Tuesday, January 6, 2009

No more whining about coin flips: how to revamp the NFL's overtime rules

Every time there is an NFL overtime game in which the team that wins the coinflip scores on that same drive, the same old arguments appear.

Critics argue that it's not fair that a coin flip decides the overtime winner. In their minds, a solution needs to be found, and many suggest college overtime as the proper solution, even if it's more entertaining than it is decisive.

Others point to facts saying that it really isn't that big a deal. From 2000 to 2007, about 30% of teams received the ball and scored on their first drive. The same website reports that 60% of the time, the team that receives the ball first ends up winning the game.

Something as irrelevant to the sport as a coinflip should not cause a major difference between winning and losing. While 124 overtime games is not a statistically significant sample size, clearly the winner of the coin flip has a major advantage.

I also have not found any statistics that differentiate between good and bad weather games. In a game like week 17's Buffalo-New England game, when the team who was going against the wind would barely throw the ball, whoever won the coin flip may actually choose the wind. At the very least, the percentage would likely be closer to 50% because both teams get an advantage.

In fact one team in that sample size actually chose the wind instead of the ball. Does it surprise you at all that it was the Detroit Lions? Of course, in that 2002 game, the Chicago Bears marched right down the field and scored, making then-coach Marty Mornhinweg look like a moron.

However, in every other case this century, the team who won the toss chose to receive. And in 30% of those games, the other team never touched the ball.

Is that fair? Not particularly, considering all it takes is one big return or one big play to set up a long field goal, and the game is over. In Saturday's Colts-Chargers game, the Chargers won the toss, marched down the field, and scored a touchdown. 25 of the yards they gained on that drive were based on penalties. All of those calls seemed correct, but what if a team threw the ball deep down the field, and a referee threw a borderline pass interference penalty, almost automatically setting up a field goal?

That is the problem with NFL overtime. While San Diego was able to score a touchdown on that drive, most teams simply settle for field goals. It would be foolish to say field goals are easy to come by, but doesn't it seem kind of cheap if a team returns the ball to the 35, gets a first down, a face mask penalty, and a couple more yards before kicking a long, game-winning field goal in a dome?

Football requires offense, defense, and special teams to come together to win a game, but the current overtime rules too often only require two of the three aspects to win. As a result, the rules should be altered.

Still, it is one thing to say that the rules should be changed, and it's another to actually find a feasible solution. Most solutions thrown around in the media don't make sense.

College overtime? That's a laughable solution at best. Teams already start in field goal range, which is flat out stupid in a league with the best field goal kickers in the world. Maybe you can push the ball back a little bit and make teams move the ball a little more, but part of the sport is special teams, and with no punting or kickoffs, that aspect is completely negated.

Critics argue the biggest problem with the overtime system is that both teams don't get the ball, so many suggest that teams should take turns getting the ball. But I've yet to see a way that would really work. If a team scored, fine, kick the ball off and let the other team have a chance. But even that would give the team who kicks off an advantage because they would then know to go for it on 4th down.

Plus, is the goal to get each team the ball an equal amount of times? Or is it simply to allow both teams to touch the ball once? Questions such as these are difficult to answer, and they would complicate the system far too much.

So how can the NFL maintain the integrity of the game while giving both teams an opportunity to touch the football? In my mind the solution is quite simple.

The first team to score six points in overtime wins.

This would prevent teams from marching down the field, kicking a field goal, and winning the game that easily. It doesn't always allow for both teams to put their offenses on the field, but if a team can't prevent the other from scoring a touchdown, they do not deserve to win.

However, every system has its positive parts. Let's take a look at this critically.

What if no team scores six points?

Then whoever has the lead at the end of the 15-minute overtime period has the win. If one team kicks a field goal, and the other doesn't score, then the team with more points wins. That's obvious enough.

How would this affect strategy?

That's the best part of this system: it probably wouldn't have that big of an impact. Between two high-scoring teams, an offense might opt to be more aggressive and go for it on 4th downs to try and end the game right there, but in an overtime situation, teams should be more aggressive to try to win as soon as possible.

