The National Football League playoffs kick off this weekend, and this year the postseason will bring an added wrinkle in the form of modified overtime rules.
During the regular season, and until this year, throughout postseason, a tie score at the end of the fourth quarter resulted in a sudden death overtime. Any score, whether a field goal, safety or touchdown, by either team would end the game.
The risk inherent to such a system is that the team losing the coin toss in overtime would kick off and give up a long field goal, ending the game without the opportunity for their offense to take the field. A team could battle most of the game to a tie, then lose the coin flip, kick off and lose the game on a long kick return or offensive play followed by a long field goal.
While the potential issue with a strict sudden death overtime has been discussed for years, the change agent may have been last year’s NFC Championship game, when the New Orleans Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings on a field goal during their first possession in overtime. The NFL and its networks could not have been thrilled with the sight of Vikings quarterback Brett Favre standing on the sidelines and never touching the ball during overtime.
While the NFL did not change the overtime rules during the regular season (no need, after all, to ruin a lead in to the networks Sunday night lineups), starting this year the overtime is no longer strictly a sudden death affair.
The overtime rule now says that the team with first possession in the game must score a touchdown for the game to be over. If they kick a field goal, then the other team will get the ball back. If that team kicks a field goal, then the game continues until either team scores (whether it be a touchdown or field goal). If there is a safety on the first possession, the game will be over as well.
While over time games do not happen very frequently, a study conducted by the NFL showed that since 1994, the team that won the coin toss in overtime won the game almost 60% of the time; about 34% of the time on the first possession. Statistically speaking, then, the sudden death overtime percentages, combined with how infrequent overtime games actually are, suggests that it did not present a huge impact on the fairness of competition.
Still, the NFL would loathe to have a Super Bowl end the way last year’s NFC Championship game did. In professional sports, as in all forms of entertainment, perception is reality and to watch a game that appeared to be decided by a coin flip followed by what might be a lucky play or two would damage the credibility of the competition in the minds of many.
The new overtime rules open up all sorts of possibilities for coaches and will give them one more thing to be second guessed about. If in overtime a team is facing, for example, 4th and 2 and their opponent’s 35 yard line, does it makes sense to kick a field goal, knowing that if the other team scores a touchdown on the next possession, the game will be over? Or should the team attempt a long field goal to force the other team to try and go the full distance?
Hopefully, one or more of the postseason games this year will go into overtime and provide fans and the media with yet more fodder for debate and discussion. Always a prepared bunch, the coaches in the NFL playoffs certainly are spending quite a bit of time in advance studying statistics, probabilities and trends to determine what their best options are with the new overtime rules.