Fixing NFL Overtime

by Hollywood Sports

Like clockwork, if a team wins by the opening touchdown in the overtime period in the NFL playoffs, calls will begin to change the procedures enacted to resolve these games that remain tied after regulation time. 

Critics (often holding losing bet tickets) will cry about the injustice of the system and the arbitrariness of the game decided by a coin flip. We do not bat an eyebrow watchman tired referees hurriedly deploy eye-ball tests when they guestimate where the ball was downed before Big Tech purifies the process with close-up camera angles. But, sure, let’s start complaining about the overtime system impacting the integrity of the game only when the process finally literally embraces literal coin flips to impact the outcome rather than just the de-facto coin-flip external actions that litter the game before that point. 

The overtime in the NFL playoffs used to be resolved with a full 15-minute extra period. This approach was abandoned because games would take too long. Player health and safety get invoked as a rationale, but if you are buying that, I have some oceanside property here in Las Vegas I can offer you at a really good deal. 

The essential problem remains how to develop a mechanism to resolve tied games that is fair to both teams but accomplishes this goal quickly. The college system has teams alternate possessions starting at the 25-yard line. But because those games were taking too long still to determine a winner, a system was implemented that had the teams embark on rotation two-point conversion attempts after the first two rounds at the 25-yard line. For many observers (including myself), that feels too much like the skills competition attempts to resolve games in the regular season of the NHL. Embracing a longer overtime session like the NHL does in the Stanley Cup playoffs would likely put the winner at a competitive disadvantage in their next game against an opponent who did not play in as long a game. 

Most new proposals to the overtime rules simply kick the can on the inevitable problem inherent in the advantage of winning the coin flip for overtime. The rules can be changed to allow for both teams to touch the ball once — then anything goes — but the team that got the ball first and scored a touchdown still has the edge of getting the ball first after the back-and-forth. If one is committed to eliminating a full period of additional play, then the dilemma of infinite regression regarding the fairness of “who gets the ball first” is inevitable. However, there may be a way out of this conundrum. 

Here is the Hollywood Sports’ proposal. First, ditch the overtime coin flip and award the team with the most yards from scrimmage with choice of ball/field direction. Better yet, include special teams' return yards to the mix on top of offensive yards from scrimmage so that all three phases of the game impact this tie-breaker determinant. The second tie-breaker can be fewer offensive plays (higher yards-per-play). This addresses the concern about the randomness of the coin-flip with the first option choice being rewarded based on a skills-based objective. 

Second, then let both teams get one offensive possession. While the "both teams get the ball once" overtime reform seems to just kick the can on the "but the other QB never gets the chance to respond" dilemma, perhaps the game-theory intangibles with the 2-point option neutralizes this concern in practice.

Hypothetically, let’s look at the Buffalo Bills-Kansas City overtime classic that ended when Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to a winning touchdown on the opening overtime drive after Kansas City won the arbitrary coin flip. Let’s then assume Josh Allen leads the Bills to a touchdown on their possession.

Do the Bills then go for 2 to win the game, right then and there? 

Knowing that possibility, does Kansas City go for 2 after their initial Travis Kelce TD to pre-empt this Buffalo counter? 

More game-defining plays of makes/misses might nullify the concern of overtime taking too long. This scenario makes the strategic choice to defer getting the ball first (as is the conventional wisdom in college football) since there is heightened value in knowing what you need to win the game. If this game-theory stratagem with the removal of the arbitrary coin-flip for a determinant that is results-based, then I think we are getting somewhere to improve an, albeit, inherently flawed process. 

In an ideal world, the NFL playoffs would be able to transcend the physical limitations of their human being players and embrace the overtime process of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs before hitting a magic reset button for the winning team to be fully rested for their next game. But, alas …

Best of luck — Frank.

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

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