One criticism I have seen is that it ignores the safety. However, only two overtime games in the history of the NFL have been decided that way. And even if a team scores one, that would still give them two points, which might end up being the difference in the final score. We might see teams taking intentional safeties deep in their own territory rather than punt if they are ahead by three, but that happens in the fourth quarter of some games as well.

Wouldn't more games end in ties in this situation?

Well, yes, that is a minor problem. But ask a losing team who never touched the ball in overtime if they would prefer a tie or a loss. Ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who would have missed the playoffs if they had lost to the Cincinnati Bengals instead of infamously tying them.

What is wrong with a tied football game? Sure, there is no winner, but in some evenly matched football games, teams don't necessarily deserve to win or lose, and a tie might actually be the fairest solution.

Besides, in the vast majority of games, a team would win. In most games one team or the other will score six points in the overtime period. Other games could potentially end the overtime period 3-0, 5-2, 2-0, or 3-2. If the game ended 0-0 or 3-3, it would be a tie, and a well-deserved tie.

And if they changed and explained the rules, players would have no excuse for not knowing how a winner is decided. Am I right, Donovan McNabb?


God said...

You make a compelling argument sir. I used to argue in favor of the first team to score a touchdown, but this is even better.

Mackenzie Kraemer said...

Wow, if God reads my blog, it really must be getting somewhere...

Thank you, sir. Personally, I don't think the current overtime rules are that bad, but this is the one tweak that I would make because it keeps the integrity of the game intact.

I'm guessing by your comment that you hate when teams just march down the field and kick a long field goal, win the game, and the other team doesn't even get a chance. However, as you read from my post, I do agree that if a team can't stop the other from scoring a touchdown, they don't deserve to win.

Thanks for reading.

dCon said...

I might suggest that the first team to score five points should be the winner; that way, if a safety is scored, it plays a larger role in the outcome as a field goal would then allow a team to win. A good plan overall; I would love to see it considered by the NFL

Ted said...

This is a good proposal. I've heard it before but you supply a good argument. I agree that if you kickoff and the team marches all the way down for a TD, then you deserve to lose. But, if they only get a field goal, you should be allowed to attempt to respond with a tying field goal or a winning TD

DefDude said...

Why not just add additional quarters to the game, until someone is winning at the end of a quarter? It more or less guarantees both teams get the ball, and would be especially dramatic in the playoffs, where it would increase the number of late drives and 2 minute drills.

BobsBlitz.com said...

I, too, do not like the short field aspect of OT. Get to the 35 and win just isn't 'war'...

Great job with the write up.


Mackenzie Kraemer said...

dCon: Maybe. I hadn't really thought of it that way before, but that might make just as much sense if not more.

Ted: I'd be lying if I said this plan was original because I had heard it before, but not in a year or two, and I always felt this was the best solution, and nobody really gave it a second thought.

DefDude: I don't believe the NFL would want another 15 minutes of football played, and I doubt the NFLPA would either. 60 minutes is a heavy toll on the players' bodies. Many games would go longer under my system obviously, but I doubt it would go all 15 minutes most of the time.

BobsBlitz.com: Thank you for the kind words.

Thanks everyone for reading.

Jim P said...

It might make it simpler to just have a rule that says if the first score in overtime is a field goal than the other team gets the ball back for one possession (and if they get a field goal too you keep going). That way the team coming in for a score would have to weigh the difficulty of getting a touchdown and immediately ending the game versus going for a field goal and then having to make a defensive stand.

Josh said...

That's actually a pretty solid solution. I can't stand the college football overtime rules because it's basically a gimmick - scoring from 25 yards out. It'd be like having NBA games decided by dunk contests or HORSE after four quarters.

(I'm okay with shootouts in hockey because there were so many ties in the pre-lockout NHL.)

Great suggestions. And I hope the rules aren't changed as I maintain the current overtime set up as well as the current playoff format should be left as is.