NFL Overtime: Real Problem Or Fake Crisis?

By Curtis Clayton
May. 05, 2019

The NFL is contemplating modifying its overtime rules, at least in the postseason, that each team will get at least one offensive possession in the extra period, regardless if the team winning the coin toss scores an offensive touchdown in their initial possession. As this proposal slowly marches to the NFL's ownership body, some football writers have are ardently in favor of this, claiming that is it "unfair" for teams who lose the overtime coin toss to lose the game. There are a few words that accurately describe such a hypothesis.

Hogwash. Poppycock. Bollocks. And, in a more direct yet crude manner, bullshit.

Why does your humble scribe come to such a conclusion? That is a multi-layered answer that would probably be best served by asking a series of questions. First among all else...

Why does the NFL employ the use of overtime? That is fairly obvious. For many years in the league's developmental stages, ties would be just as common as wins and losses. In truth, ties hurt none of the teams, as ties were not calculated in a team's winning percentage. However, in 1941, the NFL installed a sudden death overtime period to be played if the game remained tied after four quarters concluded, then extended that rule to regular and preseason games. The first time sudden death was used was in a preseason game in 1951, with its most prolific usage in the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, coined "The Greatest Game Ever Played". In 1972, the NFL calculated ties into a team's winning percentage by giving a tie a value of half a win. NFL overtime had enjoyed a fairly quiet existence... Until 2009.

OK, what happened in 2009? To encapsulate for this exercise, the New Orleans Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game in overtime by virtue of a 40 yard Garrett Hartley field goal to send the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV (which they would ultimately win) and sent the Vikings (and future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre) home. The controversy in some circles was the fact that the Saints won the overtime coin toss, never lost possession of the ball, and never gave Minnesota a chance to respond. This argument was also augmented by the unmistakable fact that much of the NFL's rules changes were designed to open up offenses, even to the detriment of the defense. With the perceptions of defenses being emasculated by rules changes and unsatisfactory conclusions to games in sudden death, the NFL made a subtle but highly consequential rule change, first implemented for the 2010 playoffs then expanded to the 2012 regular season. That change was an exception to sudden death rules, in that if the team wins the OT coin toss and scores a field goal on their opening possession, the defending team would be allowed one offensive possession to respond. This was a wrong decision by the powers that be in NFL offices.

What makes that rule change wrong? The fact that the league was instituting a rule that only affected a minority of games. According to the NFL's Record and Fact Book in 2009, only 24% of games going into overtime would end on a field goal by the team winning the coin toss and never relinquishing possession. That translates into each team gaining ball possession at least once at around 75% (with roughly 1% of games ending in peculiar ways, such as a kickoff returned for a touchdown, defense scoring a safety, etc.) In short, this rule change was a knee jerk reaction to a high profile game ending in an anticlimactic fashion instead of it being done to address a lingering problem. While a field goal deciding a conference champion may not be an ideal conclusion, taking that option away significantly changes each side's strategy in that opening overtime possession, as it is no longer a secret that the offense will be making every effort to get in the end zone.

What has transpired since this change? Since the implementation of this sudden death modifier, there were five tie games in as many seasons; one in 2012, one in 2013, one in 2014, and two in 2016. If the intent of this rule change was to implement fairness between the two teams on the field, then it stripped away a different type of fairness to the football fan, as a tie for many American sports fans is considered a monumental waste of time. When people in the stadium are often spending hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to watch the game live, many wish to see a clear resolution; a winner and a loser. To put this uptick of deadlocked games into perspective, prior to 2009, there were five ties... Over a 20 year span. The speed of the game along with those offensively geared rule changes were an acceptable tonic to ensure winners and losers were ascertained on the field. In 2017, made another alteration to regular season overtime rules.

Alright, what changed in 2017? The NFL took the peculiar step in changing the length of the overtime period. Not peculiar in that it was shortened from a full 15 minutes like a standard quarter in regulation to 10 minutes, mind you. Peculiar in that it was made a rule without a standard one year experimental run. Perhaps because the reasoning for this rule was under the guise of player safety, but in any event, the abbreviated OT is now the law of the land. While protecting players from undue exposure to harm is a noble goal, trimming five minutes off an overtime period seems perfunctory at best.

Any tangible result? Nothing conclusive. While no ties occurred in 2017, two happened in 2018, and those may have been unavoidable given other circumstances. The Week 1 stalemate between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns played in atrocious field conditions and the Week 2 draw between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers showcased an unpopular rule change for 2018 and two kickers who were both struggling to shoot straight. But between the shortened overtime and the potential of both teams given possession, the likelihood of more ties will remain a specter over the league when the rarity of such occurrences was an acceptable level a decade ago. So let's get to the crux of this argument:

What is "fair"? This is a very suspect word in this entire debate, as this word has been the linchpin of those who wish to see these rules modified. So what is the definition of fair? The dictionary definition is; in accordance with the rules or standards. If we take this definition at face value, this obliterates this entire argument. To those who argue for a fair overtime system, are you suggesting that the NFL is not following its own rules and regulations in their own game? That is preposterous to conclude, of course. Perhaps those making this argument meant to say they wish for these rules to be equitable. That doesn't fly, either as the definition of equitable is to be fair and balanced. That is an impossibility within the context of an NFL game. One team will ultimately have an edge at the beginning of an overtime period, either by winning a coin toss or automatically awarding the ball to either the home or road team. The home team often enjoys the support of their own crowd, so is that factored in the doctrine of fairness that would be the process of overtime? There is no way to make overtime completely even. And to suggest a series of rules would change that is intellectually dishonest and ultimately harmful to the sport of football. And that is what football is at the end of the day: a sport.

Is there a compromise that can be reached to put this issue to bed? The myriad of gimmicks that have been suggested by those in the football media can only serve to devalue not only the games being played, but the game itself. When it comes to overtime in the NFL, it boils down to this question: Does the overall length of the game matter to you? Many of today's fans are already cranky over the fact that games stretch over three hours from kickoff to the final gun. If the proposition of a game lasting another 30 minutes or so is intolerable, then the NFL needs to revert their overtime rules back to 2008; 15 minute period & true sudden death, which is first score wins, even if it turns out to be an anticlimactic chip shot field goal by the winner of the coin toss who never lost possession. On the other hand, if you are dead set on the concept of both teams having at least one possession in that extra frame, then forget the gimmicks and leave sudden death for the postseason. Make overtime a 15 minute period, as it was in 2016, except instead of ending on a single score, play out the entire 5th quarter. If the teams remain deadlocked in the regular season, it's a tie. If the same scenario happens in the playoffs, then institute sudden death, as each team has more than likely had at least one possession to try to score.

When it comes to your humble scribe, the choice is clear: Let the NFL admit its mistake and junk this abomination that are the overtime rules changes done since 2010. Sudden death overtime, while imperfect, is an organic drama builder when two great teams are facing one another when the stakes are at their highest. The Epic in Miami became a legendary game because of the test of wills and endurance in a playoff atmosphere as the San Diego Chargers & Miami Dolphins were trying to advance to the AFC Championship game. As mentioned before, the 1958 NFL Championship game put the league on the sports landscape map, as Alan Ameche's touchdown dive ended the game, the climax of a nationally televised drama emanating from Yankee Stadium that fateful night. Take away sudden death overtime, and the game never is the same. Voltaire said perfect is the enemy of good. And until perfect makes its entrance, then good should stand tall above this bothersome fray.