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The NFL’s Overtime Rules Aren’t Fair — but Neither Are the Alternatives

Matthew Slater’s “heads” call was one of the decisive moments of Super Bowl LI

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Sure, the Patriots made a lot of great plays Sunday night — they had to in order to pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. But if I had to pick the one that won them the game, I’d pick a play by Matthew Slater.

No, it wasn’t a catch he made: Although he’s listed as a wide receiver, he has only one career catch, and that was in 2011. No, it wasn’t a play he made on special teams. Although he’s made the Pro Bowl six times, his work limiting the Falcons to zero punt return yards wasn’t a critical factor in the game — much of that fell on the punter, and besides, New England didn’t punt during its comeback.

I’m talking about the play Slater made at the beginning of overtime. As New England’s special teams captain, it was Slater’s job to make a pick for the coin toss. Our Kevin Clark reports that Slater is a heads guy, having picked it over tails every time he’s been given the chance over the past six seasons.

Earlier, at the beginning of the game, Slater had faltered. The Super Bowl coin toss is a big deal, with bettors placing wagers on it and the NFL bringing out a celebrity to throw the coin — last night it was former President George H.W. Bush. And the coin came up tails.

So, during the overtime coin toss, Slater’s head had to be spinning. Was heads really the right call? Is it true that tails never fails? In the ultimate show of consistency and #ThePatriotWay, he called heads and won.

Sunday night featured the first overtime in Super Bowl history, and therefore the first time the NFL’s overtime rules received scrutiny on its largest stage. While the opening coin toss of games means almost nothing, the coin toss in overtime is a major determinant of who wins and who loses. Since 2010, when the NFL reworked its overtime rules for the playoffs, each team has been guaranteed a possession or the opportunity to possess — unless the team that receives the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession. (The rules were adopted in the regular season in 2012.)

If Atlanta had won the toss, the best offense in the NFL would have gotten the ball with a chance to win the game with a touchdown. Sure, the Falcons farted through most of the second half, but their offense still played a relatively good game and could have succeeded in OT. Matt Ryan finished with over 12 yards per passing attempt, Julio Jones made some of the greatest catches we’ll ever forget, and the running backs rolled. The chances of them mustering a touchdown after an ugly second half were low, but I’d say they were still higher than New England’s chances of scoring four times on four possessions while shutting Atlanta out after playing terribly for 40 minutes — and that happened.

Furthermore, Atlanta’s defense would have gotten time to rest. The Patriots ran the Falcons ragged on a series of long drives at the end of regulation, and when New England won the toss, the Falcons had to put their gassed defense back on the field. The Patriots trampled over them, winning with a walk-off touchdown. The best offense in the NFL? Never got to touch the ball.

Of all the coaches in NFL history, nobody has toyed with the idea that maybe it’s bad to start overtime with the ball more than Belichick has. There have been 12 overtime games when a team has chosen to give the ball away. Eleven were games when weather made field position outweigh possession. Belichick coached one, a 2013 New England win over Denver when the wind helped the Patriots gain great field position for a game-winning field goal.

The 12th was a stranger Belichick game, played on one of the nicest days in the history of New York Decembers. He opted to kick despite the decent weather, and the Jets scored and won on the first drive of OT. It was such a baffling decision that many assumed Slater had messed up in telling the referee the Patriots wanted to kick; when people found out he hadn’t messed up, some assumed Belichick was trying to intentionally lose to give New England a more favorable playoff opponent. While it seems unlikely that Belichick would throw a game after playing his starters for 60 minutes, that explanation made more sense than one of the greatest coaches of all time making a decision that benefited the other team.

Suffice it to say, there is no evidence that backs up the premise that kicking the ball in overtime helps a team win. Since the NFL instituted its new overtime rules, there have been 87 overtime games. Five have been ties, and the team to get the ball first has won 45 of the remaining 82. That’s 54.8 percent, meaning simply winning the coin toss makes a team 9.6 percent more likely to win.

The best alternative would seem to be college football’s OT system, a quickly understandable mini-game based around points. But if you’re looking for a system not influenced by coin tosses, college football isn’t the place. In that system, teams get to choose whether to play on offense first or second. The team that goes second has a massive advantage, knowing how many points it needs to tie or win the game. A study of the first 10 years of college football’s overtime rules found that teams that went second won 54.9 percent of the time. Another study found that teams that start on defense had a 52.1 percent win probability, smaller than the NFL’s but still significant. And this Redditor tabulated that teams going second in overtime had won 331 of 602 overtime games, almost 55 percent. Allowing both teams to touch the ball lends plausible fairness to the game, but it doesn’t make it even.

Earlier this season I wrote that the NFL’s overtime rules don’t make sense, and I stand by that. The rule changes, which did away with sudden death by field goal, made winning the coin toss slightly less important. But the new, modified system rarely changes winners to losers, and it makes ties significantly more likely, even though some NFL players and coaches still don’t know ties exist. Five years after its introduction, the system still requires a lengthy explanation from the ref.

But in the 150 or so years we’ve been playing football, nobody’s really come up with a fair method of determining the winner after a tie in regulation. In 2005 The New York Times reported that a pair of engineers, the Quanbeck brothers, had pitched the league on a system in which one team chose the field position to open overtime and the other team chose whether to play offense or defense from that spot. The Quanbecks have other proposals, based around auction-style systems where teams choose field position or the ball.

The proposals seem fun! They’d add an element of theater and strategy that’s lost in the coin toss. I’m also 100 percent sure the NFL would never seriously consider any of them.

We will likely be stuck with this system, or at least a system based heavily on luck, for quite some time. So let’s find beauty in it. It will lead to desperate defenses fighting to force a field goal; it will lead to strange decisions about whether to play for the tie or the lead; it will lead to ties, the weirdest thing football has to offer. Sunday night, it led to the Patriots putting the perfect capper on the greatest comeback the Super Bowl has ever seen. Anything else would have been an anticlimax.

If we’re being honest, we know it’s unfair that Atlanta didn’t get the ball back for reasons due to a bouncing coin and not football. But if we’re being really honest, we know the team didn’t deserve that ball. The Falcons had so many opportunities to avoid overtime, and crumpled in all of them. It was only fitting that overtime featured them getting trucked off the field and into the history books with the most embarrassing collapse football’s championship game has ever seen. Yes, the coin toss means they were slighted by fate, but their loss was also fueled by their own failure.