The New Overtime Format Is a Complicated Mess--Here's How to Fix It

Dear Competition Committee:

The ostensible purpose of NFL overtime is, first and foremost, to declare a winner and avoid a tie, and second, to do so quickly. If ties were acceptable, I assume the league would not bother to even have overtime.

In recent years, as offenses gradually gained an ever stronger upper hand over defenses, it became clear that the former sudden death format gave too much advantage to the winner of a trivial coin flip. We saw time and time again as a team won the coin toss, got a decent return, earned a couple first downs, and kicked a long field goal without even a whimper from the unlucky loser of the coin flipping contest. Something needed to be done.

And, unfortunately, "something" was done. The current format is a mess because its effects are contrary to both stated purposes of overtime. It increases the chances of a tie while a prolonging the overtime period.

The new rules are complex and non-traditional. In the event the team with first possession scores a field goal, the opponent now has a drive opportunity with all four downs and no pressure of time to respond. And the rules still favor the team that wins the coin toss.

Here is what I think is a much better and far more elegant solution, which is fair, traditional, avoids ties, and leads to much quicker resolutions:


1. Restore pure sudden death rules.

2. Move the starting point following a touchback to the 15-yard line. This is the net-zero-point for scoring probability. In other words, an offense with a 1st and 10 at their own 15 is equally likely to be the next to score as the opposing team. (The change of the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35, which greatly increased the touchback rate, did more to even each team's overtime chances than the new format.)

3. Eliminate the arbitrary coin toss. The home team gets first possession (or at least the choice of possession or direction). This rules removes the element of pure luck. Both teams and fans will accept that first possession in overtime is simply part of what is rightly home field advantage. Paying attendees will obviously like it. And in the playoffs, it will simply be seen as a benefit the home team rightly earned by virtue of their seeding from the regular season. Plus, a visiting team that scores a touchdown late in the game to otherwise tie, knowing it would be at a small disadvantage in overtime, may elect to attempt a two-point conversion. This would reduce the likelihood of overtime in the first place.

That's it. Three simple, logical, and fair rules that declare a winner and do it quickly.

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50 Responses to “The New Overtime Format Is a Complicated Mess--Here's How to Fix It”

  1. Ben says:

    Just wondering Brian, was this published before or after the Patriots-Broncos game? (I completely agree with the article by the way)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love the idea of giving the home team first possession. Visitors will then adopt much more aggressive strategies near the ends of games for all the right reasons. That's a great insight.

  3. James says:

    I've been a proponent of #3 for a long time. It makes so much sense, and has so little downside. If you want you could modify it to say home field gets to choose kicking/receiving/side to defend, so if they want to kick like Belichick last night they can do that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You don't think "Move the starting point following a touchback to the 15-yard line. This is the net-zero-point for scoring probability." is complex and non-traditional. How many football fans ever heard the phrase "net-zero-point for scoring probability"? suddenly changing the rules for a touch back for overtime based on statical analysis certainly seem nontraditional to me. I think you would get a lot more fans going "WTF?" when they hear a ref explaining these rules than the current ones.

  5. Anonymous says:

    How about you have to win by six?

  6. NateTG says:

    I don't really understand why people consider tie games so undesirable. Sure, there are problems in some end-of-season or play-off situations, but that seems like it should be the exception, rather than the rule.

    I think that the coin flip is important because it mitigates any procedural unfairness that comes after it. Sure, it would be a good idea to reduce the impact that it has, but the fact that we complain about it illustrates that it's important in the first place. (1st and 10 from the 15 is close break-even in an average regulation game, but, naively, I would expect that ties have relatively lower scoring than the average game.)

  7. JMM says:

    Eliminate overtime in the regular season!

    The couple of times I checked, ties made no difference to eventual playoff seatings. These convoluted OT rules only lead to convoluted tie breaking rules at season end. Ties allow for more season records an increase the chance a straight win% is enough to set playoff spots.

    Force the teams to risk more at game end to win. Hey coach (team, player, owner, fans) don't like ties? Play to win! Go for two.

  8. UUbuntu says:

    Interesting options. A couple of possible issues though.

    On #2, what about neutral fields (e.g., Superbowl). I would recommend that if the winner of the coin toss at the beginning of the game also wins the overtime choice. Then this will be a known situation going into overtime, and the coaches should plan their end-of-game strategies accordingly.

