NFL overtime: Broke, but maybe not fixable

Proposed new rule has flaws, too

March 04, 2010

I think of the NFL's overtime rule the way Winston Churchill looked at democracy. It's the worst possible system - except for all the others that have been tried.

The overtime rule, sudden death that starts with a coin flip, is unfair, imbalanced, hopelessly flawed … and the best we've got.

Not everyone agrees. So later this month, at the owners meeting in Orlando, Fla., the league's competition committee will propose a plan to revamp overtime, one that gives both teams a better chance to touch the ball. But that's an imperfect plan, too, proof that even some of the smartest football minds around - committee members Rich McKay, Jeff Fisher, Bill Polian among them - cannot build the perfect beast.

The new proposal says the team that gets the ball to start overtime can win on the opening possession only with a touchdown. If that team kicks a field goal, the other team gets a possession with a chance to either win with a touchdown or tie with a field goal. If the game is tied after that, it would be sudden death from that point on.

If neither team scores on its first possession, the game would continue on a sudden-death basis.

The plan will require a three-quarters-majority vote from owners to pass. Assuming it's proposed as is (although it's entirely possible it will be further modified), the system would be for postseason games only. That means it immediately would address the league's pervasive fear that a Super Bowl will end the way this year's NFC championship game did. In that title game, the New Orleans Saints won on a quick first-possession field goal while Brett Favre and the rest of Minnesota's offense watched helplessly from the Vikings' sideline.

But the current system allows defense to win games, too. That's what happened in the wild-card game between the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals. Arizona won that by forcing a fumble by Aaron Rodgers and returning it for a touchdown. That will be remembered as one of the best playoff games ever, not as an indictment of the overtime system.

The new system to be proposed feels contrived in the way it handcuffs teams. Deciding how a team can or can't win - a standard that's different at different points of the season, no less - changes the game too much.

Not only that, but the new proposal has its problems. Yes, it eliminates the possibility of the coin-flip winner's clinching with a quick field goal, but it then tips the scales in favor of the team that gets the second possession.

Imagine if the rule had been in place for the Vikings-Saints game, for instance. After the Saints went up by three, Favre would have gotten the ball back with the knowledge that the Vikings would need at least a field goal. Punting wouldn't have been an option. All four downs would have been in play, and advance knowledge of that would have provided the Vikings a strategy-altering advantage.

Both the current and the proposed rules have drawbacks. Is it really necessary to trade one flawed system for another? Don't think so, especially if it threatens the undeniable excitement of sudden-death situations.

(As for the college overtime system of giving each team a chance to score from the 25, it takes special teams entirely out of the equation. That might work in college, but it's too much of a concession in the NFL.)

Sports Illustrated's Peter King points to some interesting numbers, ones that suggest the improving accuracy of kickers has made the current system increasingly unfair. In the first five years of overtime, kickers made 61 percent of their attempts. In the past five years, that number improved to 82 percent. Since 1974, 73 percent of overtime games have been won by a field goal. The number of games won by the coin-flip winner has risen sharply over the past 16 seasons. Between 1974 and 1993, 46.8 percent of overtime games were won by the winner of the coin flip. That's jumped to 59.8 percent since 1994.

With that in mind, there might be some minor tweaks that would make the current system more fair, without overhauling it.

Any time you can remove luck from the equation it's a good thing. How about eliminating the coin flip and instead allowing the visiting team to decide whether to kick or receive? That could influence the way both teams strategize at the end of regulation, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Or, there's the suggestion of NBC's Al Michaels that the first overtime kickoff be booted from the 40, instead of the 30, leading to more touchbacks and fewer short field-goal drives.

Another option is simply leaving the rule as is. For teams unhappy with the current overtime system, there's always this: Win the game in regulation.

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