NFL Overtime Rules: Sham or Glam?

6 mins read

This year’s NFL Divisional Round in the playoffs has earned considerable hype as potentially one of the best weekends of football ever seen. The first three games ended with game-winning, walk-off field goals ending with wins for all three away teams, including a first-ever road playoff win for the Cincinnati Bengals. The weekend’s final game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills arguably delivered the most intense conclusion to a fourth quarter that I have ever seen live, ending with Chiefs’ QB Patrick Mahomes orchestrating a thirteen-second drive to tie the game and send it into overtime.

The current rules for overtime in the NFL state that there is no sudden death on the first possession of OT unless either an offensive or defensive touchdown is scored. Kick a field goal or force a safety and the game goes on. However, if your team scores that crucial touchdown, you can win a game without the other team’s offense ever touching the ball. Given the fact that any point scored after the first drive ends the game, having possession on that first drive is a massive advantage for every team.

Here is where the controversy begins. Kansas City won the coin toss to start OT and marched down the field before Mahomes threw a game winning touchdown to Travis Kelce. That’s all she wrote. Bills QB Josh Allen — who had 771 total yards, nine touchdowns, and zero turnovers in this year’s playoffs, per SBNation — could only stand and watch as his team was dumped from the postseason. He did not get a chance to tie the game up, and given how he had played that day (especially in the last two minutes of the game), I would have bet money on Allen doing just that had he been given the chance. 

After the game, social media was awash with praise for both Mahomes and Allen’s performances, but also with complaints about the current formatting of overtime in the NFL. A significant portion of the internet believed that Allen and the Bills were robbed by the rules, while others defended the rules by arguing that if the Bills had just played better defense their offense would have had a chance. A statistic was then posted stating that historically, under these overtime rules in the playoffs, the team that won the coin toss was 10-1 in OT, with seven of those wins coming from a first drive touchdown, per Fox Sports’ NFL account. At this point, it seemed as if the NFL world lost their collective minds, with fans, players, and analysts calling for a change to the rule. Per a SBNation poll, 63% of respondents said they want a change to these rules.

However, it is not necessarily so clear-cut. The 10-1 figure is now 10-2, as Kansas City won the coin toss against the Bengals last week in the AFC Championship game yet lost after a Mahomes’ interception. Cincinnati’s overtime performance lent credence to the argument that if you want to win a game despite losing the coin toss, you just need to play good defense. Additionally, the strong record for coin toss winners evaporates when one expands the sample to all OT games since the rule was implemented. In 163 games that have gone to overtime, teams that won the coin toss have a cumulative record of 86-67-10 (52.8 win percentage), per Ian Rapaport. This is a far cry from the 83.3 winning percentage seen in the playoffs and could just point to the fact that the small sample in the playoffs is skewing results. 

Ultimately though, the NFL needs to edit, if not completely overhaul, the overtime rules, which in their current shape feel convoluted and unnecessary. Original OT rules from over a decade ago were that either a field goal or touchdown at any time would win the game, per FanBuzz. Within the context of this original set of rules, it makes sense to adjust that to solely a touchdown. However, the importance of a sudden-death score to the functioning of OT is minimal and has long been eliminated from other sports (see the golden goal rule in major soccer tournaments). For those defenders of the rule that claim that football is a team sport, and that defenses need to do their job in OT — like the Bengals did against KC — it would be a better demonstration of a team’s abilities that both their offense and defense gets time on the field. For this reason, I would propose that the NFL simply remove the sudden-death nature of the first touchdown, giving a team another chance to equalize if their defense does not hold up their end of the bargain. Otherwise, the next time a team gets eliminated in OT in the playoffs, everyone will be subjected to the same conversation that has been held for a decade. 

Verdict: Sham.

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