seahawks managed a rare play in itself by blocking a Riley Dixon punt on the goal line. Again, though, the ball was too excited to be contained. DeeJay Dallas had it squirt right out of his grasp, and then Penny Hart’s recovery came with his hand just on the wrong side of the line. Though there was still 30 minutes of football to play after this mess, the five-point scoring gap turned out to be the difference. The Seahawks fell in the end, 17-12.
This is not the part where I get with the trend and suggest that the scoring value of the safety should be increased. Not that I could give a strong, compelling reason why the reward for these very good defensive plays should be scarcely more valuable than an extra point. But seeing as I do not care about either the Saints or the Seahawks, it is much more fascinating to watch them suffer because a football rolled about a yard further than it was supposed to. It’s silly. It’s brutal. It’s complete nonsense. And it’s the safety we’ve grown to love since 1893. If you don’t like it, just recover the damn ball.