It was a solution looking for a problem.
In 1941, the NFL adopted the sudden-death overtime into the rulebook, initially to break ties only in divisional playoff games (at that time divisional playoffs were similar to baseball’s one-game playoff). It was expanded to include the league championship (actually, all postseason games, including the future wild-card playoffs) in 1946, with the first use in the 1957 championship game now known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” In 1974, the league allowed for a single overtime period to be added to regular season and exhibition tie games.
Football Zebras on OT reform
Up to the conclusion of the 2009 season, that was the entire history of the modification to overtime rules. Three sentences only, and in each case, expanding overtime to a wider set of games.
No extra innings. No field-goal shootouts. No rematches. Its brutally final and decisive verdict of fortune is so very defining of football, comedian George Carlin famously contrasted it to baseball’s relatively relaxed and semantically smooth system of extra innings.
Last March, change came for the sake of change. As Competition Committee co-chairman Rich McKay stated, “sometimes you want to get ahead of a problem and not behind it.” The change was to protect the game from something so unfair, that it was feared it would tarnish the result of sports’ ultimate championship game. According to McKay, “we really felt like you wouldn’t want that game to end — a Super Bowl, a conference championship game — where there’s a kickoff, one pass, field goal, game over.”
The league owners, on the recommendation of the Competition Committee, passed a system of “modified sudden death,” but did so in a cowardly fashion: by deliberately moving the item up on the owners’ meeting agenda so that coaches and players were not present to raise any objections with the plan.
Overtime now allows for a rebuttal by the team that surrenders a first-possession field goal. There was supposedly a fundamental unfairness that a defense that allowed a team to advance into field-goal range was somehow determined by the flip of a coin. Since the kickoff location was moved to the 30-yard line in 1994, the percentage of field goals on the first possession went from 17.9 percent to 26.2 percent. While a significant statistical difference, the Competition Committee pins this solely on the kickoff location rule, rather than the other rules changes in that span that favored the offense, particularly in the passing game.
The modified sudden death applies only to playoff games. However, in 27 postseason overtime games, only three — including last year’s NFC Conference Championship — were decided on a one-possession field goal.
The Competition Committee had other proposals. “I have a file that’s this thick with overtime recommendations and changes,” said co-chairman McKay, without divulging some of the alternate proposals.
Modified sudden-death overtime rules
As best they can be summarized, without needless complexity, the modified sudden death will differ as follows:
- Modified sudden death only applies in the cases where the team receiving the opening kickoff scores a field goal on the opening drive. In all other cases, standard sudden death will apply (a touchdown, a safety, or a field goal after first possession).
- If there is any change of possession or the receiving team does not recover the kickoff, they have surrendered the first possession, and standard sudden death applies.
- If a field goal is scored on the opening possession, the trailing team will receive the ensuing kickoff. Then, if the trailing team…
- …scores a touchdown, the game ends, and the touchdown decides the result.
- …loses possession, including on downs, the game ends immediately.
- …scores a tying field goal, the overtime reverts to a standard sudden death.