The NFL Overtime Rule Change Causes Coaches Heartburn

Dave BakerContributor IMarch 26, 2010

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after his team defeated the Indianapolis Colts during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints coach head coach Sean Payton sat at the table looking as though he had lost his puppy somewhere in traffic. He looked uncomfortable answering questions. Looking like he wanted to be anywhere but where he was; at the annual NFL owners meeting.

Two months ago Payton was lifting the Lombardi trophy as if it were a two ounce piece of plastic with one arm and thrusting it into the air in celebration of the Saints Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Yet two months later he looked grim.
Why?
Because while the coaches were out playing in a golf tournament the owners voted 24-8 in favor of the new overtime rule which is to only be instituted in the playoffs. It's possible that by the May meetings the rule could extend to all games but the NFL will need to discuss this with the networks, as the networks don't want the 1 PM games going to 5 PM and taking up an hour of the 4 PM games.

Over the last few years there has been a growing concern that the Super Bowl could be won by the flip of the coin. We are led to believe that whomever wins the coin flip in overtime will win the game. I have to admit I was curious to see how accurate this was and decided to do some research and look up every playoff game that went into overtime since the first year of the Super Bowl era.

But first let's review the changes being made.

Overtime is no longer sudden death; the first team to score wins. Well then again maybe it is. See the NFL wanted to eliminate the possibility of a team winning the Super Bowl on a cheap field goal so they had to come up with a little catch if you kick a FG in overtime. If you kick a field goal after winning the coin toss, you then have to kick the ball off and the opposition gets a chance to either match you or score a touchdown. If they score a touchdown the game is over.

But here is the catch: If you win the coin toss and score a TD on your first drive...the game is over.

This is why coaches look the way Sean Payton did the other day. It means more coaching, and more decisions for them to worry about. What if it's fourth down and three yards to go on the opposition's 33 yard line? Do you kick a field goal? Or do you go for it, keeping the drive alive and maybe score a TD and never have to worry about playing defense?

Granted that would be a 50-yard attempt and certainly not a chip shot field goal under the pressure of trying to win a playoff game (or *gasp!* the Super Bowl), but in recent times field goal kicking has become so much more accurate than in the past.

For example in the 1970s the league average of making a field goal was 61.1 percent. In the last 10 years that percentage has risen to an 80.5 percent conversion rate. So now the NFL's argument of winning the coin toss, driving all of 30 yards and kicking a 50 yarder to win a playoff game seems legitimate.

It should be noted that if you punt on your first possession after winning the coin toss, and the other team kicks a field goal the game is over. So yes, under the new rule the New York Giants still would have beaten the Packers in the 2007 NFC Championship game. Also, if you throw an interception for a TD, or fumble and it is run back for a touchdown the game is over.

So all this talk about winning a playoff game or a Super Bowl because a team won the coin toss got me thinking. Exactly how many times has this happened?

The answer is five. Since 1966, the first year of the Super Bowl, there have been 23 playoff overtime games. 17 of them have been won on a field goal, six of them on a touchdown. Of the six touchdowns, two of them were defensive. In 2003, Al Harris returned a Matt Hasselbeck pass 52 yards when Green Bay beat Seattle 33-27. Seattle won the coin toss and during the toss Hasselbeck was overheard saying "We want the ball and we're going to win". The other time a defensive touchdown won the game was last year when Carlos Dansby returned an Aaron Rodgers fumble 17 yards in a Cardinal 51-45 win over the Packers.

So 23 overtime games since 1966 doesn't sound so common does it? Well in the 196's there were none, in the 1970s there was only one (the longest game ever when the Dolphins beat the Chiefs on Christmas day 1971). In the 1980s there were six, the 1990s had only three overtimes.

But then came the salary cap, free agency, and the end of the dominant teams. Now most teams were equal (unless you're the Lions of course). So now in this era where anyone can win a Super Bowl there have been 13 overtime games in the playoffs. Of the 13, four of them were won by the team that won the coin toss and then took that opening drive and won the game. Three of which were won on field goals.

The NFL had to change the rule; suddenly their fears were coming true. Teams were starting to win playoff games thanks to the mighty coin flip.

And now, not only do coaches have to worry about their rosters overturning by an average of 20 percent every year, and worry about pressure from Commissioner Goodell about playing their starters even though they have clinched their playoff position, now they have to worry about the chance that they may have an overtime where kicking a field goal is no longer good enough on the opening drive.

No wonder February 7th seems so far away for Sean Payton.