No one thinks about NFL overtime until it happens, which isn’t that often in the grand scheme of things and is usually pretty tame when it does. But all hell breaks loose when the format impacts the outcome of a playoff game, as it did in January’s divisional matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. And so here we are in March, once again trying to figure out if there is a better way to do it.
The NFL tweaked its overtime rules in 2010, 2012 and 2017, putting the current debate right on schedule. At issue is whether it’s still tenable for a team to win on the first possession of overtime, as the Chiefs did while Bills quarterback Josh Allen and his offense stood on the sideline and watched without getting a chance to match.
The existing rule allows a team to win on the first possession if it scores a touchdown. Otherwise, both teams get a possession, and the game is either decided by sudden death or ends in a tie (unless it’s a postseason game). The Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles have combined on a proposal that mandates a possession for each team, regardless of what happens on the first possession. The Tennessee Titans have proposed requiring a 2-point conversion after a touchdown for a team to win on its first possession.
The league’s competition committee has yet to weigh in on either proposal — but it did not make any of its own — as the owners prepare to gather next week for their annual meeting in Palm Beach, Florida. NFL rule changes require approval from at least 24 owners.
A possible compromise is to focus on a rule change for the playoffs only. Since the current requirement for an opening-possession touchdown was instituted for the 2012 regular season, teams winning the coin toss have won 50% of the time, according to league data. That number has ticked up a bit to 54% since the league shortened overtime from a maximum of 15 minutes to 10 in 2017, but there has been a big jump in the postseason. Since the current format was implemented, seven of 12 overtime postseason games have been won on the opening possession, and 10 of those 12 were won by the team that won the coin toss.
Part of the issue is that the NFL has tried to balance various and competing priorities for overtime. Is it trying to optimize fairness? Entertainment? Does it want to stay true to regulation formats? Should postseason games have a separate set of rules?
What about avoiding ties? Since reducing overtime to 10 minutes in 2017, the NFL has had five ties in 64 overtime games, a rate of 7.8%. From 2000 to 2016, there were a total of seven ties in 270 overtime games (2.6%).
What follows is an evaluation — pros, cons and grades — of the majority of overtime possibilities, some of which we introduced last fall, including some that the NFL won’t consider anytime soon. None of them are perfect, and there are no “A” grades. As you pursue them, it’s important to understand how disparate the views are around the league. Bills general manager Brandon Beane, for example, said earlier this month that he favored eliminating sudden death in playoff overtime and using a set time period as other sports do.
“I personally don’t think ties in the regular season are as big of a deal,” he said.
On the other hand, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said: “If there was an appetite [for change], you want to be consistent. … You don’t want to have one set of rules for the regular season and another for the playoffs, but that’s just me.”
Mandatory possession | Two-point tries
Spot and choose | No sudden death
Shootout | No coin toss | No clock
What would happen: It would guarantee each team a possession in overtime, no matter what happened on the opening possession. If one team has a point advantage after the first two possessions, that team wins. If the score remains tied, play would continue for up to 10 minutes, with the next score winning.
Pros: It eliminates the possibility of a one-possession overtime period in which the loser of the coin toss never plays offense. That makes overtime inherently fairer.
Cons: It makes some games longer than they otherwise would have been, a factor not only for the health of players but also for the diminishing entertainment value of longer games. It also lowers the impact of poor defense on the opening possession, and ties remain a possibility.
Grade: B+. This proposal has a good combination of increased fairness and minimal departure from the regulation vibe of a game. And while it could add an extra possession to some games, the game would still be shorter than if teams played an entire overtime period without sudden death.
Stephen A. Smith voices his disagreement with the NFL’s overtime rules after Jeff Saturday says he wouldn’t change them.
Mandatory possession, unless a 2-point conversion on first score
What would happen: A team could win on the opening possession of overtime by scoring a touchdown and then converting a 2-point attempt. Otherwise, a first-possession touchdown would still lead to a kickoff and the opposing team getting its own possession for a chance to tie it up or win outright.
Pros: It’s harder for a team to win a one-possession overtime. The three-year NFL average of conversion rates for 2-point attempts is 48.2%.
Cons: It reduces but does not eliminate the possibility of a one-possession overtime victory. It also introduces a potentially significant advantage for teams that are well equipped or otherwise excel at 2-point conversions. The Titans, who are sponsoring the proposal, have a strong power running game that makes it difficult for defenses to account for pass plays. Since hiring coach Mike Vrabel in 2018, they rank No. 10 in the NFL in 2-point conversion rate (58.3%).
Grade: C. This proposal is overtime purgatory. It doesn’t solve the issue it addresses, and it introduces a new factor to consider in the level of fairness. It might work well for the Titans, but it seems like it would have a net neutral impact.
