By an overwhelming majority approval, NFL teams voted 28-4 to change the way overtime is played out in the postseason. The moved finally makes the game’s outcome less dependant on the fateful overtime coin flip. Here’s how the new rule works: If the team that has the first possession of the ball in overtime scores a touchdown, the game is over. But if it must go for a field goal, the other team would then get possession and would win if it scores a touchdown. If no team scores on their first drives of overtime, or if both teams kick field goals, the game will then be sudden death.
For as long as I can remember, the discussion of the sudden death overtime rule has gone on and on, yet in reality, it has gone nowhere until now. Rule-change ideas have gone everywhere from allowing both teams one possession of the ball no matter what happens to college-style overtime rules where both offenses get the ball on the 25-yard-line, to be repeated over and over until one offense outdoes the other. All of these ideas aren’t perfect but anything is better than putting a season on the line with one toss of a coin.
In all my narrow-mindedness I hadn’t thought of the current form of the rule change and, frankly, what is there not to like about it?
I know football traditionalists are going to stand up on their soapbox and say this rule change will completely change football strategy if overtime is reached during a postseason game. Yes, teams are now going to have to go for it on a fourth and two in overtime, depending on how their defense has been playing. It will be so important for the winner of the coin toss to put it into the end zone, while on the defense side of the ball, teams are going to have to suck it up and D-up.
The strategy will change. Teams are going to have to be gutsier and play to win rather than winning a coin toss, getting a first down or two and then leaving it to the lonely kicker to win. Call me crazy but I would rather see games ended on touchdown drives than field goals. Wouldn’t you?
According to The New York Times, the NFL has had 14 overtime playoff games in the last 16 years, with the team that won the toss going 7-7. In regular season games from 1974 to 1993, teams that won the toss won the game 46.8 percent of the time and teams that lost it won the same 46.8 percent of the time. Those statistics didn’t lie. Winning the coin toss didn’t hand you a victory. Things would change though.
In 1994, according to The Times, the spot of the kickoff was moved to the 30-yard line from the 35, allowing for longer returns that put the receiving team into field-goal range with just a few plays or a long penalty (how many times have we seen this?). Since then, the team that won the toss won 59.8 percent of the time, because even if it did not win on the first possession, it often controlled field position. The team that lost the toss won just 38.4 percent of the time. And before the kickoff was moved, teams won with a field goal on the opening possession just 17.9 percent of the time. After the kickoff moved, it rose to 26.8 percent of the time. Those numbers don’t lie either. Winning a coin toss and receiving a kickoff from the 35 is certainly an advantage.
Team owners got it right when they supported the rule change, and that support (28-4) shows that regular season game overtime rules could soon see the change as well. It is interesting that one the four teams that didn’t vote in favor of the rule change was Minnesota, which lost the NFC Championship last year after the Saints won the overtime coin toss and kicked a winning field goal on its opening drive…and this was after one or two questionable penalties too, if I remember right.
What I have heard in countless hours of sports talk radio the past few days is that many NFL coaches don’t like the rule change because they have to learn a whole new set of rule strategies for overtimes and when faced with that situation, will be prone to a lot of second-guessing. Well, I am afraid that is what they are getting paid to do.
For fans, the rule change will only bring more dramatic finishes to playoff games. Having your team’s season go down the tube in a conference championship game to a field goal kicker, possibly after a questionable penalty, is like watching a five-hour NASCAR race that ends in a caution. It just sucks. I can’t wait to see this rule change play out. Unfortunately, it’s March and we all have a while to wait.