I feel like we have this conversation every other year. When a beloved team loses in overtime without their offense ever taking the field, NFL fans get divided into two extreme camps.
Camp A flies banners under the motto “Both teams should get the same opportunity,” while Camp B operates under the notion of “You want to win? Play defense.”
I don’t fall into either of these categories. I believe that while the NFL’s overtime rules are some of the fairest in all of American sports, they are only fair for average to below-average NFL teams. Once better, more efficient offenses get involved, the overtime rules fall apart.
Whenever these arguments arise, we often hear fans shout in favor of college football’s overtime rules. In college, Team A gets the ball at the opponent’s 25-yard line and has the opportunity to score. After their drive is complete, Team B gets the same opportunity. If both teams are still tied, the process is repeated with Team B going first followed by Team A, repeating those steps until a winner is determined with some adjustments the longer it goes (I’ll explain later). Pretty simple. Pretty understandable. Seemingly very fair, but it’s not. The team that goes second has a massive advantage, much greater than the advantage an NFL team has going first with its overtime policy.
Since the NFL changed its overtime policy in 2010 (playoffs) and 2012 (regular season), there have been 163 overtime games. The team that gets the ball first outright wins the game just 52.8 percent of the time. If we take ties out of the equation, the team that gets the ball first wins 56.2 percent of the time.
That’s actually pretty fair considering that in college, between 2013 and 2020, the team that starts the first overtime period on defense wins 63.6 percent of the time. To be fair, of the 151 overtime games analyzed in the article I just linked, only 71 teams that started on defense won in the first overtime period, meaning that only 47 percent of teams in college that start on defense win ASAP. It’s not until the third overtime period, when teams are forced to start alternating two-point conversion attempts when the team that starts on defense gets a huge advantage. In 30 games, the team that started on defense won 21 outright. That’s a 70 percent win rate, and it doesn’t mean the team that started on offense won nine times; it just means the team that started on defense didn’t win nine times. That’s an awful percentage and makes winning the coin toss at the end of regulation a monumental matter.
Knowing what you need to do in order to win or come out with a tie is a huge advantage that often gets overlooked when evaluating the college overtime rules. It’s far more advantageous than what an NFL team receiving the first kickoff gets, at least in terms of win percentage.
That being said, in the postseason, the NFL’s overtime rules are starting to show flaws. Since the rules were implemented in 2010, there have been 11 playoff games to go to overtime, and the team that got the ball first is 10-1. In seven of those games, the kicking team never got the ball. Why is this? Probably because quarterback play is so vastly improved between the regular and postseasons. In the playoffs, most every team is headed by a star quarterback capable of leading their team down the field when they need a touchdown. In the regular season, we have quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Ian Book/Taysom Hill, Drew Lock, Carson Wentz, Tua Tagovailoa, and many others who aren’t as reliable as their playoff counterparts: i.e.: Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. Those guys, when paired with solid offensive play-callers, can almost always drive down the field when they need to. They pull out all the stops and just go for the endzone. No matter how great a defense your team might have — *cough* *cough* Buffalo *cough* — it’s going to be really difficult to stop your opponent.
“Well, defense is 50 percent of the game!” says the disgruntled fan. First off, that’s not even true. There’s also special teams, and you can ask the Green Bay Packers how important that aspect of the game is. Second, sure, defense is important and if your team is truly complete and a serious Super Bowl contender, you should be able to make a stop, but that doesn’t account for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators in win-now mode. Oftentimes teams will refuse to run their best plays in order to save them for more dire scenarios, and what’s more dire than an overtime game in the playoffs. The defense usually won’t have film on these plays and thus when the offense decides to use them, they’re caught off-guard. With a strong quarterback, it’s damn near impossible to stop. With that in mind, at least in my opinion, there’s reason to change the NFL’s overtime rules, but only for the playoffs.
How do we make it more fair? I have no idea. This is a riddle that even the most touted scientists in the world struggle to solve, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least attempt to solve it. I’ve heard people say to play through a whole extra quarter, which would probably be fair, but would also defeat the whole purpose of overtime: either give the fans a thrilling experience (i.e.: penalty shootouts in the NHL and various soccer leagues) or end the game as quickly and fairly as possible. Seeing two dead tired teams sloth out an extra 15-minute quarter would likely be fair, but also long and drawn out. It’s a difficult subject that not a lot of people have an answer to, but as of right now, it’s the most fair solution we have.
While the rules are definitely more fair than they appear on the surface, there obviously needs to be some change. If two of the best minds in football, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and Bills head coach Sean McDermott, both agree that the NFL overtime rules could use some tweaking, we should probably listen. For goodness sake, one of them was gifted a trip to the AFC Championship Game just two days ago by way of the NFL’s current overtime rules, and even he believes there are issues with those rules. It’s probably because he fell victim to that ruleset in 2019 when he and his MVP quarterback Mahomes lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots in overtime without ever getting to touch the field, but his point still stands.
Now, if you’re one of those people who thinks it’s stupid to change the overtime rules between the regular season and playoffs, get a life. Go outside and touch some grass. The rules are already different in the NFL postseason since teams can’t tie. In fact, postseason overtime rules differ from regular-season overtime rules in multiple major American pro sports leagues.
In MLB, for the past two seasons, the regular season has featured an extra inning format that automatically puts a runner in scoring position at the start of every half-inning. That’s not the case in the postseason, where teams revert back to traditional extra-inning rules.
In the NHL, regular-season overtime consists of a five-minute overtime period where the teams play 3-on-3 hockey followed by a shootout if a winner is not decided. In the playoffs, they play 20-minute periods at 5-on-5 until a goal is scored.
I’ve heard no complaints about the NHL’s change in format, and the only complaints I’ve heard about MLB’s formats are aimed at the regular-season rules being unfair to the visiting team.
In every sport, the playoffs are an entirely separate entity from the regular season. That’s why the Atlanta Braves can win the World Series while having the fewest wins of any postseason team. It’s okay to have some different rules to make the game more fair. It’s time the NFL adopts that same mentality.