Two of the NFL's best teams battled to a dramatic, last-possession finish. As the game went to overtime, it was already being hailed as an all-timer, an instant classic. Instead of an explosive final act, though, the game ended with a quick curtain call for half the cast—and the star of the show, a legendary quarterback, was left waiting in the wings.
In the aftermath, the football-watching world had a good hard talk about NFL overtime rules.
That was 2009, the legendary quarterback was Brett Favre, and the discussion ultimately resulted in a bizarre compromise that left everyone cold (not to mention confused). It was no longer possible for a team to win a hard-fought game by the luck of a coin, a few first downs and a field goal—but it also didn't guarantee each team a chance to score.
Now, in the wake of another instant classic that left another legendary quarterback to stew on the sidelines, we're having the debate all over again.
"They changed the rules a little bit, but it doesn't really change if you go down and get a touchdown," Manning said, per Ross Tucker of SportsonEarth.com. "It puts a premium on the coin toss. Called tails at the beginning of the game, went with it again in overtime. It was heads, and proved to be a significant call."
Tucker, who played five years in the NFL, called for a return to the clarity and consistency of the old sudden-death rule: First score wins.
That clarity, though, came at the expense of fairness. Per Brian Burke of AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com, under the old rules, the coin toss winner won 61 percent of all overtime games—and 37 percent were won on the first possession, denying the other team even a chance to win.
In a 16-game season, flipping one win to a loss means a huge difference in likelihood between a trip to the playoffs and a long, cold winter at home.
Here's the distribution of n-win seasons, for all teams and playoff teams, since the 2002 realignment:
The blue bars, all teams, show that wins are distributed normally, give or take. The NFL's current 12-team playoff setup, with eight division champions and four wild cards, shows just how much one win means.
Of the 384 seasons all NFL teams have played in the last 12 years, 134 (34.9 percent) have been eight-, nine-, or 10-win seasons. No teams with fewer than seven wins have made the playoffs, and no teams with more than 11 wins have missed the playoffs. Only one seven-win team has made the cut, and only one 11-win team has missed it.
That means that every year, about a third of the teams are on the playoff bubble—and one win makes a massive difference in their odds to make the postseason:
An eight-win team is 4.8 times as likely to make the playoffs as a seven-win team. A nine-win team has 3.5 times the chances of an eight-win team. A 10-win team is twice as likely as a nine-win team to make the playoffs, and an 11-win team has a 15 percent better shot than a 10-win team.
On the average, every win makes an NFL team 73.8 percent more likely to make the playoffs.
No wonder Peyton's upset.
Keith Goldner of AdvancedFootballAnalytics.com created an estimated Markov model of the new overtime and found the coin toss winner still has about a 53-47 edge over the coin toss loser. The crazy-advanced probability analysis required to come to that conclusion, though, should tell you exactly how wacky this new format is.
In November 2013, Burke declared the whole thing a "complicated mess" and suggested three simple changes:
- Restore pure sudden death rules.
- Move the starting point for a touchback to the 15-yard line (per his Win Probability model, a typical NFL offense starting at its own 15 is no more or less likely to be the next team to score than its opponent).
- Give the home team the ball first, and chalk up whatever edge that conveys to home-field advantage (which, in the playoffs, is earned).
Plenty of other ways to break the tie have been bandied about. The NFL could institute a "race to six," so that the first team to score at least six points wins. Or, it could play out an entire fifth quarter, no matter how many points are scored, and take the winner at the end of the period. There's also the stats-inflating circus act of college football overtime, which, no thank you.
There's an even simpler, better, fairer change to be made: Get rid of overtime.
The outcome of the Week 3 game between his Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks didn't really ride on the coin flip. Manning and his Broncos threw an interception, lost a fumble and punted eight times. He didn't have zero chances to score more points—he had 10 of them.
Having regular-season games end in ties may sound weird, but the NFL already has them. If the teams are still at a stalemate after 15 minutes of overtime, it goes down in the books as a tie (a fact obscure enough that it escaped former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, until he played in one).
That game was hardly an advertisement for quality football, but the sad fact is current rules encourage teams to play for a tie by increasing the number of possessions and disincentivizing aggressive first-drive play. Worst of all, playing a fifth quarter on tired legs increases every player's exposure to injury and lengthens recovery time.
Instead, teams would be able to play for the win or draw in regulation, instead of prolonging the game and taking their chances with the coin flip. There'd still be need for overtime in the playoffs; either the race to six, or Burke's solution, would be far simpler and fairer than what we've got.
Think about it, though: Instead of the camera repeatedly cutting back to a frustrated Peyton as his miracle comeback was squandered, instead of NFL fans and media spending the week arguing about rules and criticizing Peyton for complaining, too, we'd be celebrating the Broncos' tremendous game-tying drive—and asking harder questions of the Seahawks defense.