    #3 makes sense for us analytics people, but for many (most?) fans, it doesn't add to the game, and feels artificial. If a game starts with a kickoff, then overtime should start with a kickoff too, rather than an automatic ball placement. And while the net-zero location is the 15 yard line today, it may change depending on future rule, strategy and skill changes (e.g., the offense becomes more dominant).

    Also kickoffs are one of the most popular, exciting (and dangerous) plays in football. From a safety perspective, we should remove them altogether, but that's not likely in the near future.

    Personally, I would recommend a forced drop kick to start the game from the 50 yard line to start each half and overtime, but that's probably not likely either. Could be an fun change.

    Or make overtime a 7.5 minute period, with no sudden death (with 2 timeouts and a 2 minute warning). If a team is ahead after the first OT, that's a win. Otherwise a second 7.5 minute period with the same rules. And then accept a tie game after 2 overtime periods.

    Or as fans, we should just stop eschewing ties.

  9. Blogger says:

    @JMM -- the ties usually don't but if you eliminate overtime, you'll have a few more ties to consider.

    Going back to 2007 and with my assumptions (games obviously end in ties and record tie-breakers of: most wins, then fewest losses, then the existing tie-breakers), every season would have a slightly different playoff. For example, in 2012, Chicago would've made the playoffs and Minnesota would be out.

    The difference that's harder to account for is that coaches would likely behave differently so perhaps fewer games result in ties when coaches gamble.

  10. Tim says:

    Take a page from hockey and remove a player from each team. Play 10 on 10 and open up the field more.

  11. Adam H says:

    NateTG and JMM: Ties are awful.

    First, it's not obvious how one should value a tie. Are they half as good as a win? Twice as good as a loss? Second, games should be zero-sum. With ties, both teams potentially are playing for the tie at the end, which can be excruciating as a fan. No matter how dumb the overtime rules get, at least it is entertaining.

  12. Anonymous says:

    UUbuntu: Super Bowls have an arbitrarily selected home & away designation. The conferences alternate yearly.

  13. ASG says:

    Silent auction of what yard line you are willing to start at. Tie goes to the away team.

  14. Tarr says:

    Booooooooooooooooooo.

    I know I'm beating a dead horse on this subject, but that's because I'm right. There are few rule changes to NFL football that I feel more confident about.

    There's a right answer here, and this isn't it. Your solution to the existing problem - i.e. overtime arbitrarily rewarding a possession to one team - is to institutionalize that advantage for the home team. It still breaks the symmetry that the two halves of football normally provide, where each team has the same number of expected possessions available to it. Moving the touchback line back is an improvement but it doesn't actually make things consistently fair. Different games have different equilibriums, as last night shows us so clearly. I'd also note that your approach implicitly assumes a touchback, so it's not even an even chance is completely league-average conditions.

    Just. Keep. Playing. The. Game.

    Treat 4th->OT the same as 1st->2nd or 3rd->4th. Time out, then keep playing, with no change of possession.

    I'll just quote liberally from the last time this came up (http://www.advancednflstats.com/2010/02/why-nfl-overtime-needs-to-change.html) from here on out:

    - Most late-game dramatic drives aren't with the score tied; they're with the offensive team down by between 1 and 7 points. Those games will be equally as dramatic under this OT rule... except for when the team is down by either 3 or 7, in which case they will be MORE dramatic.

    A team that's down seven and scores late in a game is much more likely to go for two, because they don't have any chance of winning a coin toss for the ball. A team down three late in the game might go for the TD in stead of settling for a field goal that gives the ball back. These all-or nothing 4th down and conversion plays will add a lot of drama, and will actually reduce the number of games that go to OT.

    - The only case where OT becomes more likely, and clock management becomes less important, is if a team that gets the ball late in a tied game is able to mount a clock-killing drive, taking the game close to or into OT and then winning. The only way this is bad, though, is that it increases the number of OT games - and that issue is balanced by reducing the number of OT games in other cases. Setting that aside, being able to grind out a drive and kill clock is just good football. We reward that sort of skill all game long, and having a few endgame scenarios that reward the ability to grind the clock is not such a terrible thing. As far as actual real game lengths go, these sorts of games might not go any longer anyway - it's just that the game clock will run longer.

  15. Tarr says:

    Heh, never hit the 4096-char limit before. Anyway...

    - Any single-kickoff OT leads to unbalanced expected possessions. This makes the game unfair depending on game conditions unless you do the "bidding for field position" thing, which is fun for math nerds but way too weird for popular acceptance.

