Why are ties still possible in NFL overtime? Format issues, fairness questions and suggested alternatives

Editor's note: This story was originally published after Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season.

Whenever an NFL game ends in a tie, it seems that at least one player admits he didn't know it was possible. The player gets mocked, we have our fun and then we all move on.

Here's the thing, though: What if we're the ones who have it all wrong? Instead of ridiculing Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Najee Harris or former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb for not knowing the rules, we should listen to them. Maybe we're the ones who should be mocked. A reasonable person should be stunned to learn that the NFL will halt a game after 70 minutes with nothing decided, in defiance of nearly every other sport and all other levels of football.

"It's nuts," said Godwin Igwebuike, a Detroit Lions tailback, after his team's Week 10 game against the Steelers ended with a 16-16 score.

In fact, it's one of several consequences of an NFL overtime structure that has fallen under increasing scrutiny following a series of rule tweaks over the past decade -- changes that have actually made a tie more likely while leaving gaps in the concepts of fairness, equity and player safety. The team that receives the opening kickoff of overtime still has a significantly better chance to win, despite a 2010 rule change giving each team a possession unless the first team scores a touchdown. And while teams are still averaging about the same number of plays per overtime, even after a 2017 change that cut it from 15 to 10 minutes, ties are now three times more likely.