Big Al's NFL Overtime Solution: A Redux

by Al McMordie

Sunday, Jan 23, 2022
I wrote on this subject matter over two years ago, and wanted to re-visit it after watching Kansas City eliminate Buffalo, 42-36, in what may go down in NFL lore as "The Greatest Game of All Time." 

There have been 11 NFL playoff games since the new rule which allows a team to walk-off the field with a touchdown on the opening possession.

2011-12  Broncos vs. Steelers  (Result:  Broncos won on TD on 1st possession)

2011-12 Giants vs. 49ers  (Result: Giants won on FG on 5th possession)

2012-13 Ravens vs. Broncos  (Result: Ravens won on FG on 5th possession)

2014-15 Seahawks vs. Packers  (Result: Seahawks won on TD on 1st possession)

2015-16 Cardinals vs. Packers  (Result: Cardinals won on TD on 1st possession)

2016-17 Patriots vs. Falcons  (Result: Patriots won on TD on 1st possession)

2018-19 Rams vs. Saints  (Result:  Rams won on FG on 2nd possession)

2018-19 Patriots vs. Chiefs  (Result: Patriots won on TD on 1st possession)

2019-20 Vikings vs. Saints  (Result: Vikings won on TD on 1st possession)

2019-20 Texans vs. Bills  (Result:  Texans won on FG on 3rd possession)

2021-22 Chiefs vs. Bills  (Result:  Chiefs won on TD on 1st possession)

Seven of the 11 games have ended on the 1st possession.

The longest was the Ravens/Broncos game, which lasted 16 minutes and 42 seconds (five possessions).

The quarterbacks who never got to touch the ball in overtime is a Hall-of-Fame-list:

Ben Roethlisberger
Aaron Rodgers (twice)
Matt Ryan
Patrick Mahomes
Drew Brees
Josh Allen

There will no doubt be a maelstrom after this Chiefs/Bills game, and people will call for an overhaul of the overtime rule.  People will claim it is an injustice that Josh Allen and the Bills never got to touch the ball in overtime.  I'm not sure that statement is true.  But what is surely an injustice is just how much a random coin toss determines the outcome of these playoff games.  As I pointed out, in seven of the 11 games, the team drove down the field to win on the Playoff game's first possession in overtime.  And in an additional three games, the team which won the coin toss won on a later possession.  So, in 10 of the 11 Playoff games, the team which won the coin toss won the game.  Is this what the NFL Competition Committee really wants?  (This is a rhetorical question.)

The good news is that the NFL doesn't need a complete overhaul of the rule.  It doesn't need to go to a fifth quarter of 15 minutes, or even make it mandatory that each team has a possession in overtime as, ironically, the Kansas City Chiefs proposed to the Competition Committee in 2019.  Instead, it just needs to tweak its current rule to greatly level the playing field, and eliminate the randomness of what should be a meaningless (not a determinative) coin toss.

I believe that a team should have to score not just a touchdown, but also a 2-point conversion if it wants to walk off the field after the first possession.  And it would not be incumbent for any team to go for two points; a team could elect to kick an extra point.  This past season, NFL teams succeeded on 2-point conversions 49.6 percent of the time.  This simple fact would have changed the above outcomes from seven of 11 ending with one overtime possession to, maybe, just three or four of 11.  And if Patrick Mahomes would have driven the Chiefs down the field for a touchdown AND a 2-point conversion vs. the Bills' defense, it's without a doubt a well-earned victory -- and not overwhelmingly determined by a coin toss.

That's a hugely more satisfying outcome.

The beauty of this tweak is that it actually would bring into question for some teams whether or not to even choose to receive the ball first, especially if weather elements are involved, or if either (or both) teams aren't offensively dominant.  And that's because you would have a greater than 50% chance (I'll let smarter minds than mine determine exactly how much greater) of getting an offensive possession after kicking off to start overtime. 

Further, a coach would have a myriad of things to consider when he was confronted with the choice of whether to go for a 2-point conversion following a score on an overtime's opening possession.

One choice might be to just kick the extra point and let the overtime continue for at least one more possession (where you could only be BEAT) if the other team scored a touchdown and successfully went for two.

Certainly, the team which plays defense on the opening possession would almost always go for two on a second possession, if down seven points, lest it kick a game-tying extra point only to give the ball back to its opponent with the possibility of then losing on a field goal on the overtime's 3rd possession.

But, who knows?  So much would depend on the teams and their personnel.

The strategic decisions would be fascinating.

But, more importantly, it would greatly decrease the current unfairness of the existing format, and level out the randomness of a coin flip.

Just my thoughts...

Al McMordie

Editor's Note:  Since publishing this article, I've received many emails, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  Two questions/comments stand out. 

The first is, 'well, I'm sure the NFL has considered this.'  Interestingly, it's never been mentioned in news reports.  Indeed, The Sporting News just published a history of the NFL's overtime rules proposals here and my solution to the NFL's overtime problem has never been proposed.

The second comment involves the math behind this solution.  I was loathe to go through the math because, well, to put it bluntly, math bores people.  But, here's the general math to illustrate why this is an ideal solution.  Two assumptions.  First, we will assume a 50 percent success rate on 2-point conversions because the rate of this previous regular season was 49.6 percent.  Second, we're just going to take the Playoff numbers at face value, and use 64 percent for the success rate of a touchdown on an opening possession.  I'm certainly aware it's a small sample size, but I don't want to include regular season data because the caliber of the quarterbacks is much higher in the Playoffs (Indeed, I think the NFL may have made a mistake initially by trying to extrapolate too much from regular season data).  And I'm also aware that the trend is moving towards a higher percentage (e.g., 75 percent since 2014-15) but we will still stick with 64 percent.

With these numbers, a team would score a touchdown on the overtime's opening possession AND convert a 2-point attempt 32 percent of the time (.50 x .64).  Please bear in mind that a team would also have the option of kicking an extra point if it scored a touchdown, and some coaches would very well indeed choose that option.  So, there would be a 68 percent chance that the team which lost the coin toss would possess the ball in overtime, with a chance to win or extend the game by either kicking a field goal, or scoring a touchdown with an extra point, or scoring a touchdown with a 2-point conversion.   For argument's sake, let's just assign a 70 percent success rate for the team to end the game on the second possession in overtime.  If you multiply .70 x .68 (representing the 68 percent chance the team would have a possession), you'll get 48 percent.  So, 80 percent of games would be decided after two possessions (.32 + .48).  Should a game move to a third possession, that would mean a field goal would win the game.  If you assign a 75 percent chance of a successful field goal conversion, that would mean 95 percent of games would end by the third overtime possession (.32 + .48 + .15), with the team which won the coin toss being victorious in 47 percent (.32 + .15), and the team which lost the coin toss being victorious in 48 percent -- essentially a 50/50 proposition.  Five percent of games would move to a fourth possession.  And that's why this NFL overtime solution is ideal.  It greatly lessens the impact of a coin toss, and creates a much more level playing field for the two teams.  But even better:  it actually would enrich the game by making the overtime session more fascinating from a strategy standpoint.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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