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The NFL’s Overtime Rules Don’t Make Sense

The Chiefs won, the Broncos lost, one guy missed a kick, another made one. No one tied. But that doesn’t change the fact that football’s OT setup is utterly baffling.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Field goals are supposed to be simple. Either a kick passes in between the uprights and it’s good, or it passes outside them and counts for nothing. Same with football games: Either your team scores the most points and wins, or scores fewer points and loses. In or out, win or loss, black or white, up or down, heaven or hell.

So it was strange enough that Cairo Santos’s kick could either win the Chiefs the game or send them to football purgatory. The Chiefs and Broncos were both 7–3, jockeying for AFC playoff position, and both had 27 points in the closing seconds of overtime. Santos’s kick couldn’t win or lose the game. It could either win it, or it would be a tie.

And then the kick wasn’t cut-and-dried:

It thudded off of one upright with a DOINK, and jackknifed back toward the other upright. One official under the posts determined the kick had angled through, giving Kansas City the win, 30–27. The other knew he had no idea whether points had been scored, so he just kinda sidled out of the frame as if he was hoping nobody would notice.

Sadly, the drama killed Miles, the Broncos’ costumed horse mascot. Buddy, I hope they have salt licks in mascot heaven.

This game-ending weirdness has become oddly common. (The ties, not the dying mascots.) Two NFL games have ended in ties this year. There haven’t been three in a season since the NFL added overtime in 1974, meaning this year is — ugh, do I have to say it — tied for the most ties in a season since the NFL tried to tamp them down.

The increase is due to the NFL’s 2012 decision to tweak its overtime rules. That choice was smart. NFL overtime used to be played under sudden-death rules, giving a massive advantage to the team that won the coin toss after the end of regulation. It was simply unfair for something so random and unrelated to football to have such a large effect on who won NFL games.

But instead of, say, adopting the wildly popular rules used in college football, the NFL made its own rules. Now, a touchdown still wins the game at any point, but if a team scores a field goal on the first possession, the game does not end and the other team has the opportunity to match or win.

Have you thought about how dumb this is? In basketball and baseball, teams play additional periods until one loses. The college football method is essentially the same thing, adapted to football. In hockey there’s a 3-on-3 overtime session, which can be won by outscoring your opponent, and a shootout, which can be won by outscoring your opponent.

In the NFL, we take into account the type of score and when it happened to determine whether or not a score is a sudden-death winner or not. It’s weird.

The biggest upshot of these rules is that officials now have to take about 45 seconds to explain overtime to the players every single game, whereas back in the day they just got right to the coin-flipping. Before Sunday night, there had been 78 regular-season overtime games played since 2012. Twenty-two ended with game-winning touchdowns, and a 23rd ended on a safety. All of these would have triggered a sudden-death victory before the rule change, and all still did. An additional 49 were won by the first team to hit a field goal.

Last year, I looked closely at the outcomes of NFL overtime games to see whether Patriots coach Bill Belichick was justified in allowing opponents to take the ball even when he won the coin toss, and the answer was plainly no. The new rules might technically be a “modified sudden death” system, but they still give a big advantage to the first team to have the ball and generally upheld the NFL’s overtime status quo.

All told, before Sunday night the result of 94.8 percent of overtime games was unchanged by the new rules. No team has ever responded to a field goal on the first drive of overtime with a game-winning touchdown, and before Sunday, only one team had ever allowed a field goal on the first possession of overtime, matched it, and then gone on to win.

This makes sense. Successful field goals happened on 14.5 percent of possessions last year. That means the odds of field goals happening on back-to-back possessions are about 2.1 percent. Of course, in overtime, those odds should increase, as both teams have significantly higher incentive to attempt field goals. But with such low chances, it’s not particularly surprising that the only meaningful new scenario created by the NFL’s funky overtime almost never happens.

But then we got Broncos-Chiefs.

The game started out as a defensive battle between two of the league’s best. We often hear about QB matchups and have to snidely remark to ourselves how silly it is that football commentators seem to think quarterbacks actually play against each other. Sunday night was one of the few times we got in-depth updates on a pass rusher battle, as Von Miller and Justin Houston each proved how possible it is for vicious defenders to dominate games.

But as the thin mountain air tired defenders, the game opened up. Offenses led by Trevor Siemian and Alex Smith actually looked good as they headed toward overtime.

When both teams started off overtime with field goals, the weirdness began. Over 10 minutes of the overtime session were gone, leaving less than five minutes to sort out the rest. And the two typical options for a potential result were joined by a third, a strange beast nobody knows how to handle.

Denver got to the K.C. 44-yard line with about a minute left, and on fourth-and-10, the Broncos faced an all-time strange decision.

In a normal situation, you punt from there. But punting would eliminate Denver’s chance of winning and force it to play for the tie. Ugh. “Play for the tie.” Just typing those words makes me shudder. Every NFL tie leads to perplexed players. Some are unaware ties exist, others are simply upset they don’t get to keep playing until they win or lose. Punting was out of the question.

Going for it on fourth-and-10 was risky. Failing would give Kansas City the ball within striking distance of its own field goal range — and a first down wouldn’t even guarantee a win.

But kicking a 62-yard field goal was the riskiest option of all. A miss would give the Chiefs the ball on their own half of the field. But Brandon McManus has a strong leg, and the same thin mountain air that tired both defenses is also known for giving flying objects a little bit more distance. And if it worked, there would be no possibility of a tie or a loss. The game would be over, thanks to the longest game-winning kick in league history.

I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw people so torn about a football decision. It was more than just whether to be conservative or risky. Should a team push for a win if it opens up the opportunity for a loss, or settle for a tie? Is a tie something to fight for or avoid? Think about the playoff scenarios: Both teams were tied at 7–3 in the standings. A tie would help both teams stay afloat in the AFC wild-card picture, but keep both from advancing on the AFC West–leading Oakland Raiders.

Gary Kubiak chose to kick, and McManus’s kick was as wide as the Rockies are tall. The Chiefs did get the ball, Santos did hit his kick, and Andy Reid’s squad became just the second team ever to win after allowing a go-ahead field goal to start overtime. After the game, the Broncos stood by their coach making the decision that gave them the greatest chance of losing, proud that he gave them the opportunity to fight for a win. And now, Kansas City has a leg up in the playoff picture.

It’s hard to say the NFL’s overtime rules are worth it. They’re awkward, nonsensical, and generally don’t create the change they’re supposed to. The league would probably be better off with a more conventional overtime system, either guaranteeing both teams at least one possession before switching to sudden-death rules or just adopting the college rules in full. But on the rare occasions that the twisted system works, it’s genuinely fascinating.