Why NFL Overtime Needs To Change

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Why NFL Overtime Needs To Change
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

An NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, said on Saturday that the NFL Competitions Committee will consider changing the overtime format for the playoffs.

Under this revision, both teams get the ball once unless the team that first has possession scores a touchdown. If the first team scores a field goal, then the next team ties it, the next team to score wins. It is basically "first to 6."

This topic has been gaining interest since the Vikings lost to the Saints in overtime in the NFC Championship.

The NFL will review all of these proposals and instead rule that the coin flip will be used from here on out to just randomly determine the winner. No more token competition to confuse things. The game winner will be declared when the coin hits the ground. Problem solved.

A tie in the Super Bowl is different though and will be broken using a fancy HD slow-mo coin flip on the jumbo screen. Tails will be Doritos and heads will be Bud Lite. The flip will be programmed to last for 10 minutes with one TV timeout so the fans can really get involved in the process of cheering for either heads or tails to determine the best team of the NFL season. (just kidding)

But back to seriousness, here are some facts:

Over the past decade, there were 158 OT games, including playoff games.There were two ties, and there was one game in which the coin flip winner chose to defend a side of the field rather than choosing to receive, and they lost.

In 96 of 158 OT's (61%), the team that won the coin flip won the game.

In 58 of 158 OT's (37%), the coin flip winner won on their first possession while the loser never touched the ball.


Sixty-one percent. If we agree 50 percent would be the fairest winning rate, 61 percent may not be thought of as very far away from 50 percent, but that's not looking at it correctly. The correct comparison is 61 percent to 39 percent. That's a very large advantage—3:2.


There could be a simple solution: Move the kickoff line back to the 35. This change will greatly increase touchbacks, forcing offenses to start at the 20 (In OT games where the coin toss winner started at the 20, they won 50 percent of games), and in OT, a first down on the 20-yard-line appears to be the break-even point where the team on offense and the team on defense are equally likely to score next. The average kickoff return places an offense at their own 33-yard-line, which gives the offense an upper hand already, for they have a greater chance of scoring first.

Moving the kickoff line would reduce the chance that one team would never get the ball, but only slightly. I don't think we can solve that part of the problem without a rule requiring an even number of possessions. But such a solution causes a whole new problem.

Some of the problems with sudden-death would be fixed with an even-possession format, but the team with the second possession would have an even bigger advantage than the coin flip winner has now. Knowing whether or not it needs a TD, or FG, the second team can adjust its play-calling and strategy accordingly to this. The current college OT format has this problem, but the effect is lessened to some degree because teams alternate "going first" on successive rounds. Even baseball's extra innings format has the same problem to an even lesser extent, but it's accepted because it's no different than the advantage the home team gets in a tied ninth inning. It's simply considered part of home field advantage in baseball.

There is no perfect solution for NFL's overtime problem, but perhaps baseball's system is the best way to build upon. Maybe the best that can happen is to keep the current sudden-death format, but award the first OT possession to the home team.

With this arrangement in the playoffs, it would be easier to accept what happened to a visiting team like the Vikings. We would say, "Yeah, it sucks their offense didn't get a chance. But, the Saints did earn the right to the first possession by winning home field during the season." Better that a team EARNS a break rather than it being given to them on a coin toss.

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