What’s Not to Like About the O.T. Proposal?

published March 3, 2010

Somewhere in this pigskin-loving nation there are people who are strongly in favor of the current NFL overtime system.  I’ve never met one, nor have I read one, sat near one at a game, or heard one bloviating on a talk show or in a bar.

The argument in favor of it boils down to, “It’s not as bad as it looks.”  I know, because I’ve made it.

Football is a three-part game: offense, defense, and special teams.  If you lose the coin flip, it’s up to your kickoff team and your defense to keep the other team from scoring.  If they can’t, you lose.

It’s irrelevant that the team that wins the toss always takes the ball.  Even if it’s a genuine strategic advantage to get the ball first, it’s still up to the kicking team to do its job.  The home team in baseball has a strategic advantage in every game; road teams still won 45% of the games last year.  If you lose in overtime, blame what you did for the first sixty minutes, not the coin or the ref or the rules.

That’s the case for it, and I believe it, but I can’t say I’m as passionate in its defense as those who oppose it are in their opposition.

From a dramatic standpoint, there’s something distinctly anticlimactic about seeing two teams battle for sixty minutes, only to have the game decided by a coin flip, a few plays, and a long field goal.

Peter King on SI.com reports this week that NFL owners are closer than ever before to altering the overtime structure from the present system to a hybrid of sudden death and guaranteed possession for both teams:

  • There would be a coin flip, as before.
  • Team A receives the ball, and if the possession results in a touchdown (for either team), the game is over.
  • If Team A fails to score and turns the ball over, Team B takes over and sudden-death rules apply: the next score wins.  (I haven’t seen this explicitly, but logic suggests that if Team B scores a safety during Team A’s possession, the game is over.)
  • If Team A scores on a field goal, it kicks off to Team B.  If Team B scores a touchdown, it wins; if it fails to score, it loses; and if it kicks a field goal, the game is tied, Team B kicks off, and the next team to score in any way wins.

This method recognizes that conditions in pro football have changed since the overtime rules were adopted in 1974.  Kickoffs come from the 30, not the 35.  Placekickers are much more accurate than they used to be, particularly on long kicks.  The rules have created a more favorable environment for the passing game, increasing the likelihood that a team will get into field-goal range on its first overtime possession.

It’s hard to see any objections to the idea, though the Kickers Anti-Defamation League might be troubled by the implication that their efforts aren’t “football-y” enough to end the game.  I’m just sorry that the rules-makers are only considering implementing this change for the 2010 playoffs; with so few games covered, it’s unlikely we’ll see this interesting new wrinkle for a while.

The most intriguing shift might be that teams could prefer to kick off to start the overtime.  In college games, where each team gets the ball on the 25, coaches usually want the ball last, so they’ll know what kind of score they need.  In the pros, the team that kicks off may have an unusual advantage: if Team A gets a field goal, Team B knows it must score in some fashion, so the entire field becomes four-down territory.   The drawback is that if Team B only gets a field goal in return, it must now kick off to Team A in sudden death.

The strategies will be complex and will ebb and flow in fascinating ways, leaving much to argue about on Monday mornings.  It’s a good and interesting idea, and I hope we’ll get to see it in action before the NFL’s 2011 labor-management Armageddon.

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