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Friday, November 8
Updated: November 10, 12:10 PM ET
Overtime format works -- for now

By John Clayton

It's been a March ritual for close to three decades.

The Competition Committee meets for hours in a resort meeting room until the hot sun sets in the West and the air conditioning has members reaching for sweaters. At some point, NFL employee brings up the subject of overtime. Committee members turn their heads and ask for stats and the trends.

The NFL expert then reports that the team that wins the coin toss doesn't win more than 50 percent of the overtimes on their first and only possession. Everyone then agrees that the system is still working, and the committee moves on.

Chad Morton
Chad Morton's kickoff return for a TD in Week 1 denied the Bills of an overtime possession.
Standing along the Raiders sidelines last Sunday watching the 49ers turn an overtime coin toss to a victory prompted a few thoughts. Several people asked if the overtime system is working. Should a coin toss determine a game? Is overtime unfair? Why not go to a different system that features something similar to the Kansas tiebreaker model used in college or just give the team that loses the coin toss one possession to tie?

The answer is almost like trying to diplomatically fix the Tuck Rule that robbed the Raiders of going to the AFC championship game and opened the door for the underdog Patriots to win a Super Bowl. It's simple. The more you tweak the current system the more likely you are going to create more ties.

And ties in pro football stink. The system isn't broke, so there is no need to fix it. In 29 years, there have been only 15 ties. Fifteen is too many, but it would be ridiculous to repair the system to create more.

The Competition Committee has a good feel for this debate. When the members turn to the researchers, they want to hear if more than 50 percent of the teams that win the coin toss are winning games on the first possession. Once the number goes above 50 percent, they might perceive a problem.

That hasn't happened, so they move on to the next topic.

The NFL wisely bowed to pressure and went to a sudden death overtime system in 1974. Since then, there have been 330 overtime games. Only 93 games were won by teams who won the coin toss and then scored on their first possession. That's only 28 percent.

The current groundswell for changing the system may be a byproduct of the league's improved offenses. Quarterbacks are completing shorter passes at a better percentage and running backs are breaking tackles at a better clip. That creates the potential for longer, more efficient drives.

There have been 13 overtime games this season. Six were won by the team that won the coin toss, elected to receive and drove downfield for either a field goal or touchdown. That's 46 percent. Call me when the number settles in over 50 percent.

Here's the problem that I have with changing the overtime format. Coaches have become creatures of habit. They play to the conservative averages. There isn't a coach in football who would go for a two-point conversion or gamble on a touchdown if the option of kicking an extra point in the final seconds of a game sends a game into overtime.

In that regard, the overtime is a safe option for a coach who trails. He just gambles that he wins the toss and has the first opportunity to win. Were overtime not an option, then coaches would gamble more, but why force something that is unnecessary.

One of my biggest complaints about the two-point conversion is that coaches misuse it. The league shouldn't go in the direction of creating plays that have a better chance of failing than succeeding. It drives me crazy when I see a coach with a six-point lead in the first three quarters go for two.

The two-point conversion has a 42 percent success ratio. Going for the two-point conversion and failing takes points off the scoreboard. That's silly. Gambling for a winning play at the risk of losing the chance to go overtime is equally silly.

Having the overtime is a great luxury in this point, but it can't be forgotten the team that accepts the four-quarter tie is gambling that he can either win the coin toss or stop the opponents if he loses it.

Still, the NFL needs to monitor how the overtime works. In 1994, the NFL moved kickoffs from the 35 to the 30, and that had a significant impact on the game. It increased the number of first-possession overtime victories to 33 percent. The fact that this year's total is 46 percent bares watching.

Kicking off in colder weather means better field possession for the receiving team. If that team gets two or three first downs after a short kick, then it is in field goal position for the win. Game over. And with parity creating more overtime chances, the Committee needs to stay alert.

Maybe we are on the verge of making some kind of adjustment. But in the end, there is no acceptable change that will work. What can't be forgotten is the time of the game. Instant replay and offensive efficiently are making games longer this season. The average is around three hours and five minutes, and while there is no time limit for quality, time of the game is a big thing.

An overtime can turn the NFL into a 3½-4-hour event. That's bad. For the fans at the stadium, that's not a problem. For the sophisticated NFL viewer, that's a problem. An overtime on the early game may take away the opportunity to watch the first quarter of a great late afternoon game on television.

NFL fans want the best of all worlds. They want to see doubleheaders, and if they have a satellite dish, they want to see all of the games.

Add a possession for the team that surrenders the first score and you add about 15 to 20 minutes to a game. Under no circumstance would the NFL go to the Kansas tiebreaker and set up an endless number of possessions that would bloat the score to decide a winner.

For one thing, it would screw up years of NFL records. This year, scoring is up four points a game from 44 to 40 points because of the successful use of the short pass. To add artificial points because of a bogus overtime system would be ridiculous.

But of all the things under debate, the greatest sin would be promoting changes that would make games too long and still end up in a tie.

The NFL offers only 17 weeks of games and 16 games per team. NFL fans want clarity. They don't want ties. They want winners and losers. You wait seven days to get a winner or a loser.

Ties are equally damaging under the new system of four division winners per confidence and only two wild-cards. Coaches study the odds. Late in the system if they study tiebreakers and may determine that a tie may help a playoff hope rather than a win.

In the NFL, you should play to win. Keep the overtime system in tact unless the two- or three-year average of overtime first-possession victories rise above 50 percent. This system isn't broke -- yet.

John Clayton is a senior writer for

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