2012 NFL Football: How Changing One Rule Can Solve the Sudden Death Inequity

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2012 NFL Football: How Changing One Rule Can Solve the Sudden Death Inequity
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
In the first-ever contest with the new NFL overtime rules, Tim Tebow ended the game in 11 seconds.

Flashback to January 8, 2012: After 60 minutes of football, the AFC Wildcard game between the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers and the host Denver Broncos ends in 23-23 tie. The game is going to overtime—not just any overtime, but the NFL Rule 16 sudden-death overtime under the league's new format, allegedly making it more equitable for both teams.

Barely had the fans at home returned from their refrigerators and settled back onto the couch when Tim Tebow took the first snap of the extra session, made a quick drop and hit Demaryius Thomas in stride at the 39-yard line. One stiff arm from Thomas and eight seconds later, the game was over. And so, the first overtime with the NFL's new rules lasted 11 seconds.

So much for the equity of the new NFL overtime format.

The game ended because under Article 4, subsection (a), both teams were to "have the opportunity to possess the ball once during the extra period, unless the team that receives the opening kickoff...scores a touchdown on its initial possession, in which case it is the winner."

In other words, had Denver simply managed to drive down the field and kick a field goal, the game would have continued, but since they scored a touchdown, in essence, the same inequity that has always been seen in postseason football prevailed, and the Steelers never had the chance to respond.

But, by making one small change, both teams would be able to get the ball in overtime, and regardless of what type of points the first team put up, the second would have a chance to respond.

The Steelers never got a chance to handle the ball in the overtime.

To illustrate how it would work, imagine the same Wildcard game again ending the same way in regulation time. Now, the coin toss takes place and the Broncos win. But, instead of choosing to take the ball, they elect to kickoff, giving the Steelers first possession.

By doing so (and assuming a touchback on the kickoff), the Steelers would start in their own end, where a number of things could occur which would be beneficial to the Broncos: a fumble, an interception, or even a safety. The last one would end the game, and the first two could set up the Broncos for a winning score immediately, as both teams would now have had a possession.

Instead, Roethlisberger leads the Steelers down the field, but the drive stalls at the Bronco's 17 yard line. Out trots kicker Shaun Suisham, who drills a 34-yard field goal. The capacity crowd of 75,970 looks up at the scoreboard to see the score change to Pittsburgh 26, Denver 23, with 11:14 remaining.

Now, the clock goes blank for a moment, then gets re-set to 3:46—the amount of time that the Steelers had used in order to get their field goal.

The advantage under this scenario is that the team that wins the coin toss in overtime would likely choose to kickoff, because it provides the aforementioned advantages of pinning the opponent in their own end for a possible turnover or safety.

More importantly however, it allows the team winning the coin flip to dictate the terms of the overtime: if Pittsburgh does not score, the Broncos now know that either a touchdown or field goal will immediately end the game. If Pittsburgh does score, now the Broncos know how many points they need to get, and exactly how much time they have to do it.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
By changing one rule, both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball in overtime, and bring a new urgency to the game.

Tim Tebow and the Broncos would then have 3:46 to either march down the field for a touchdown (thus outscoring their opponents in the OT), or try to get into position for a field goal in less time (3:45 or quicker), to win the game (in essence, more points-per-second).

The scenarios this would set up—as well as the in-game decisions for coaches—would bring a new dimension to the game and add an equity to the overtime not seen before.

Now, as the Wildcard game continues, the Steelers kickoff to the Broncos with 3:46 on the stadium clock. In the thin mountain air, the ball travels through the end zone for a touchback, and the Broncos take the ball at the 20 yard line.

Denver drives down the field to the Pittsburgh 40 yard line, and reach a third down and eight with just 11 seconds left on the clock. They are faced with a decision. Do they go for the end zone, and by scoring a touchdown, win the game? Or, try a medium pass that will net them 12 yards to the 28, thereby setting up a 45-yard field goal attempt?

Finally, they could play conservatively, and attempt to run the ball, maybe picking up 3 or 4 yards, setting up their kicker, Matt Prater, for a 53-yard field goal attempt. Should he make it with :01 or more showing on the clock, the Broncos would have scored three points in less time than the Steelers did, thus winning the game.

Other than this new timing regulation, the other features of overtime would remain the same. Perhaps the Broncos decide to kick the field goal and it splits the uprights with :00 remaining. In this unlikeliest of all scenarios, the contest would then again be tied, and the game would revert to the old NFL sudden death rule—continue until the next score determined the winner. Similarly, if neither team scored in their first possession (as seen in last year's Giants-49ers playoff game), the old NFL sudden death rule would take over, and the first team to get a score of any kind would win.

This solution does not need to be limited to NFL games. It seems more workable and much less cumbersome than the current NCAA football overtime rule that turns the enjoyable nail-biter that fans had been watching into an arena football-like scoring fest that skews statistics and often results in final scores that resemble basketball results.

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