Parity, Overtime, and Home Field in the NFL

Over the last three years, home teams in the NFL have won at a 51.1 percent clip — far and away the lowest such winning percentage in any three-year span since at least the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

But should the league even be concerned about this?

Indeed they should — and here's why:

A high winning percentage for home teams promotes the "competitive balance" that has been a veritable obsession with the NFL for decades, because it means that even the weakest teams have some sort of chance at pulling off upsets over even the strongest teams — providing, of course, that the weaker team is playing at home (this is why bettors cleaned up by putting their money on home underdogs in the late 1970s and early '80s, seen even today as the golden age of parity).

And actual results of various seasons over the last 50 years strongly bear this out.

In 2003, the home teams won 61.3 percent of the games (the post-merger average is 57.2 percent) — and it just so happens that 2003 has been the only season in NFL history in which every team won at least four games (a total of four teams finished 4-12 that year; and one of them — Arizona — got to 4-12 on the season's final week with an upset victory, at home, over Minnesota, which knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs).

The 1956 Eagles finished worst overall with a record of 3-8-1 — making them the "best worst team" in NFL history, a bittersweet distinction they still hold — and in that year, home teams were 42-28-2 (a 60 percent win rate, as tie games were not included in calculating winning percentages until 1972), again above the long-term average.

On the other side of the competitive-balance coin, the 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated in a season when home teams won just 50.8 percent of the time. In that same year, the then Houston Oilers finished 1-13; this remained at least tied for the widest best-to-worst gap in record of all time until 2007.

But what does overtime have to do with any of this, you ask?

Since the NFL owners decided not to make any changes in its overtime rules during the regular season at their spring meeting last week (they did do so for the playoffs, after the winner of the coin toss to start overtime won a playoff game on their first possession for the third year in a row and for the seventh time in the past decade), there is something they can do to increase the winning percentage of the home teams:

Have the home team always get the ball first in overtime.

Hasn't baseball always done essentially the same thing — in reverse, with the home team coming to bat in the bottom half of every inning? This gives the home team the chance to score a "walk-off" run (or runs) not only in extra innings, but in the bottom of the ninth inning, as well — something that the visiting team can never do.

The coin toss at the start of the game can be given the heave-ho too: since 2008, when the team that won the coin toss gained the right to do so, more than 90 percent of such winners have elected to defer, the idea being that if they had the ball at the end of the first half and scored, they would in effect get two consecutive possessions — and since 2008, teams scoring in the last minute of the first half and also getting the ball to start the second half have scored again therein 12 percent of the time.

Always giving the home team this opportunity will further enhance the home-field advantage.

Simply start the game with the visiting team on offense, at their own 25-yard line, and always start the second half (and overtime, if necessary) with the home team on offense, at their own 25-yard line. This also fosters player safety, in that it would mean two fewer kickoffs (three fewer if the game goes into overtime) per game — and kickoffs are the most physically dangerous plays in football, which is why some want to do away with them altogether.

And if the home team knows that they are going to get the ball first in overtime, this is bound to affect the strategy at the end of games — in that if the home team is behind by seven points late in the game, they are far less likely to go for two if they do score a touchdown.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, the home-court advantage in the NBA reached its zenith — so much so that when the best teams in the league played the worst teams in the league on the road, the betting line was often set at pick'em or thereabouts (in those days, the home-court advantage was generally considered to be worth about four and a half points in the NBA, compared with about three points in the NFL).

If only the NFL would, or could, bring that kind of scenario about. It would make them so much less paranoid about gambling.

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