EDITOR’S NOTE, JANUARY 23, 2022: This piece was originally published after the Kansas City Chiefs lost to the New England Patriots in overtime of the AFC championship game in 2019. On Sunday, the Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills in overtime of their divisional-round game on a walk-off touchdown that meant the Bills’ offense didn’t get on the field in the extra session.
We must hold on to our moral authority to complain online, because without complaining, the internet would just be porn, cat photos, and dubious quotes attributed to dead presidents. But Teddy Roosevelt once said that complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is just whining, and a lot of football fans are whining this week.
The NFL’s overtime system has been questioned since it was implemented in 1974, but this week, it is facing the sharpest scrutiny since 2010, when the overtime rules were retooled. On Sunday, both the NFC and AFC championship games went into overtime, and in the latter matchup the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots combined for 48 second-half points, 31 of which came from Kansas City to tie the game at the end of regulation. The Chiefs did not get the ball again. The Patriots correctly called heads on the overtime coin toss, elected to receive, and drove down the field to score a touchdown and win the game in sudden death. The Chiefs defense squandered plenty of chances to stop the Pats and get the ball, including three third-and-10 opportunities, but their loss sparked a few questions: How much influence should a coin toss have on the outcome of a game? Should overtime conclude after only one offense has stepped onto the field? Can we write into the rule book that if regulation ends in a tie, then the Patriots lose?
For the whiners among us, here are 11 possible solutions to the NFL’s vexing overtime problem, along with the pros and cons of each. Happy complaining.
The Status Quo
1. Keep the Current Rules
The rule: “Each team must possess, or have the opportunity to possess, the ball. The exception: if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on the opening possession.”
Pros: Defense matters. If the Chiefs wanted to win, then they should have forced a stop.
Cons: The current rule is bizarre. The original policy was amended because the team that won the coin flip had a disproportionate advantage. From 1994 (when the kickoff was moved back 5 yards) to 2010, the team that won the coin toss won nearly 60 percent of overtime games. Since the sudden-death rule was tweaked to exclude first-possession field goals in 2012 (for two seasons prior, the rule change was in effect for only the playoffs), the disparity isn’t nearly as dramatic (52.7 percent, with that difference partially due to more home teams winning the toss so far).
But the fairness of the rule is much more questionable considering how often playoff overtime games have been decided in a single possession by one team. As ESPN’s Mike Sando pointed out:
Here are the playoff OT games since rules changed to require a TD instead of a FG to win on the first possession. As @BenBaldwin noted, if both teams were assured possession, the second team with the ball would benefit from knowing what's needed to win. @BrockESPN pic.twitter.com/pUvNe12RBg— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) January 22, 2019
It is bonkers that the team that wins the coin flip can end the game by scoring a touchdown on the first drive and then turn around and say, “If you wanted to win, you should have played defense,” even though its own defense didn’t have to do anything. If defense matters, both defenses should have to play. A coin toss should not determine which team gets the opportunity to keep the other offense from playing. Until teams are given the chance to have an equal number of possessions, some games won’t have just—or entertaining—endings.
2. Same Rules, but Sudden Death Begins After the First Possession
The rule: Each team must have the opportunity to possess the ball.
Pros: It preserves the allure of sudden death but allows each team to touch the ball at least once. No matter what the Patriots had done on their first overtime possession Sunday, the Chiefs would have gotten the ball back.
Cons: It would not guarantee equal possessions. Let’s say that after the Patriots scored a touchdown, they went for two points and converted. Then the Chiefs got the ball, scored a touchdown, and made a two-point conversion to tie the game. Then the Patriots got the ball, drove 45 yards, and kicked a walk-off field goal. It’d be the same problem we started with: The Chiefs wouldn’t have the chance to respond because of the coin-toss outcome.
3. Go Back to Sudden Death
The rule: First team to score wins.
Pros: Life isn’t fair. The rules are already too complicated. Let’s return to a simpler time.
Cons: Going down the field to get 40 yards, kicking a field goal, and winning is as unexciting to watch as a sports fan as it is difficult to accept as a loser.
4. Play the Whole Overtime Period
The rule: Play the entire period (10 minutes in the regular season, 15 in the playoffs).
Pros: This is the simplest solution, and perhaps the most tempting to anyone who is exhausted just by reading these options, never mind hearing refs explain them. In 2017, the league shortened overtime to 10 minutes in the regular season; in 2018, there were two ties in the first two weeks of the season.
Cons: If reading these entries has been exhausting, imagine playing a 75-minute football game in subzero weather. Now imagine that game still being tied. The players would be exhausted, it would be less fun to watch, and, most importantly, this solution would greatly raise the risk of injury. Football is dangerous enough, and the league doesn’t need to add any more rules that put players at risk.
Inspired by College Football
5. College Football Overtime
The rule: You can read the full rules of college football overtime here, but this is the gist:
- Each team gets one possession starting from the opponent’s 25-yard line.
- If the score is still tied after both possessions, the process repeats, but the team that went first goes second, and vice versa.
- After two overtime periods, no extra points are allowed. Only two-point conversions.
Pros: Equal possessions would mean that more points could be scored and the game would be more fun. Ditching the extra points after two overtimes means games would end faster.
Cons: Putting NFL teams in the heart of the other team’s territory is antithetical to the sport and feels like a practice-drill gimmick. Luckily, field position is the easiest part of the rule to change ...
