Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Ties That Simplify in the NFL

By Anthony Brancato

Rather than go for it on 4th-and-3 from the Indianapolis 49-yard line with 26 seconds remaining in overtime, Texans coach Lovie Smith elected to punt instead. And when Nyheim Hines called for a fair catch at the 6-yard line, it virtually assured that the game would end in a 20-20 tie — a result that could either save the Colts or doom them come January.

(There were almost two tie games in Week 1, as Chris Boswell needed to kick a 53-yard field goal at the buzzer in overtime to prevent the Pittsburgh/Cincinnati game from also ending in a 20-20 tie — and there were almost three overtime games: down 20-13 with 1:09 left in regulation, Daniel Jones hit tight end Chris Myarick for a scintillating 1-yard touchdown pass — and rather than kick a game-tying extra point, Giants head coach Brian Daboll, in his first game in that job, went for two, and made it, with running back Saquon Barkley hauling in a pass from Jones).

Either way, it is better for all concerned that the Colts will now quite likely either win the AFC South title or a wild-card berth by a half-game, or lose either — or even both — by the same margin.

The NFL implemented overtime during the regular season in 1974 — and over that 48-year span (1974 through 2021, all inclusive), a total of 67 teams have missed the playoffs because of the league's arcane tie-breaking procedures.

That's an average of more than one team per year.

By contrast, from 1967 — the first year that tie-breakers were used — through 1973 (prior to that, if two teams tied for first place, a playoff game was held to decide things, which became impractical when the NFL realigned into four four-team divisions, plus an additional round of playoff games, with the admission of New Orleans as an expansion team in 1967), only one team missed the playoffs on a tie breaker: in 1967, the Los Angeles Rams and the then-Baltimore Colts finished 11-1-2, with the Rams winning something called the Coastal Division on the grounds that they beat the Colts once and tied them once.

Indeed, the Colts entered the last week of the 1967 season undefeated — but when they lost at the fabled Los Angeles Coliseum 34-10 in the season finale, it sent them home for the spring because the first meeting between the two teams had ended in a 24-24 tie (and wild card playoff berths did not exist until the NFL and AFL merged in 1970).

Also by contrast, from 1974 onward, only 15 teams have missed the playoffs by the margin of half a game (three had done so between 1967 and 1973).

And not for nothing, but the league has already shortened overtime once — from 15 minutes to 10, in 2017. If they decide to go all the way and abolish overtime in the regular season altogether, it is a pretty fair bet that there will not be enough opposition from the NFLPA to block it. Moreover, it can be included in a package that includes the abolition of the preseason, as well (has college football ever had one?) and the addition of an 18th game to the regular season.

One should not have to be a math nerd to be able to figure out all of the "playoff scenarios" in December, and now, into January, when previous generations of fans never needed to do this — and while more tie games will not do away with these scenarios entirely, more ties will make those that will continue to exist a lot easier to decipher since the records of most of the relevant teams will make them self-explanatory, resulting in far fewer migraine headaches (like the one that Jim Mora must have had in 2005 when he couldn't figure out whether a tie would help or hurt his team's playoff prospects during a game against Tampa Bay that went into overtime on the next-to-last week of that season — a game the Falcons ended up losing, eliminating them from playoff contention and exposing Mora to endless ridicule from what was once known as the "peanut gallery").

In the meantime, hopefully more coaches will not be too embarrassed or ashamed to do what Lovie Smith did.

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