NFL Overtime Rule Change -- Kicking the Can or Game Theory Lollapalooza?

by Hollywood Sports

Thursday, Mar 31, 2022
The NFL changed their overtime rules this week after the outcry from the AFC Divisional playoff run where Kansas City beat Buffalo by a 42-36 score. I wrote about my modest proposal to change the overtime rules at the time here:

Not surprisingly, the league has voted to ensure each team gets one possession in overtime. Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay inadvertently offered some comedy to the situation by citing that the decision was “data-driven” since the team who won the coin toss to begin overtime went on to win the game in 10 of the 12 playoff overtime games since the rule was initiated. That’s quite a sample size over a 13-year period since the New Orleans Saints were the first team to benefit from that rule change in the 2009 playoffs (Drew Brees versus Minnesota). 

Seven teams won the game in the first possession which seemed compelling to folks like McKay and NBC Sports’ journalist/pundit Peter King. If one less team would have clinched the game with an opening drive touchdown in the overtime over these 13 years, would the data no longer have supported the change? What exactly did the NFL, McKay, and King think was going to happen when the winner of the coin toss is given such a strong incentive to not bring out a kicker of any kind since a touchdown successfully ends the game for them?

This reform does not solve the problem. It merely kicks the can. Peter King and the 24-hour Hot Take Industry will have plenty to still talk about with the next dozen NFL playoff games that go to overtime over the next dozen or so years. If Josh Allen would have countered the Chiefs' initial overtime touchdown with a Bills’ touchdown, then Kansas City gets the ball back with the opportunity to simply win the game via a field goal. The inequity stemming from the arbitrary coin flip emerges once again, albeit delayed. King can cite the statistics that the team that won the coin flip continues to be more likely to win in overtime. Surprise!

As I mentioned in my previous thoughts on this matter, this change in the rule does create the opportunity for some interesting game theory. The team getting the ball second may choose to attempt to end the game right then and thereafter score their potential game-tying touchdown by attempting a 2-point conversion. Of course, if they fail, they lose the game. This possibility may convince the Brandon Staley’s of the world to attempt 2-point conversions if they score the first touchdown in overtime, which will be hilarious/infuriating depending on where one's money is invested. It will be like Lollapalooza for the NFL Analytics Twitter (once they decide where the Group Think answer is).

This will add drama to the proceedings. The college football overtime format has drama — and the NFL has little interest in adopting their proposal. This reform by the NFL attempts to obscure the inherent problem that a coin flip gives one team a structural advantage. Layered within this change is the incentivizing for one or both teams bypassing the extra point for a two-point conversion. The first team to miss a two-point conversion probably loses. Sounds like the college system. 

My earlier proposal was to replace the coin flip with the awarding the structural advantage of getting to choose the first or last possession that generated the most total yards in the game (and add special teams yards!) with the choice of first or last possession. Some coaches may determine that getting the ball last becomes the more strategic option since that offense will know exactly what they need to accomplish to win or extend the game. Peter King at least has to change his talking point to “the team that gained the most yardage during the game most often wins in overtime.” Rich McKay can continue to claim this is all “data-driven!”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in practice. One thing we probably can already conclude is that a dozen examples in a dozen years probably does not offer enough of a sample size to make responsible conclusions. But that will not stop us!

Best of luck  — Frank.

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

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