6. Modified College Football Overtime
The rule: Take college football overtime rules, but instead of putting teams 25 yards away from the end zone, have them start somewhere else more palatable—the 50-yard line, their own 25-yard line, wherever.
Pros: This might be the closest we come to a rule that’s both fair and realistic. It would be far better to watch the Chiefs lose because their offense had the chance to score and failed rather than not getting the chance to score at all.
Cons: As The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman wrote two years ago, college football overtime is still influenced by the coin toss:
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.
Yes, the team that goes second would have an advantage by going second (on the other hand, this is how baseball works, and nobody seems to have an issue with the home team batting at the bottom of extra innings). There is one way to eliminate the power of the coin toss that was proposed this week ...
7. Nate Silver’s Tweak
The coin flip doesn't matter if, e.g.,— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 21, 2019
—In each OT, teams get one possession each from the opponents' 25-yard-line
—TD or bust: no FGs, no safeties, no defensive TDs
—In the 1st OT, there's *no* conversion attempt
—In subsequent overtimes, mandatory 2-point conversions
Pros: Silver’s proposal would eliminate the influence of the coin toss altogether and give each team equal possessions. The fear NFL owners have had since 1974—that the coin toss would affect the game’s outcome—would be mitigated.
Cons: The ball still starts on the 25-yard line, and special teams and the third phase of the game are still eliminated, as are defensive touchdowns, which are the best kind of touchdown. Eliminating field goals would piss off kickers and … wait, would anyone else be upset if we eliminated kickers from overtime? Some thought leaders have been on this train for a long time.
Let’s Get Real Nerdy
8. Riley’s Rule: Win by Four
The rule: The team that gets a lead of four or more points first wins.
Pros: This rule comes courtesy of Ringer associate editor Riley McAtee and is a tweak to what the Basketball Tournament did to fix the sport’s fouling problem at the end of games. Eliminate the clock and add a target score of four points over the opponent. A field goal wouldn’t win the game on its own, but two would, as would a touchdown. It would reduce the chances of the smallest players deciding the biggest games.
Cons: It wouldn’t solve the situation that unfolded Sunday with the Chiefs, and it has the potential to extend games for even longer if teams begin trading field goals in overtime. It’s also an arbitrary number that would suddenly have huge importance for no reason.
9. The Cut-and-Choose Method
The rule: Instead of changing the rules of sudden-death overtime, this fix would address the coin toss itself. The loser of the coin toss would decide where the ball will be placed—the 25-yard line, the 15-yard line, wherever they want—and the winner of the coin toss would decide whether to start on offense or defense from that spot. (“Cut-and-choose” stems from Andrew and Chris Quanbeck and was inspired by one person cutting a piece of cake into two pieces and the second person deciding which to eat.)
Pro: “Either way, the head coach is in control of his team’s destiny,” the Quanbeck brothers wrote in their proposal. If the goal is to maximize fairness with the coin toss, this would be the move, giving the rule the flexibility to adapt to the game as offenses and defenses fall in or out of sync with each other.
Con: It wouldn’t fix the problem of one team winning the game in one drive, though it would give opponents autonomy in the decision. Imagine listening to referees explain this on the broadcast, or trying to explain it to your grandparents, or to Rex Ryan.
10. Auction Off the Field Position
The rule: Another rule that addresses the coin toss instead of overtime rules themselves: Get rid of the coin toss altogether and give the ball to the team who will take it closer to its own goal line by auctioning off field position.
Who wants it at the 30? The 29? The 28?
The specifics of this proposal, also created by the Quanbeck brothers, include a few variations—a live auction between coaches at midfield? a silent auction with two envelopes?—but no matter what, the team getting the ball would be the one that sacrificed more field position in exchange for possession.
Pros: It’d be the most efficient way to determine how valuable possession to start overtime is. It would stand the test of time even as the balance of power between offense and defense changes. (It’s also amazing to picture Bill Belichick and Sean McVay at midfield bidding on field position.)
Cons: If you thought the cut-and-choose method was bad, imagine the referees explaining this one on national television.
The Winner Is …
11. Extra-Innings Baseball, but Extra-Possessions Football
The rule: A regular NFL overtime period with the spirit of college football’s equal possessions, but without removing special teams from the equation. Imagine a baseball game going into extra innings—they just keep playing!—but with possessions instead of half-innings. A coin toss would decide the kickoff, and the teams would play a non-sudden-death overtime period. The team that gets the ball first would either score on its possession or have to punt, just like in regulation. The team that gets the ball second would have to match or exceed the score posted by the first team on its drive. If the game is still tied after two possessions, the teams would keep going. (For example, if the first team punts, the opponent would be able to win with just a field goal.)
Pros: This would keep the spirit of equal possessions from the college overtime system and promote maximum fairness, but also preserve special teams, field position, and everything else that makes football flow and football coaches glow. It would also address the coin toss. The power of the coin toss in NFL overtime goes to the team that gets the ball first because of the opportunity to score first, but also because of the field position earned by getting the kickoff and punting if necessary. By contrast, the equal-possessions system favors the team that goes second, because it has the information advantage. This system could mitigate both issues by incorporating advantages from both.
Cons: Instead of mitigating the power of the coin toss, this proposal could exacerbate it. Also, this could give us our first five-hour football game. But it’s the only solution that attempts to emphasize equal possessions, deemphasize the coin flip, and keep the game both authentic and fun. Most importantly, it’s the best option to cut down on all the whining.