NFL Overtime Rule - Simple Fix

Last Wednesday morning, Mike and Mike (of the ESPN 1050 New York morning radio show) were discussing the problems with the NFL’s overtime rule.

For those unfamiliar with the rule: the team that scores first in the overtime session wins the game. A coin flip before the overtime period determines who gets the ball first. The major issue that people have with the rule is that if a team gets the ball and scores on its first possession, the game is over with the other team not having had a chance at a possession. The NFL has had this rule in place for as far back as I can remember and, my guess is that they would prefer not to change it.

On Thursday, I e-mailed my simple fix to Mike and Mike, although I have no idea if anyone read my e-mail. Warner Wolf does a Saturday morning show on the same station, and it just so happens that people were calling in with their suggestions. Most of these involved wholesale changes to the rule with various convoluted options and scenarios. When I told Warner my solution, he promptly dismissed it. I’ll tell you his 2 reasons after I reveal it to you.

Here’s my fix: At the beginning of every NFL game, there is a coin flip to determine who gets the ball at the beginning of the game and at the beginning of the 3rd quarter. I propose that at the same time, a second coin flip is done to determine who gets the ball in a potential overtime. This takes 5 extra seconds at the beginning of each game, but imho, makes the current rule much fairer.

Here’s my reasoning:

Currently during regulation, neither team knows who would get the ball first in a potential overtime. The ultimate winner of the overtime coin flip is perceived to have an advantage. This is confirmed by the fact that no coach in his right mind would ever elect to kickoff to the other team in overtime.

Having the overtime coin flip before the game takes away much of this advantage. A team that knows that it will have to kickoff in overtime can manage its 4th quarter strategy better. For example, instead of kicking a game-tying extra point, it can go for a 2-point conversion. Or instead of settling for a game-tying field goal, it might try a bit harder for the go-ahead touchdown.

Here were Warner’s points:

  1. You still have the problem of the potential of only one team getting the ball in OT.

My answer: But now at least the other team is aware of this and can do something to prevent an overtime (if it chooses to; obviously if it is confident in its defense, it doesn’t have to).

  1. No one wants to think about overtime before the game even starts.

My answer: And no one will. Since the probability of an overtime is so small, no one will care. If anything, this de-emphasizes the importance of the overtime coin flip. It only becomes relevant if there is the potential for a tie at the end of regulation.

Warner, who never cut me off the previous 2 times I called, cut me off before I could respond to his objections.

But my final point would’ve been: Before the game starts, we already know who will be getting the ball first in the 1st and 3rd quarters. Why not the 5th “quarter”?

Any thoughts?

What percentage of the time would you hazard that the team that gets the ball first in OT wins the game on their first possession?

I don’t know, and am not sure why this is relevant. As long as it’s >0, the other team will perceive the rule as being unfair. Also, if there are no turnovers, even winning on the 2nd or 3rd possessions could be viewed as unfair. This is why the college overtime rule guarantees an equal number of possessions, although I hate that solution.

Well, I counted it up, and out of 13 OT games in the regular season, 6 were won on the first possession.

I think having a 50% chance at having a 46% chance of winning OT on the first possession isn’t unfair. If there were a 50% chance at having, say, a 65% chance at winning the game on the first possession, you might have a point.

Plus, football (my favorite sport) is already such a horrible morass of unexplainable rules that I think the Commissioner should do everything in his power to make rules simpler. Having two coin flips at the beginning of the game makes things more esoteric.

I’ll even nominate a rule to eliminate: why the hell does the offensive line have to be covered by a tight end/wide receiver on both sides? Just leads to stupid illegal formation penalties.

I think the real problem with this sort of solution is that it ends up introducing some of the problems that the college football tie-breaker has in place. Let’s consider some other scenarios.

Let’s say my team is down by a field goal, but I also know I’ll get the ball first in OT. My incentive to go for the go-ahead TD is minimized, because there’s less risk involved. If I have 3rd and 10 on the 30, with 30s left, I’m much more likely to throw underneath and try to get a shorter field goal attempt than see if I can get a first down. The value of aiming for the first down is reduced, because the probability of winning with a field goal is increased. Meanwhile, if you don’t know whether you’ll get the ball first or not in overtime, then winning in regulation is definitely superior.

Similar situation, I just scored a TD, and going for 1 ties it, 2 wins it. If I know I won’t get the ball in OT, I’m a lot more likely to go for 2. Meanwhile, if I know I will get it, there’s virtually no incentive to go for 2, even if you have all the momentum in the world, because you can just go for one and be sure you’ll carry that momentum into OT, where otherwise, you may go for it to try to capitalize on momentum because you don’t know whether your offense or defense will be out on the field first in OT.

So, really, the problem is, it introduces a situation where one team has a better idea of knowing what they have to do to win, like in college football, where in the NFL, you don’t get that advantage and, really, if your defense can’t keep a team from scoring when it counts, that’s just as important as having an offense that can score when it counts.
All in all, the NFL system is actually reasonably fair. In my mind, the only way it could really be made more fair is if they just played a whole quarter in addition. Then the only way getting the ball first would be an advantage would be if you had a 12 minute drive. The problem with that is that an extra quarter hurts both teams because OT already is a disadvantage for the following week, and making it last longer makes it worse. But if you went to a shorter chunk, like the NBA, to say 5 minutes, then one team could easily eat up the whole OT period, resulting in the same problem, or not have enough time to score, and then you have to figure out how many OTs you need to have to make it fair fair.

