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An NFL Overtime Format Proposal

Following the Bills’ loss to the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs, the NFL’s overtime format was examined like few rules in recent memory. To catch up anyone that somehow missed the game of the year and the subsequent debate surrounding it, the Bills and Chiefs played an incredible back-and-forth game that went to overtime, where the Chiefs were able to exploit a gassed Bills defense to score a touchdown, winning the game without the Bills touching the ball during the extra period. One of the only parallels to the debate surrounding the overtime rules following the divisional round is to the pass interference rule, which came to the forefront following an egregious non-call benefiting the Rams against the Saints in the playoffs following the 2018 season. The controversy surrounding that non-call resulted in a (largely disastrous and now repealed) rule change, but there is a belief that the similarly high-profile foregrounding of the overtime format could inspire the league to modify the rules to allow both teams to possess the ball in overtime.

The divisional round is, of course, not the first time that the overtime format has benefited one team over the other. Patrick Mahomes’ only non-Super Bowl playoff loss entering the 2021/22 playoffs was in an overtime game where he never possessed the ball in the extra period, and the Patriots’ infamous 28-3 comeback—the only Super Bowl to ever go to overtime—ended in this fashion as well. In the current format, the team that wins the coin toss is 10-2 in overtime in the playoffs (and before Patrick Mahomes threw an interception in the conference championship game this year, the coin toss winner was 10-1), with seven of those teams winning on the opening possession of the overtime period. 

So if the rule was to change, the question becomes what it should be changed to. Any proposal needs to account for not only fan excitement but player safety and fairness as well. I’ve long thought that the college football system—where both teams alternate possessions until someone comes out on top—was vastly superior to the NFL model. In the current NFL system, ties are much more likely to occur in the regular season since the OT period is not only shorter but also because teams are likely to play deep into the OT period since a field goal could be matched by the second team to possess the ball. The teams are fortunate if they even get a second possession due to the time constraints. The college system, however, is not flawless: the periods are much more open-ended, sometimes allowing for near marathon games where each team gets a half-dozen possessions each, putting player safety at risk, and the second team to possess the ball gets an advantage because they know what the opponent was able to do during their possession. Some people have advocated eliminating the sudden-death element of OT, allowing the teams to play out an additional period (not unlike in the NBA), and whoever is leading at the end wins. Obviously, though, this has its own set of problems, including what you should do if both teams are tied at the end of the period.

The Proposal

This is where my proposal comes in, which I think is a nice balance of player safety, fairness, and excitement. In this system, each team would run a single play from the 5-yard line. The teams are required to go for a touchdown and are not allowed to attempt a field goal. If both teams fail on their attempt, the ball remains at the same spot and the teams have to try again. If both teams succeed, the ball is moved back to the 10-yard line, with the ball moving no further back than the 15 if both teams succeed again (i.e. if both teams score from the 15, they both try again from the same spot). The game ends when one team scores on their attempt and the other team, having attempted an equal amount of tries, fails on theirs.

While it vaguely resembles the college model, the single-play aspect of my proposal is what I think makes this model stand out. It doesn’t matter which team goes first: the goal is the same for both teams no matter which order they get the ball in—they have to score a touchdown and they only have one play to do it. Perhaps the second team would feel a little less pressure if the first team fails in their attempt, but I think that the effects of that lessened pressure would be negligible—they still have to score a touchdown on their next play. 

Player Safety and Indefinite Games

I think that the biggest argument against this model is the indefinite nature of the games. In college, the games can sometimes stretch to six or more additional possessions for each team, and there’s no guarantee that the game would ever end. However, let’s say that a game goes to ten or more “overtimes” in the system that I’m proposing, meaning both teams possess the ball more than ten times each before a winner is decided; in this case, only ten plays would have been run by each team, which is about the length of a single drive. As it is, the Chiefs ran eight offensive plays in their OT win against the Bills

But the odds of both teams matching each other for ten plays is incredibly unlikely. The next bit needs the caveat that I am not a math major nor a statistician, so everything I’m about to say is probably more complicated than this, but the general idea is still the same. A few years back, a group of researchers at Kent State University looked at 4th down conversion rates in the NFL by distance. Now, this research was done before the current trend where teams are more willing to go for it on 4th down, but the data is still instructive. The most analogous plays to the ones that we would see in my model—4th downs from the 5-, 10-, and 15-yard lines—were converted roughly 35%, 20%, and 12% of the time (see the blue line for the first two percentages and the red line for the last one in Graph 2 in the link). So while there is a fairly good chance that one of the teams will score on their single play from the 5 (both teams have roughly a one in three chance), since the plays are independent events, the odds that both teams will score from the 5 is only about 12% (0.35×0.35, if you remember your high school math like I’m almost certainly misremembering mine). It is even less likely from the 10-yard line: there’s only a 4% chance that both teams score.

Point After Touchdowns

To maintain the fairness aspect of this model, where it doesn’t matter if one team possesses the ball first or not, I recommend that PATs and two-point conversions shouldn’t be run after a touchdown is scored during overtime. The worry is less about the first team missing a PAT (even if the first team was to miss a PAT, the second team’s stakes would remain the same because they would still have to score a TD in a single play and make their kick) and more about the second team going for a two-point conversion to win. I think that the easiest solution would be to have neither play gumming up the works.

Records

A potential argument against my model, and one that, as a stat-head, I’m sympathetic to, is that touchdown stats could be vastly inflated if an OT game was to continue past a few possessions. If somehow, the teams were to match each other for 5+ possessions, single-game and even season-long touchdown records would be in serious jeopardy. But I have a simple counter for this argument: the OT stats don’t count towards the season-long totals. The NFL already doesn’t consider postseason stats for official totals, so why include the overtime ones?

Other Considerations

Penalties would more or less unfold the same way they do in regulation: a play replaying a down would benefit the offense, as they would get another chance at a touchdown with a more favorable distance than their opponent. Conversely, loss-of-down penalties like intentional grounding would end the offense’s possession—and by extension, their chances of winning or extending the game. Offensive penalties like holding could be declined if an attempt was otherwise unsuccessful or accepted if it was.

Another consideration is the obsolescence of the running game in OT since no team would run on 4th and 10 in regulation, and now every play is essentially 4th and 10. This is a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. The NFL is a passing league, and the running game is largely unused in the final two minutes and overtime anyway.

The Excitement Factor

How many times has a great game come down to a largely anticlimactic field goal attempt? My model leaves the outcome of the game in the hands of the respective offenses and defenses, which is what fans want to see. Every play is a fourth down, and every play needs to be a touchdown or your team is very likely to lose. It doesn’t get more exciting than that!

Conclusion

What do you think of the single-play model? Do you have any additions that you think are needed? Do you have your own idea for NFL Overtime reform? Let us know in the comments!

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He is a film editor at 25YL and cohosts the 25 Yards Later fantasy football podcast for SportsObsessive.

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