    So, you need an even number of kickoffs in OT. Playing two short overtime periods, with two kickoffs, to completion, every time, balances expected posessions, but this adds too much time to the game. The college football abomonation also solves things but isn't real football. Tie games work fine in the regular season but aren't popular and don't solve the playoffs problem.

    - In closing, here's a thought experiment: Imagine that any of the proposed overtime solutions was the status quo, and had been the way things had been done for several years. Would people stop complaining about OT unfairness in Brian's system? No - we just saw a game last night where the coin flip would still be a huge factor. And there would also be shootout games where getting first possession and kicking the cheap FG would feel unfair.

    Now, what if Keep Playing The Game was the system? Would people still be agitating for change? Honestly, I don't think they would. Well some people will always complain, but it wouldn't be taken seriously. If you had a shootout game where one team kept taking the lead and the other team kept answering, it would be understood that the team in the chase position needs to get a stop or they will lose - either in the 4th when they run out of time to answer, or in the first possession of OT. There's nothing arbitrary about that.

  16. Anonymous says:

    looks like 1 and 3 would suffice, with eliminating 2 enhancing the home team advantage (or higher seed) of 3.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I like ASG's suggestion. Brian's 15 yd line idea is fine for an "average" game, but if the game is tied at 48-48, you might be willing to start at the 5, whereas if the game is tied 3-3, you might not want to start at your own 20.

  18. Justin says:

    (Full disclosure, I'm a Vikings fan, so I understand Packers win under the old rules yesterday.)

    The coin-flip unfairness is only one of one of the two complaints about sudden death overtime that motivated the change. The second issue is that teams simply don't play for touchdowns so it doesn't resemble regular football that is "played to a gun," as Bellichek might put it.

    If the point of overtime is only to be quick and decisive, even if the game can end without anyone trying for a touchdown, than what Brian proposes is completely fair and should be implemented. (And if the "home" team wins the OT choice rule is implemented, I would favor designating Super Bowl home and away based on regular season record, not by alternating conferences.)

    If trying for touchdowns should be part of overtime (which is the other part of the new system I like), then increasing ties in a possibility in any system that isn't sudden death.

    I don't really have an allergy to ties that BSPN and other sports media seem to have. And a very good point is made above that a few more regular season ties every year make it less likely that tie-breakers determine playoff spots at the end of the year.

    But the important question Brian raises is what is the point in overtime. Is it solely to avoid ties? If not, how much of "regular footbal" should be traded to get more results?

  19. Justin says:

    Adam H,

    To pick a nit, Tie games are still zero sum, they count as .5 win and .5 loss for each team, so the total is still 1 win and 1 loss.

    To relate this to my comment above. The question is if ties are unacceptable, then the decision is to what cost of "regular football."

    If ties are always to be avoided, then pure sudden death is the way to go, even if teams never have to try for a touchdown, unlike in the other 4 quarters of the game.

    If you want overtime to resemble "regular football" then ties/longer games are the only alternative.

    I tend to favor the latter, but there are systems that work with the first goal that would be fair, Brian has one here.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Tarr: I think your suggestion is a good one, but I'm not sure it would reduce OT. Let's say you tie the game with 1:45 on the clock and kick off to the other team. Currently, the receiving team has 1:45 to break the tie before field position is reset. With your proposal, the receiving team has 16:45 to score and is under no rush to get down the field.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I don't get it. Are we forcing the receiving team to start at the 15 yard line? If a team kicks it, the receiving team will run it out every single time. And they'll be starting around the 20 yard line anyways on average.

    Also, the coin flip/home team idea is completely independent of changing the OT rules. The coin flip is at least fair. I wouldn't change it. And we flip a coin at the beginning of the game, if we change one coin flip rule, we should change them both.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Why not just play an 8-minute period? Skip this nutty mess of who gets possession and who scores when and blah blah blah. Play football like football was meant to be played for 8:00. If the score is still tied at the end of 8:00 and it's (a) regular season, it's a tie, (b) playoffs got to 2OT, 3OT, etc, until the tie is broken at the end of the period. Kinda like the NBA does, or MLB to a lesser extent.

    Easy peasy.

    I do like Tarr's suggestion of possession staying where it was.

  23. Tarr says:

    Yes, anonymous, that is the one case where OT becomes more common. However, as I said:

    - You also have the 3 and 7 point deficits where teams will go for it on 4th down or go for 2-point conversions when they would not otherwise do so. Since down 3 and down 7 are both just as common as a tie game, you are starting out with a reduction in OT, because it's two situations that lead to fewer OT against one that leads to more.