The current system minimizes the additional wear on the players, because they play the minimum amount possible, and we have to admit that sudden death is more exciting, and the NFL IS entertainment. So yeah, the perception is that it’s less fair than it actually is, but changing for a system that could result in more injuries, or less excitement, and wouldn’t necessarily be more fair just isn’t in the NFL’s interest. I don’t see it changing any time soon.

To the OP - it’s an interesting suggestion, and one I at least haven’t heard a dozen times before, but it seems to me like the NFL OT rules are fine as is. This subject came up in the last week because of all the “Peyton Manning never got a chance” articles last Monday. But if the Colts had won the coin toss and beaten San Diego last week, not a single talking head in the sports media would have written a “Philip Rivers never got a chance” article - which leads me to believe that the recent uproar was more about losing a chance to genuflect at the Altar of Manning than about any real inherent unfairness.

Bottom line - if you lose the coin toss, that’s fine; just get the ball back on D.

I’m fine with the system as is; but if I were to change it, I’d just go to a 7 1/2 minute OT. At half the length of a regular quarter,

A) the extra wear-and-tear on the players isn’t too bad,
B) it’s long enough that each team will likely get at least one chance on offense, and
C) it’s short enough that you don’t lose the edge-of-your-seat urgency that the late fourth quarter of a close or tied game brings.

If there’s any change at all, it should just be to eliminate sudden death and play another timed quarter like they do in basketball. It doesn’t have to be a full 15 minutes, it could be 10 or even 5.

ETA TheBoltEater got there first. 7 1/2 minutes would be about perfect.

Peter King wrote today that, in the last five years, 72 games have gone to OT. 28 were decided on the first possession, and the team that won the coinflip won 44 of those 72 games. (Not sure I see the relevance of the second statistic.)

King bemoans “the inequity of overtime” and, not for the first time, demands the league do something. He says the average drive starts on the 27 these days, and with more accurate and stronger kickers, the team that gets the kickoff “only” has to drive about 40 yards to have a reasonable shot at a game-winning FG. (He says a 48-yard kick is “easily within range of every kicker in the league.”)

I guess I’m supposed to be outraged that it’s hard to win an OT game if you can’t stop the opposing team from driving 40 yards, as if it’s automatic that the kicking team has no chance to create a turnover or simply stop their opponents from gaining a first down before they drive 40 yards or block the field goal try. I don’t buy that at all.

There are three phases to football: offense, defense, and special teams.

People who whine about OT tick me off because they think that football = offense.

And to those people, I say:

Football doesn’t equal offense, cupcake.

Man up. There are eleven dudes on D who would love to be the hero with a pick or a fumble recovery or a hell of a defensive stand deep in enemy territory to set some pretty field position for the offense.

And there are 11 dudes on special teams who would love to strip the return man and house it on their own.

“Peyton Manning never got a chance.” Waaaaah. If Peyton Manning is your whole team, then fire your damn GM, because hey, Sally, Bob Sanders got HIS chance and Bob Sanders blew it.

If you can’t trust your D, you ain’t a football team.

The only thing that bugs me about OT is that the team that wins the toss can win with a field goal. I have no problem with a team driving all the way down the field and scoring a TD. I think the team that wins the toss shouldn’t be allowed to kick a FG; after the opening possession, normal rules apply.

This is such a played-out argument-- how about we get rid of the forward pass too? Then will it be like the good ol’ days, when men were men and no one whined about “fairness”?

Look, the game is won when one team scores. There is some nonzero probability that a team will score on any given offensive drive. The team that wins the coin toss gains an advantage equal to that probability. Therefore, the system is inherently flawed.

How about if the first possesion results in a TD, game over. If it results in a FG, then the other team gets a possesion.

The best solution I’ve heard is “first to six points”, although I’d amend it to “first to four points”.

This puts the receiving team at a disadvantage.

I think we should just eliminate overtime. Whichever team is playing catch-up must go ahead to win the game.

Down 21-20 pending the try, you’d kick early, but have to go for two late. Down three points late in the fourth, you’ll go for it on fourth down rather than attempt a field goal.

This could make for some interesting coaching decisions… a coach would have to decide whether he thought his team would score again when a score-tying opportunity was available.

The weird part would be the rare 7-7 game that wasn’t a tie.

Why should a team be penaized for scoring the same amount of points as the other team in the same amount of time?

I made this proposal the last time we did this thread here, probably 2 or 3 months ago, and I agree with the premise. I don’t really think that it makes overtime more fair, but it lessens the influence of the coin flip which is the goal.

The more I’ve thought about it the less ideal it seems. I’ve come to the rationalization that Overtime doesn’t need to be “fair” and that there’s no particular reason to insist that the team that gets the ball first wins exactly 50% of the time. The complaint is that the advantage is tied to an arbitrary coin flip. If we tie the advantage to something that everyone can agree on, then perhaps we’ll stop making up arguments about some sense of “fairness”.

The best proposal is that we just keep the OT set up as it is and give the Home Team the ball first in overtime. Make this part of home field advantage. Then we can forget the ruse that OT is somehow required to be a 50/50 proposition.

Scorers kick off in American football? So why not just say that each team must have a possession… if the scores are still even after that, it’s sudden death.

No. There is a coin flip. The winner of the flip chooses whether to receive the kick or to kick away. 99.9% of the time this means the coin flip winner elects to receive the ball and be on offense first.

Your suggestions have been proposed and they are simply unworkable for many reasons. The most influential of which is the adverse impact that would have on the TV broadcasts of the games. A Sudden Death overtime is the fastest way to finish the game and that is crucial for broadcast schedules and also for the health and recovery of the players. Your proposal would essentially dictate a 6 period game, 50% longer than usual, and that’s never going to happen and I’m not sure anyone wants that anyways.