Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Best Way to Fix Overtime

By Brad Oremland

An NFL spokesman announced this weekend that the league could change its overtime format for playoff games, starting next year. Under the new proposal, a field goal on the opening possession of overtime would not trigger sudden death. "Both teams would get the ball at least once unless the first team with the ball scores a touchdown. If the first team with the ball makes a field goal and the other team ties the game, action would continue until a team scores again."


* A team that scores a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime wins.

* A team that scores a field goal on the opening possession of overtime might not. The other team gets a chance to extend overtime (with a field goal of its own) or win outright (with a touchdown).

This is not the worst overtime proposal the owners have entertained. College overtime rules, for instance, eliminate punts and kickoffs and grant a hugely unfair advantage to the team that starts on defense. However, this is also not the best overtime proposal.

One idea, appealing because of its simplicity, is to move up the kickoff. Until 1994, when kickoffs were moved from the 35-yard line to the 30, the team that lost the coin toss actually had a better record in overtime than the team that won the toss. Why not have overtime kickoffs from the 35-yard line? That's such a small change that most people wouldn't even notice it.

Of course, that doesn't really address the issue. The problem is that sudden death overtime feels unfair when a team wins on the first possession, even if it isn't really unfair. Even now, winning the coin toss is a pretty small advantage. In the 2009 season, the team that won the toss won 7/13 overtime games, compared to 6/13 for the coin toss loser. Throw in playoffs, and it's 8/15 vs. 7/15. Does that sound like a serious imbalance to you? The problem is really just five games: those that ended with the coin toss winner scoring on its first possession. It doesn't feel right, doesn't seem fair.

Moving up the kickoff might level the playing field, but it still wouldn't feel right to most people when the game ends on that first possession. It still seems lucky, even if it isn't. So why bother with sudden death at all? Why not play a set overtime period? Put 8:00 or 10:00 on the clock and see what happens. That would lead to more ties than the current system, and ties are sometimes unsatisfying. But if the choices are (1) unfair results, (2) bizarre overhaul of rules that applies only to overtime, or (3) ties, gives me the third one every time. Ties also make playoff tiebreakers more interesting and easier to figure out. Anything that prevents us from having to calculate "strength of victory" is a good thing.

Here's what I do like about the league's overtime proposal: it encourages touchdowns. This season, only two of the 13 regular-season overtime games ended on a touchdown, with almost every game decided by a field goal. Few things are more frustrating than seeing a team driving the ball, really putting together good offensive plays, then kicking a 35-yard field goal on third down.

What I don't like about the new proposal is this: it's a bizarre and counterintuitive way to decide games, it only applies sometimes, it tweaks the problem rather than solving it, and it could create a disadvantage for the team that gets the ball first. One at a time:

It's a bizarre and counterintuitive way to decide games.

The new overtime rules would be sudden death some of the time, but not always. The solution to this problem is not a bizarre "sudden death +1" scheme in which it's not sudden death if the coin-flip winner scores a field goal on the first possession. That's a confusing, and kind of arbitrary, rule.

It tweaks the problem rather than solving it.

The issue here is not fairness so much as appearances. Under the new rules, a team could still win on the first possession of overtime if it scores a touchdown. Do you think fans won't complain that their team didn't get a chance just because they gave up a TD instead of a field goal? What about teams with a really good offense but a bad defense? If your favorite team lost to the Houston Texans on the first possession of overtime, wouldn't you complain that you didn't get a chance against their defense? If you were a Houston fan, wouldn't you complain that your team's terrific offense didn't have an opportunity to tie? I just don't think this solves the problem. It makes it better, but not fixed.

It only applies sometimes.

The new rules would only apply to playoff games. I understand that playoffs can't end in ties, but beyond that, having different rules for the regular season and the postseason is stupid. If it's a good idea in some games, it's a good idea in all of them.

It could create a disadvantage for the team that gets the ball first.

I don't know how this would actually play out. The team that wins the coin toss still gets a chance to win the game with an opening-drive TD. But if it doesn't, the advantage quickly flips in the other direction. If the coin toss winner scores a field goal, the other team knows what it needs. It can win with a touchdown, and it absolutely can't punt. Knowing what you need to do is a much greater advantage than getting the ball first.

How do we keep the good part of the league's proposal (TDs instead of field goals) without the potential drawbacks? Win by six, of course. Other sports, like volleyball and tennis, play win by two. NFL overtime could be win by six. It's easy to understand and doesn't require changing the rules. The problem is what to do if a team is up by three or four at the end of the 15-minute time overtime period. Does the team that's ahead win? Is it a tie? Do you keep going until someone's up by six? This also shares the problem of tweaking, rather than solving, the complaints. A team could still score an opening-drive TD and win by six without the opponent going on offense.

Again, the league proposal, which I expect will pass, is not a terrible idea. I'm not sure it's any better than the current system — in fact, it's probably worse — but it's not apparent to me that this will silence critics or make overtime fair. Instead of radical rules changes, partial sudden death, or confusing overtime-only policies, the league should do something simple: move kickoffs to the 35, or play a 10-minute overtime. There are simple solutions to this issue.

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