Solving the NFL's Overtime Fumble

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

New York Jets place kicker Jay Feely (3) kicks an overtime, game-winning field goal against the New England Patriots in their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts November 13, 2008.

By all measures, the NFL is the most popular sports league in the country. Packed stadiums, glowing television ratings, a cool $7 billion in revenues. So why, in a league with so many smart guys at the executive table, is the NFL so darn stupid about settling games that are tied at the end of regulation? Why, in other words, is football so asinine about overtime?

In virtually every other sport, whether it's extra innings in baseball, overtime in basketball or a playoff in golf, both teams or players competing get an equal opportunity to win. But the format for overtime in the NFL is different, and inherently unfair. If the game is tied after four quarters, the teams play a 15-minute, sudden death overtime period in which the first team to score wins. Which means that whichever team wins a totally random coin toss to determine who gets the first possession has a better shot at winning the game. In fact, in 44% of the overtime games since 2006, the team that won the coin-toss has gone on to win the game without the other team even getting the ball, according to the Elias Sports Bureau; overall, the coin toss winner eventually won 64% of the games. "That [kind of statistic] really sticks out," admits New York Giants co-owner John Mara, who sits on the league's competition committee. "It's too high. That's a pretty big advantage."

Just such a travesty unfolded during Thursday night's high-stakes prime-time game between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. The Jets blew two leads — 24-6 in the first half, and 31-24 with three minutes left in the game — before the Pats forced overtime with a stunning last-second pass from Matt Cassel to Randy Moss. The Patriots had mounted two impressive comebacks and the Jets were visibly deflated.

But New England's momentum quickly disappeared. The Jets won the coin toss and marched down the field to kick a field goal. Give New York credit for scoring, and sure New England could have gotten the ball back if its defense had "won" that particular part of the game. But why shouldn't the NFL give the Pats, and other teams like it, a chance to score too? Even a couple of NFL coaches this season have decided the the random nature of overtime can be too risky; twice so far, teams which scored a last second touchdown and could send the game into sudden-death with an extra point have opted instead to go for the win with a two-point conversion (one team, the Kansas City Chiefs, lost its gamble, while another, the Denver Broncos, won the game).

The ridiculousness of the NFL's approach becomes clear when you think about the national pasttime. Imagine if at the end of a tied nine inning baseball game, the ump flipped a coin to determine who hits first. If that lucky team scores right away, it wins. It doesn't have to protect its lead by getting the final three outs, and the toss loser doesn't get its chance at "last licks."

Of course there are a lot less injuries in baseball, and one of the primary reasons the NFL doesn't play a full 15 minute overtime is because longer games invariably increase the risk of already exhausted players getting hurt. But by not giving both teams an equal shot at winning, the league cheapens all the physical sacrifices its players make on the gridiron.

So can the NFL learn anything from the amateurs? While college football's overtime format may be more fair than pro's, it is absurd in a different way. In many respects, the setup feels like a game kids play at recess. Forgoing kickoffs altogether, each team receives the ball at the opponent's 25-yard line, meaning that without moving an inch, a team is already in field goal range. Teams alternate drives towards the end zone, until one team scores more than the other in an individual possession, or period (to try to move things along, the teams must go for a more risky two-point conversion after any touchdown starting with the third period).

To solve the overtime dilemma, the NFL should, like college, guarantee that teams receive equal possessions. But unlike college, they should continue to play, er, football. It can still be sudden death, provided that each team gets an equal shot at scoring. So for instance, if on that first possession, Jets quarterback Brett Favre had thrown an interception, and the Pats returned the ball for a touchdown, the game would be over since the Jets had had a series on offense. If the game is still tied at the end of the 15 minute period, then it would still be a draw, as NFL games are now.

Mara, the Giants owner, says the competition committee discusses overtime reform every off-season. In both 2003 and 2004, owners voted on a scaled-back version of the proposal outlined above. Each team would be guaranteed a single offensive possession, but after that, it would be sudden death, first to score wins. Not 100% fair, but a vast improvement over the current rules. To implement a rule change, three-fourths of the owners must agree with the proposal. In '03, just 55% of the owners approved it. The next year, only 22% jumped on board.

These results are disheartening. Mara, who voted "yes" both times, has seen the potential harm of sudden death up close. In last year's NFC championship game, the Green Bay Packers won the overtime toss against the Giants. Although Favre threw an interception that led to a game-winning field goal for New York, Mara sweated it out. If the Packers had won without a New York possession, "I know how I would have felt," he says.

Unfortunately, Mara doesn't sense any groundswell for change. "I think it will take something dramatic to happen in the championship game, or God forbid, the Super Bowl [which has never gone into overtime] for enough people to get concerned," Mara says. But why is the most decorated sports league in the land refusing to use some common sense? Mara's telling reply: "That's a fair question."

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