The Joys of Tie Games in the NFL

What is worse — a couple of games ending in a tie every year, or entire seasons (for some teams anyway) ending in a tie every year, and, at least as often as not, the ties getting decided by tie-breakers that give the playoff spot or the higher playoff seed to the wrong team?

As in most debates of this sort, history provides context: prior to 1967, any ties for first place at the end of the regular season were broken the old-fashioned way — by having the tied teams play it off. With the realignment of the pre-merger NFL into four four-team divisions that year, the then-Baltimore Colts and the then-Los Angeles, later St. Louis, and now once-again Los Angeles Rams finished with identical 11-1-2 records atop something called the Coastal Division (made necessary because Jack Kent Cooke and Edward Bennett Williams, co-owners of the Redskins, always refused to let the Colts play in the old Eastern Conference, despite their East Coast location).

The Rams advanced because they beat the Colts once and tied them once (the Ram win occurring in the season finale), making the Colts the best non-playoff team in NFL history, as no wild card playoff berths existed. Indeed, the plight of the '67 Colts, who entered their last game undefeated and still didn't make the playoffs, no doubt contributed to the creation of such berths — before the NFL and AFL merged competitively in 1970 (the corporate merger having been consummated in 1966).

In 1974, the NFL implemented a 15-minute sudden-death overtime period for regular-season games. Except for the aforementioned '67 Colts, not a single team missed the playoffs on tie-breakers from 1967 through 1973, an average of 0.14 teams per year (although Dallas and Washington did finish tied for first place in the NFC East in 1973, but the Redskins, who lost the tie-breaker, still made the playoffs as a wild card). From 1974 through 2017, a total of 62 teams missed the playoffs on tie-breakers — 1.4 teams per year, 10 times the incidence as in overtime-free 1967-73 — including four years in which three teams missed (1991, 1999, 2002, and 2011), and two years in which an incredible four teams missed (1982 and 2006).

The reason for this massive difference in the number of teams who got screwed out of the playoffs is purely mathematical: in a 16-game season without ties, there are only 17 possible winning percentages that a team can finish with. Allow a small but realistic number of games to end in a tie and that number of possible winning percentages nearly doubles, to 33 — which in turn opens up the possibility for division titles, playoff spots, and playoff seedings to be decided by half-game margins; e.g., 10-6 over 9-6-1, rather than by the arcane tie-breaking procedures.

And besides being arcane, the tie-breaking procedures are often unfair: say that, in a season where the NFC won most of the interconference games (as it did last year, by the third widest margin in NFL history), two AFC teams tie for a playoff spot. If they hadn't played each other that year, the spot would go to the team that had a better record within the conference. But isn't that rewarding the team that did better against weaker competition?

Nor is it really fair for a third-place team from one division to get in over a second-place team from another division, unless the third-place team finished with an outright better record — this inequitable situation having happened 14 times since a second wild card berth was added to each conference in 1978 (there were three from 1990 through 2001). Shouldn't division finish be paramount?

This is why the dependence upon tie-breakers needs to be reduced — which allowing, ideally, about half a dozen games a year to end in a tie will do. And the owners didn't see this unintended consequence when they decided to have overtime during the regular season in the first place? While the shortening of overtime from 15 minutes to 10 minutes starting last season is a step in the right direction, another thing can and should be done: keep the clock running on plays that go out of bounds in overtime (except during the last two minutes), which is not done now.

Then we can get back to playing football — not tie-breaker-ball.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site