    - The goal, from the NFL/NFLPA/TV Network perspective, is not fewer overtime games. It's fewer games that go over their allotted time slot and lead to more plays and more injuries. The difference between the 4th quarter drive with 1:45 remaining drive and the one with, effectively, 16:45 remaining drive isn't really the amount of plays or the amount of time used. It's the amount of time outs used and the amount of time the clock is running. A game that ends 2 minutes into overtime on an drive that spans the 4th and 5th quarters might not result in more plays or a later finish time than the game that ends at 0:00 on a carefully clock-managed drive.

  24. Anonymous says:

    What about this: OT is sudden death. Team who is in possession of the ball at the end of the 4th quarter gets to receive ("wins" the coin flip). None of this "start at the 15 yrd line" crap.

  25. Tarr says:

    That's very close to what I proposed, but the throwing out of field position, down, and distance at the end of the game is going to produce some very odd play-calling at the end of a tie game. I prefer just playing it like a transition from 1st->2nd or 3rd->4th quarter.

  26. Anonymous says:

    My two cents: Each teams gets 3 drives. Who scores more points on those wins.
    Simple, fair and interesting.

    Karl, Germany

  27. Tarr says:

    Karl, the TV networks and the Player's association will never accept a system that reliably lengthens the game by that much.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Ok Tarr, take two drives, or stay with the three drives but only certain amount of snaps are allowed...

    Karl, Germany

  29. Ian Simcox says:

    People obviously get very heated reading overtime suggestions, because a number of you have misread "touchback to the 15 yard line" as "no kickoff - team starts at 15".

    For those so opposed to the change, perhaps an explanation of why the 20 was chosen for touchbacks might be nice, because all I can tell is that it's an arbitrary historic decision. The NCAA has different touchbacks for kickoffs and punts. It is not set in stone that man shall only place touchbacks on the 20.

    And if the game changes so that the 15 is no longer the net-zero point, then we can just change the rules.

  30. Nate Paymer says:

    Tarr has given the correct answer. I don't know why people are still discussing other alternatives.

  31. BIP says:

    I have a very simple solution: If the game is tied at the end of regulation, the team that scored last wins. No overtime whatsoever.

  32. Mac says:

    Each team gets a first and goal from the opponents 10 no FGs must go for two if they score a TD. So no coin toss advantage no ultra conservative play to get into field goal range and no ties.

  33. Stat Guy says:

    Overtime is exactly like regulation. At the beginning, there is a coin toss, so are you saying that the home field team should automatically get to choose? Second, the Patriots won in overtime, AND they gave the ball to the Broncos to start the game. Third, we all get to revved up when there is a tie. They almost never happen. The last one was in 2010. They happened all the time way back when there were no lights, and no cared. Lastly, any tie that happens clearly says that each team deserved a win. No team gets a loss, so each team should be content, unless it's Jacksonville tying with Kansas City or the Broncos. Ties are apart of the game just like the Tuck rule was in place until recently.

  34. Thomas McDermott says:

    @Mac - what you've just described is the best idea I've heard so far. It's simple, quick, decisive, fair and exciting. And it gets to the heart of the matter: can your team's offense score? Can your defense prevent the opposing team's offense from scoring? If your team answers "yes" to both questions, you win the game.

  35. Stat Guy says:

    @Thomas McDermott Field goals are a huge part of the game though. Many games end because of them. It's no simple task to kick the ball through the posts we have to remember. We look down on Mason Crosby for missing 25% of his FG's, but the truth of the matter is, is that it's hard. I like the rules we have now for OT.

  36. James Sinclair says:

    @Tarr,

    I'm a long-time proponent of a bid-for-field-position format, but I'm pretty much sold on your idea being just as good, if not better. But, I think your "fun for math nerds but way too weird for popular acceptance" criticism is equally applicable to the just-keep-playing system.

    Not that that's a reason to stop agitating for it, but I'm just trying to picture what would happen if it became a serious proposal, and I'm seeing all kinds of hysterics over how much less dramatic games tied late in the fourth quarter would become.

    I suppose the counters are that (a) the overtime safety net makes those games less exciting anyway, and (b) there would be fewer such games, because teams would have more of an incentive to try to take the lead. Am I missing anything? Regardless, it's hard to argue with hysterical.

