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Mulling NFL overtime

Last weekend, the Chargers eliminated the Colts from the playoffs in overtime, and it once again raised questions about the fairness of the NFL's sudden-death rules. The Chargers won the coin flip, drove the length of the field, and won on a touchdown. Indianapolis quarterback and league MVP Peyton Manning never even put on his helmet. Was it fair? Is there a better way to decide these things? Here's a look at the options the NFL has in deciding overtime games.

Keep the current format

The current format is there's a coin flip and then it's sudden death. If a team scores, the game is over. Here's the problem: the team that gets the ball first usually wins. In 16 overtime games this season, including the Chargers-Colts, the team that won the coin flip won 11 times — eight on its first possession. In the first 30 years (1974 to 2003) of the overtime rules, there were 365 overtime games. The team that won the coin toss went 189-160-16. Simply put, too many games are being decided by coin flips.

Make it so each team gets the ball at least once

Seems fair, but there is a major flaw. Say a team wins the toss and scores on its first possession. Now the team that is trailing needs to score, but it is in constant four-down territory. It has four downs to keep the chains moving, while the team that opened the overtime had to consider punting on fourth down. In other words, the trailing team has the pressure to score, but it also has, potentially, more plays because punting is not an option.

Use the college rule

In college football, each team starts a possession at the opponent's 25-yard line. Again, the team that goes first is at a disadvantage because the team that gets the ball last knows exactly what it needs to do to win or tie. And there seems something gimmicky about this format, like using a home run derby to decide a baseball game. It also penalizes great defenses. If a defense has shut down an opponent all game and then shuts down an offense in overtime, the offensive team still will boot a field goal most likely inside of 45 yards, and that's practically automatic in the NFL.

Play one full quarter

This idea seems to be the most fair. Play one full quarter, regardless of which team scores and how many times it scores. It's like a 15-minute mini-game. The problem here is that you're putting players' health at great risk. It's hard enough playing 60 minutes of smash-mouth football, but now you're going to ask players to push themselves another 15 minutes? It's just too much to ask of players who are physically spent at the end of a 60-minute game.

Eliminate field goals in overtime

Make it so that the only way to win an overtime game is by scoring a touchdown or recording a safety. Kickers are just too good these days. During the 2008 regular season, kickers made 84.7 percent of their field-goal attempts — a league record. More astounding, kickers were 66-for-104 (63 percent) from 50 or more yards. Heck, that's three, maybe even two first downs in overtime before you can line up for a field goal. It should take way more than that to win a game, especially one that was hard-fought enough to go to overtime. But now you're completely altering the rules by eliminating a weapon and removing a valuable player. That's not right. That's like saying a basketball team isn't allowed to dunk in overtime because it's too easy of a shot.

Final analysis

When you get right down to it, every system seems to have its flaw. Perhaps the NFL has it right. But if we had a vote, our favorite idea is each team gets the ball at least once. There is still a bit of luck involved. You have to start the OT with a coin flip, and most teams likely would elect to get the ball second in order to know what they needed to win. Still, at least we wouldn't have games end when one of the offenses didn't get at least a chance to score.

Mulling NFL overtime 01/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:22pm]
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