Last year, the NFL realized it had an overtime problem.
It was first discovered when a Week 7 Sunday Night Football game between the Cardinals and Seahawks needed the full 15 minutes of overtime. By the end, the players were exhausted, the game was sloppy, and everybody wanted to go home. It ended in a 6–6 tie, a score line beamed from 1943 along with a newsreel about how our boys are doing in the fight against the Jerries and ads about how Lucky Strike will make your smile sparkle. The NFL had practically eliminated ties by introducing overtime in 1974 — there were over 3,000 games between 1998 and 2011, and just two ties. Both players and coaches have expressed surprise that the tie is still in the NFL’s rule book.
But in 2012 the league instituted a “modified sudden death” overtime: if anybody scores a touchdown, the game instantly ends, but if the first team with the ball kicks a field goal, the second team gets a chance to match, and then the game goes into sudden-death OT. It’s a system so unwieldy that announcers still feel the need to explain it step-by-step every time a game goes into overtime. It’s also a system that has led to a massive increase in ties — there have been five in the past five seasons. It came into play in Week 7 — the Cardinals kicked a field goal, the Seahawks matched, and nobody scored again, resulting in the first tie in a prime-time game since 1997.
Then, the next week, there was another tie in a nationally televised game, between Cincinnati and Washington in London. Luckily, British fans understood, referring to the game as “a proper cracking draw.” (I have met actual British people and know they don’t talk this way all the time, but I prefer to assume they do.) In Week 12, we almost had a third tie, again on Sunday Night Football, but the Chiefs beat the Broncos on a field goal as the OT clock expired. We avoided breaking the NFL record for ties in a season since the introduction of overtime, but these three prominent games reminded us that as much as we love football, asking players to play 75 minutes of it can get ugly.
And then there was the Super Bowl, which went into overtime for the first time in its 51 years of existence. That one was quick — the Patriots romped over a gassed Falcons defense to complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history — but that revealed the other problem with the overtime rules. The modified-sudden-death system is more confusing and less exciting than true sudden-death OT and doesn’t even accomplish its goal of removing the massive advantage that goes to the team that gets the ball first.
It makes sense that after last season, the NFL wanted to address these rules. But the league has gone about it in a rather dumb way: From now on, regular-season overtime will be just 10 minutes, instead of the 15 minutes in every other period and postseason overtimes.
The NFL claims this is a player safety issue. That seems dubious. There hasn’t been a rash of injuries in the 70th-to-75th minute of overtime games. ESPN Stats & Info’s Vince Masi estimated this will shave off about 20 plays a season from over 32,000, and that’s being generous. He was only solving for the number of plays each year that actually occur after the 70-minute mark in overtime games, but with the shorter period, end-of-game timing rules will kick in after just five minutes, and teams will speed up their game plan sooner in OT. Either way, if “player safety” is the issue here, and the way the NFL is fixing it is by playing less football, that seems to be an admission that playing football is inherently unsafe. I agree, but for its sake, the NFL probably shouldn’t.
Reportedly, another justification is that it is unfair for teams to play an exceptionally long overtime on Sunday and then turn around and play on Thursday Night Football four days later. But even if an overtime that would have gone 15 minutes goes only 10, we’re only reducing the length of that game from 75 to 70 minutes, about 6.7 percent. And only 26.5 percent of NFL games over the past five years have had overtimes that have gone over 10 minutes. And most of those don’t go the full 15 minutes. And only 32 of the NFL’s 256 games will feature a team set to play on Thursday Night Football the next week. And even if all those stars align, there’s no evidence that the rule change will make any difference. The real problem is asking any team ever to play on three days’ rest — not the tiny chance that the previous game goes a tiny bit longer.
This will not just change the way the game is played, but the framework of the game. It could turn wins into losses — the new rule opens the potential for a team to take six or seven minutes on an opening FG drive, potentially leaving the second team without time to get into FG range — and both into ties.
Ahh, the tie. It would be dishonest to say every game that has been tied after 10 minutes of overtime will be a likely tie under the new rules — of course, teams will change their strategy to try to squeak in game winners before the clock hits zero. But less time will almost certainly lead to more ties. It is much more likely that neither team scores in 10 minutes than in 15. And while the 15-minute overtime gave ample time for one team to kick a field goal, another team to match, and other possessions to occur, if anybody matches in the 10-minute OT, the game will be nearly over.
There is nothing wrong with a tie. But for whatever reason, that doesn’t fly in America. College football got rid of ties in 1996. The NHL eliminated them in 2005. The NBA has never had ties, and baseball will ask teams to play a game as long as two games to avoid 1/162nd of the season resulting in a split decision. That leaves the NFL as the only major American league besides MLS where ties can happen.
It would be easy for the NFL to follow suit. The college football overtime format isn’t necessarily fair — like the NFL’s method, it gives a big advantage to the team that wins the coin toss — but it’s easily understandable, popular, and generally ends within a handful of plays. And if player safety is a concern, the college version gets rid of kickoffs and punts, generally regarded to be the game’s two most dangerous plays.
I don’t like the modified-sudden-death setup. As I wrote last year, it very rarely changes the outcome of games. Of the 83 regular-season overtime games since the rule change, only three teams that would have lost in straight-up sudden death came back to win. The only certainty is that very frequently, the modified-sudden-death format makes overtimes longer.
The NFL can finish games however it would like, and making the game shorter does get rid of some very ugly football. But the league created that spike in ugly football with this overtime setup. It contradicts all logic: It makes games longer when the NFL says it wants them to be shorter. It doesn’t solve the coin-toss problem it supposedly fixes. And while everybody else is trying to eliminate ties, the NFL has concocted a convoluted overtime system that cultivates them.
When your team is involved in a tie game, don’t act as if it’s some confusing, once-in-a-lifetime rarity, a long-forgotten vestige of the rule book that randomly applied to your team. The NFL is choosing to bring the tie back from the dead rather than fixing the problem the league knows it created.