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Hard to believe NFL overtime change is about player safety

Fans await the beginning of overtime between the Patriots and Falcons in Super Bowl LI in February. [Associated Press]
Fans await the beginning of overtime between the Patriots and Falcons in Super Bowl LI in February. [Associated Press]
Published May 27, 2017

If someone's house were engulfed in flames, would you hand him a fire extinguisher?

Of course not.

But that's how the NFL is handling its overtime problem.

Owners voted this week to reduce regular-season overtime periods from 15 to 10 minutes, a gesture as thoughtful as buying your mother-in-law a candle for Christmas.

Meanwhile, overtime's most significant flaw remains. A team still can lose a game without its offense taking a snap in the extra period, as the Falcons did in last season's Super Bowl against the Patriots. Let that sink in: With the world watching, the NFL's marquee game — the 267th in a grueling 22-week season — was decided without one of the teams ever touching the ball in overtime.

We can land spacecraft on Mars, but we can't figure this out?

The company line is that the league is shortening overtime in the interest of player safety.

"The NFL has invested a lot of time and money into player safety, and their research shows that this is aimed at player safety," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said Tuesday.

Texans coach Bill O'Brien made similar remarks at the owners meetings in March, when the proposal was first considered and ultimately tabled.

"Under the umbrella of player safety, cutting it down to 10 minutes will probably help the players recover for the next week, and I think that's the big thing," he said.

If that's the big thing, this rule change is an awfully small step. It pertains only to a subset of a subset of games and eliminates just a handful of plays.

Games rarely extend beyond 10 minutes of overtime. There were six such games in 2016 (the second-most in league history), five in 2015 and one in 2014.

The Bucs played in one of those games last season, a 30-24 loss to the Raiders that ended with less than two minutes left in overtime. Tampa Bay's defense played 94 snaps.

If only the game had ended after 10 minutes of overtime. The defense would have been spared a grand total of … six snaps. And that doesn't take into account that the pace of that overtime would have been faster if it had been a 10-minute period instead of a 15-minute period.

Four days later, the Bucs had to play on Thursday Night Football. The Falcons beat them soundly 43-28. Which was a greater threat to player safety and competitive balance: those six extra snaps on Sunday afternoon or having three days of "rest" before facing the most explosive offense in football?

That circumstance — playing deep into overtime on a Sunday and then having to play on Thursday — almost never occurs. Over the past five seasons, it has happened four times. And in those Thursday games, teams went 2-2.

DATESUNDAY RESULTTHURSDAY RESULT
Nov. 18, 2012Texans 43, Jaguars 37Texans 34, Lions 31 (overtime)
Nov. 24, 2013Vikings 26, Packers 26Lions 40, Packers 10
Oct. 4, 2015Colts 16, Jaguars 13Colts 27, Texans 20
Oct. 30, 2016Raiders 30, Bucs 24Falcons 43, Bucs 28

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Assume for a moment the NFL is well-intentioned, that it truly is concerned about player safety, that shorter overtimes will produce only one or two more ties per season. One could argue that as incremental as the change might seem, it is still a step.

A glance at the schedule is all it takes to undermine that faith. Go to Week 4. Sunday, Oct. 1. Giants at Bucs. 4:05 p.m. The Patriots come to Tampa four days later for Thursday Night Football.

RELATED STORY: The problem with the Buccaneers' 2017 schedule that needs to be fixed now

Barring a schedule change, the Bucs will be facing a tougher challenge than they did last season when they played the Raiders for nearly four hours. As gassed as Tampa Bay was, at least that game ended around 5 o'clock. Best case this October: The Giants game ends around 7:30 p.m. Worst case: A weather delay — like the one during the Broncos game last season — extends the game another hour.

The Bucs aren't alone in facing this scenario. The Packers will in September, as will the Cowboys in November. (Dallas plays on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 19 and then play the Chargers at 4:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving.)

Koetter's response: It is what it is. At least his team is the home team going into Thursday.

"To be honest with you, I don't worry too much about that," he said.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that it is one. If you go by O'Brien's remarks, the problem the NFL has identified is a lack of recovery time between games. Not only does its solution fail to address that problem in a meaningful way, but the schedule contradicts the league's stated intention.

Want to improve competitive balance? Want to help players recover? Don't ask them to play on the Sunday before a Thursday game.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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