The Competition Committee is finalizing their proposals for rules changes for this week’s annual owners’ meetings. While bits of information have dribbled out that seem to align with expectations, a proposal to “fix” overtime, first reported by Mark Maske at the Washington Post, has caught many by surprise.
Before I get to the proposal, let’s review the history of the overtime rule:
- 1941 — Sudden-death rule was added for divisional playoff games (at the time, these were one-game playoffs to break a division tie to advance to the NFL title game)
- 1946 — Sudden-death was extended to the championship game (first put into effect 11 years later)
- 1974 — A single sudden-death period was added for regular season and preseason games.
For decades, other than some preseason exhibitions, the only rules adopted extended overtime to a larger set of games. In 2010, the owners put forth a “modified sudden death” that extended the overtime past a first-possession field goal. The modified format was extended to all games in 2012.
The provision rumored to be under consideration is to shorten the overtime period to 10 minutes for the regular season. The rationale was that a long overtime period would be disadvantageous to a team playing on Thursday that week. But, this winds up being a tweak to a tweak, a gerrymandering of the rules to extend overtime in the interest of fairness, while simultaneously shortening it in the interest of competitiveness.
The modified sudden-death rule was passed in 2010 on the premise that the offense could return the opening kickoff to about the 40-yard line, complete one pass, and be in field goal range. At the time, the kickoffs were from the 30-yard line, which favored the return team in field position. The Competition Committee presented statistics that after 1993, when the kickoff was moved from the 35 to the 30, the team that won the overtime coin toss (not just first-possession scores) won the game more often This didn’t account for other factors or rule changes that favored the offense.
The year after the owners passed the new overtime rule, they voted to move the kickoff back to it’s pre-1994 location at the 35, which invalidated the primary premise for modified overtime.
By allowing overtime to continue past the first score, it has added additional plays to the game, which, of course, comes with an increased risk of injury to already physically taxed players. If this was a concern from the beginning, the Competition Committee would have brought this to the forefront in 2010, rather than the skewed statistics on coin-toss winners. As a practical matter, the shorter overtime would remove the “first” 5 minutes of overtime, as opposed to the last. In other words, the urgency of the clock leads to a higher snap frequency, just as it would in a 15-minute overtime, only more overtime games would have a clock factor involved.
The 10-minute overtime would also have additional consequences under a modified sudden-death format. When additional possessions are provided beyond the standard sudden death, those possessions must be completed prior to the expiration of the clock in a regular season game. If a team trails by 3 and is given an opportunity to possess, there is no time extension for that additional possession. Therefore, if the first team has effectively wasted most of the overtime clock, the game will end with the score that’s on the board when the period has ended. (Postseason overtime will allow for the second possession to carry into a second overtime period, making it possible for a game to end in, but not have a score in, the second overtime.)
Fifteen minutes is greater than the record longest time of possession for a single drive, but there have been occasions where a team controls the ball for more than 10 minutes.
As detailed in the table below, the modified sudden-death rule has actually overturned the first-score result six times, but three of those times, it changed back to a tie. The three defeats snatched from the jaws of victory helped the Panthers extend their 2015 win streak, effectively lead to the Raiders missing out on a first-round bye in 2016, and kept the Browns from a two-game win streak after going 0-14 in 2016.
If the change is to reduce the time in the fifth period with no other modifications, there could be even more unusual circumstances after regulation time in the 2017 season.
Overtime games with a first-possession field goal, 2012-2016
Note: There have not been any postseason games with a first-possession field goal since the 2010 rule change. Extra plays includes kickoffs and all scrimmage plays except for snap-killing fouls.
|Date||Final score||FG 1st poss||2nd & additional poss||Extra plays||Altered result|
|10||HOU win by FG→TD
(12 total pts in OT)
3 punts followed
CIN missed FG
JAX no 2nd poss
CAR 6-1→7-0, 18-win streak, 14 consecutive wins in season (did not affect #1 seed)
|NYJ||NYG missed FG||9||—|
AZ missed FG
SEA missed FG
SEA #4 seed→#3 seed (head-to-head loss to GB)
DEN missed FG
KC #5 seed→#2 seed
OAK #2 & first-round bye→#5 seed
|CLE||PIT TD||10||CLE win→loss|
*Final play was subject to a replay review.