OTHER POTENTIAL IDEAS
Spot and choose
What would happen: The winner of the overtime coin toss would have a new decision to make. Instead of choosing whether to kick off or receive, the coin toss winner could make one of two choices. It could decide where the ball would be spotted, with the loser of the coin toss choosing whether to play offense or defense first. Or it could choose to play offense or defense, and allow the loser to spot the ball.
Pros: This adds strategy and lowers the impact of luck as a factor in determining the opening possession, in theory making it fairer. Also, it would potentially be more entertaining.
Cons: Ultimately, it would lead to homogenous coin-toss decisions. Smart teams would identify the yard line where neither team would have an advantage — probably around the 13-15-yard line — and the coin-toss winner would likely make that the start of the opening possession most every time. It introduces an approach that isn’t used at other points in a game. Also, this format would heavily favor teams that embrace analytic thinking, which as we know is not all of them. Ties aren’t addressed here, either.
Grade: B. This structure is innovative but ultimately had no support when the Baltimore Ravens proposed it in 2021. NFL owners and their advisers aren’t ready to accept rules based on game theory, or even those that look like it — at least not yet.
Full OT period with no sudden death
What would happen: The teams would play a fifth quarter, be it 15 minutes or perhaps 10, and the team that is leading when the clock expires would win.
Pros: It’s exceedingly fair and reflects the structure of other games such as basketball. In suggesting this approach earlier this month, Buffalo’s Beane said: “[T]hat way, both teams will definitely have a chance and maybe even more than one possession.” It’s as close to following the structure of regulation as you can get. Remember, sudden death introduces a convenient but ultimately unique way of determining the outcome.
Cons: This brings a guarantee of longer games and would serve as a detriment to player health — and potentially entertainment value, as well. There could still be ties, even after the additional time and plays. And you would probably see a determined effort by teams in possession to drain the clock, which would detract from the point of adding a full-time period.
Grade: C. This approach could be an option for a playoff-only proposal, but to play a full 10 or 15 extra minutes in the regular season is probably too much football from a variety of perspectives. There are more efficient ways to declare a winner.
What would happen: Broadly speaking, each team gets a certain number of red zone (or near-red zone) plays to score. This general format has been used at the high school and college levels, as well as by some alternative pro leagues. The specifics can vary, including requirements to use a 2-point conversion, but in most scenarios, the sides alternate until one team has more points than the other at the end of a round. (The new USFL will use a best-of-three-round format.)
Pros: It ensures there are no ties, guarantees possession for both teams and is entertaining. After a full 60 minutes of regulation, defenses are often tired. Scoring is not usually an issue. And by definition, a defensive stand usually is the clincher, ensuring that both sides of the ball contribute to a win.
Cons: The games can get long. Last season, Illinois and Penn State went to nine overtime periods, one of six NCAA games that have needed at least seven periods since 1996. The game took more than four hours to complete. Also, a format without a game clock and a predesignated start of possession is a significant departure from the structure of the rest of the game.
Grade: B. This approach checks several important boxes. It’s fair, and it guarantees a winner when the score is tied after regulation. It’s also fun. But it can get unwieldy, and even if it doesn’t cause extra injuries, it will leave the teams needing extra recovery before their next games.
Eliminate OT coin toss
What would happen: Instead of holding a coin toss, the home team would automatically get the first possession as part of home-field advantage. The remainder of overtime would follow the current structure: mandatory possession unless the first drive ends in a touchdown.
Pros: Well, it eliminates luck as part of determining the outcome. In a close game during the fourth quarter, everyone will know which team is going to have the advantage of the first possession in overtime, if the game goes that far. That’s information that can influence their late-game strategy. In theory, visiting teams would act more aggressively to win in regulation.
Cons: An inherent advantage still exists, although it could be minimized by strategy in the fourth quarter. First-possession victories would still occur, and ties remain a possibility.
Grade: B. Although it might be preferable to the current format, because it removes luck from the winning equation, it substitutes an equally uncontrollable factor. The difference, of course, is that the factor is fully known before the game even starts.
Eliminate the clock and play on
What would happen: The game would continue past the expiration of regulation. The team in possession of the ball when the clock hit “00:00” would pick up in overtime where it left off at the end of the fourth quarter. If regulation ended with a team facing third-and-6 from the 45-yard line, that’s where overtime would begin. There would be no clock. First score wins.
Pros: It’s probably the fairest format. Teams would just keep playing football, maintaining the flow of the game, until there is a score — without the added complications of a coin toss, kicking off and restarting a possession.
Cons: Not using a clock means games will be decided under a fundamentally different structure than they were played in regulation. There would also be no way to limit the length of the game between two increasingly tired teams. Injuries and recovery time for the next game would also be issues.
Grade: C+. It’s fair and would eliminate the possibility of a tie, and you would think that it wouldn’t take too long to get one score. But the possibility of an elongated slugfest, unhemmed by clock or rule, makes this idea more difficult to swallow than some of the others.