For the second week in a row, we’ve seen the Pittsburgh Steelers lose in overtime. While Ravens fans may be enjoying this immensely, the fact remains that the NFL’s overtime rules are fundamentally flawed and need to change. This is a perennial complaint of mine that I’m finally going to put into print.
As it currently stands, when regulation time expires and the game is tied, a sudden death overtime quarter us played. The first team to score any points wins, and there is a second coin toss to determine who will get the ball first. And although Donovan McNabb didn’t know it, the game ends in a tie if the 5th quarter time runs out and neither team has put any points on the board.
By far, the worst aspect of this system is that a team can lose in OT without ever having an opportunity to score. Since 1994 (when kickoffs were moved back 5 yards to the 30-yard line), just over 1 in 3 overtime games have been won by the team which won the coin toss and then scored on the very first possession. In other words, they never had to use their defense, and the losing team never got to use their offense; and after both of those squads undoubtedly contributed to the game being knotted after 60 minutes, it ended on an arbitrary 50/50 chance.
A big reason for this is that, in overtime, the team on offense isn’t really trying to score a touchdown like they would be under normal circumstances. Any NFL fan has seen enough OT games to know what happens. As soon as they’re close enough for a field goal, they send out the kicking team, usually not even on fourth down. It’s a completely different mindset from the usual object of football, which is to score a touchdown if you can and settle for a field goal try only if you come up short. To me, it really cheapens the game to have overtime rules that discourage trying for 6 points in favor of the easier 3.
Sudden death rules are not without their merits. I think they’re perfect for games like hockey and soccer, but they’re completely wrong for football. Football is unique in its concept of possession of the ball, as well as in its multiple ways to score points (touchdowns, field goals, and safeties). In games where possession is defined only by who has physical control of the ball or puck at that moment, and where there is only one way to score, sudden death is ideal. But now that hockey (thank God) has gotten rid of ties, why should football still have them? And while it’s never happened before, you know someday it will- a playoff game that would end in a tie if it were a regular season match, but now cannot. For playoff games, the NFL rules say that if the OT quarter expires, you just play another one until somebody wins. That’s fine I suppose, but it could lead to less-than-perfect execution by very exhausted players as well as a lengthy playoff game spilling into another’s time slot And do we really want a set of OT rules that can’t be used as-is for the postseason?
So what’s the answer? Go back to school. College football has it right. Period. There, if regulation ends in a tie, an overtime series is played in which both teams are given a turn with a 1st & 10 on the 25-yard line. The only function of the second coin toss is to decide who goes first and who goes second. If both teams score the same number of points on their turn (meaning the game is still tied), another series is played until one outdoes the other. And there’s one more catch that I think is really cool- if more than two “extra innings” are necessary, teams are no longer allowed kick for extra points after a touchdown and must attempt a two-point conversion. I still remember the Orange Bowl a few years ago in which Penn State defeated Florida State in triple overtime as one of the greatest, most thrilling football games I’ve ever seen.
The college rules are so much better because they require teams to use both their offense and defense to win, do not encourage settling for the easier points, and do not give anyone a 1 in 3 chance of losing a hard-fought contest on a coin flip. If anyone can make a good counterargument for the current NFL overtime rules, I’d love to hear it.