  37. J.D. Krull says:

    I debated this very topic for my simulation league just a few weeks ago. The solution we chose was to have pure sudden death, and give the ball on the 20 to the team that scored last in regulation. It's still an advantage, but less of one than receiving a kickoff. And since possession isn't based on a coin toss, it's more fair.

    In general, Brian is spot on in the way he analyzes the issue: find a way to keep pure sudden death, while mitigating the unfairness of a coin toss.

  38. Anonymous says:

    If there's a tie after 60 minutes of grueling football play, then the game should end in a tie. The next best thing is the current rules because if the idea is to award the BETTER team with a W, then MORE TIME will help determine that point, not LESS TIME.

    Sudden death does little more in awarding a win than simply handing out the W randomly. In fact, instead of sudden death, just flip the coin and the winner gets a W. That's not to say that the winner of the coin toss usually wins in SD, it's simply that SD is way too short to determine who is better when they just played 60 minutes and were tied! How is a short SD period going to do better than a full 60 minutes did?

  39. Anonymous says:

    the ideal solution (quick and fair):

    - no coin flip
    - sudden death, any score wins.
    - face off at the 50 yard line.

  40. Brian Burke says:

    Sure, more time favors the better team. But there is a tradeoff. Otherwise, why not have all games last 120 min? Or 2,400 min?

  41. Anonymous says:

    what does "face off at the 50 yard line" mean? jump ball? referee kicks it from the sideline? run at each other from the 40s? the 20s? from the end zone?

  42. Thomas McDermott says:

    "Face off at the 50-yard line" is when the two teams line up on each side of the 50 and hurl insults at each other. The referee awards points based on how damaging an insult is to the opposing team's morale. The team with the most IPA (Insult Points Added) wins.

  43. Ian Simcox says:

    We could always award the win to the team that had the momentum at the end of regulation

  44. Anonymous says:

    "what does "face off at the 50 yard line" mean? jump ball? referee kicks it from the sideline? run at each other from the 40s? the 20s? from the end zone?"

    All excellent ideas! :)

  45. Anonymous says:

    I think almost all changes in the rules or procedures tend to upset people so I don't think that is really an argument against any specific change. Fans were all like "WTF, bro!" when the Pass Interference rules were introduced but they have made the game better; they were also 'non traditional' changes as well. I think after a few games of "WTF, bro!" fans would get used to and enjoy the 'silent bidding' for OT possession. Fans would probably come to appreciate the more subtle 'chest puffing' involved in the silent bidding; 'Oh yeah biatch, WE can start from BEHIND the uprights, BRO!' It is easy to see how a silent bidding would make OT more dramatic.
    On a more serious note, instead of playing football in OT, why not see which teams offensive line could push a fully loaded Greyhound bus from goal-line to goal-line fastest? Or perhaps a tug-of-war between the entire active roster of each team?

    Cheers,
    J

  46. Tarr says:

    @ James Sinclair:

    Thar counter-argument to "how much less dramatic games tied late in the fourth quarter would become" is that it's simply incorrect that games would become less dramatic. There are only three scoring gaps where the dynamic changes.

    1) Games where the teams are tied: somewhat less dramatic because you're not in the 2-minute drill, but it's still a team going on what could be a game winning drive.

    2) Games where the team with the ball is down 3: these games are slightly more dramatic, because the team has a significant incentive to try to score a TD so they don't automatically give up the ball in OT.

    3) Games where the team with the ball is down 7: you will see lots of 2-point conversion attempts with the game on the line. EXCITEMENT!!!!!!!

    ---

    So, one situation with a little less drama, one with a little more drama, and one with a lot more drama. This nets more excitement, not less (and fewer overtime games, not more).

  47. Anonymous says:

    Here's an easier way: Just keep the game going if it's tied at the end of regulation, and the first team to score wins. Simple, and fair.

  48. Anonymous says:

    The current rule is perfect. I think the education level of so many NFL fans is just so low that this simple system is just too complex for them to comprehend? Who wants to see a team get the OT kickoff, go 30 yards and kick a field goal to win (chicksht).

  49. Anonymous says:

    Don't know a lot about the new NFL overtime rules, but the CFL has very exciting overtimes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_football#Overtime

  50. Anonymous says:

    1. regular season: eliminate ot
    2. playofffs: play one more quarter, no coin toss, start as qr 1, if there is a tie perform field goal shootout !!!

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