There's No Easy Way to Improve Overtime Format

Alex MarvezCorrespondent INovember 18, 2008

Lost amidst the latest NFL officiating snafu—besides umpteen-million dollars by those who took Pittsburgh minus the points against San Diego—was the resurfacing of another touchy subject during last weekend's games:

The league's overtime rules.

Two major flaws were again exposed. The first came in New England's 34-31 loss to the New York Jets.

Blame the Patriots' defense for not stopping New York from marching to the game-winning field goal. Second-guess Bill Belichick's decision to send the game into overtime with an extra point rather than attempting a two-point conversion after New England's touchdown at the end of regulation.

But there is still something seriously wrong with a format that allows a stroke of luck—correctly calling heads or tails on the overtime coin flip—to carry as much weight as strategy and skill in determining a game's outcome.

In five of 11 overtimes this season, the winning team never had to play defense. If the Jets hadn't won the toss, it's entirely plausible that New England would have driven downfield and scored while Brett Favre stood powerless on the Jets sideline.

"They were rolling on offense, our defense was tired," Favre admitted afterward. "This (opening overtime drive) was our one shot. It was all or nothing."

Three days later, Cincinnati and Philadelphia played to a 13-13 tie.

What is this, soccer?

Admittedly, such finishes are so rare that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb can almost be excused for not knowing that play automatically ends following a fifth quarter.

Only 16 games have finished deadlocked since the league adopted its current overtime format in 1974. Before the Eagles-Bengals game, the lone tie in the past 10 seasons came in 2002.

It's easy to joke that this was a merciful end to such a dreadful contest. But seeing an NFL game conclude in this fashion just doesn't seem right. If an institution as flawed as the NCAA can tweak its overtime system so that every game has a winner and both teams are insured a possession, the NFL's competition committee should be able to do the same.

Or so I initially thought.

I spent hours Monday trying to build a better mousetrap. For each suggestion I had, an NFL scout I know kept running away with the cheese.

We discussed simply adopting the college overtime system that guarantees each squad a drive starting at the opponent's 25-yard line.

"From a personnel standpoint, some teams will be against it," said the scout, referring to the 24 votes needed from NFL owners to enact any overtime changes. "It hurts those with vertical threats who can score from long range like Randy Moss and shorter guys with big-play capability like Santana Moss. Teams with taller, physical receivers and power running games are going to be more effective when given the ball so close to the goal line."

He then added an even bigger caveat—the elimination of special-teams returns under such a format.

"You know the old saying about how offense, defense and special teams win games," the scout said. "This would take away one-third of that equation. Teams that don't have great returners or good coverage get a break. Those that make the investments in good special teams and the Devin Hester-types lose out."

There went my next suggestion: Giving each team one automatic possession at midfield.

We then brainstormed about potential changes to the current regular-season format.

Continue playing until someone scores like in the postseason. Use the NCAA system if clubs are still tied after the fifth quarter. Or guarantee at least one possession for the team that loses the overtime coin toss if the one that wins it scores on the opening drive.

All of these choices have merit. But they also have a snowball's chance of gaining approval.

NFL owners are extremely conscious of how long games take to complete, especially those played early Sunday that can overlap with afternoon matchups. Each of the proposed changes above—particularly the college rules—would potentially extend games much longer than the target finishing time of three hours.

The NFL already receives enough grief when a nail-biter is switched because of contractual obligations to telecast the home team's game in its entirety. It doesn't behoove the league to invite more "Heidi game" comparisons or institute a system that would force the average viewer to join a late contest long after kickoff.

An NFL spokesman declined comment on any potential changes. But if the scout is right, none will be forthcoming.

"Trust me, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this," he said. "I just don't see anything different happening. It's not a perfect system, but under the circumstances, it's the best one we've got."

Begrudgingly, I have to agree.

This article originally published on

Click here to read more of Alex's columns.