Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2010

NFL Owners Get It Right

On Tuesday NFL owners voted to change the procedure for overtime play during the playoffs. Beginning next season, if the team that wins the overtime coin toss drives down the field and kicks a field goal, their opponents will be given a matching possession and thus a chance to tie the game with a field goal of their own, or win it with a touchdown. If both teams kick field goals on their initial possession, the overtime period becomes sudden death. Any result other than a field goal on that first possession (i.e., touchdown, safety, punt, turnover), and the first score wins the game.

That this rule change passed at all was a huge surprise. That it passed by an overwhelming vote of 28-4 was an absolute shock. As owners, coaches and general managers were assembling in Orlando for this week’s meetings, most observers saw little chance of the proposed change garnering the 75% support needed for passage. As late as Sunday SI’s Peter King wrote “I don’t think this is the year.” But on Monday NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came out in favor of the change, giving it an obvious boost. Then on Tuesday afternoon, while the coaches, most of whom oppose changing the overtime format, were at a golf outing, Competition Committee co-chair Rich McKay of the Falcons, a long-time proponent of change, finally carried the day.

The opposition from coaches was readily predictable. The change creates a new set of in-game decisions that the men wearing the headsets will have to make. If a coach has great faith in his defense, should be consider kicking off if he wins the overtime coin toss, believing his D can stuff the opponent after which a field goal wins the game? If having taken the ball to start overtime he faces a fourth and one at the opponent’s 35-yard line, does he trust his kicker and attempt a 52 yard field goal? Or does he go for the first down to keep the drive and the possibility of a game-winning touchdown alive; knowing that even if the kicker delivers the opposing squad will have a chance to tie? As with all coaching decisions, a judgment that turns out wrong will be scrutinized and second-guessed by all of the team’s fans, including the really big fan who signs the coach’s paycheck.

Notwithstanding the opposition from the coaching fraternity, this was a change that was long, long, long overdue. Sixteen years overdue to be precise. In 1994 the NFL pushed the kickoff spot back from the 35 to the 30-yard line. That simple change gave outsized importance to winning the overtime coin toss. From 1974 when overtime was introduced through 1993, winners and losers of the coin toss each emerged victorious in overtime just less than 47% of the time (the remaining OT games ended in ties). But moving the spot of the kickoff back five yards meant longer returns and better starting field position for the receiving team. That, coupled with a decade and a half of stronger and more accurate kickers, has resulted in greatly skewed results. Since 1994, coin-toss winners have won nearly 60% of overtime games, to just over 38% for the teams who called heads when it should have been tails. And almost all of the increased winning percentage for the teams who got the coin flip right is accounted for by a concurrent increase in the percentage of overtime games won with an opening possession field goal.

A contest as complex and exciting as a professional football game headed for overtime shouldn’t turn on a co-captain’s ability to correctly guess heads or tails. At the college level, the format for years has been for both teams to be given a possession starting at their opponent’s 25-yard line. If neither scores, or if both achieve the same score, say matching field goals, then the procedure is repeated until one team emerges victorious. The new NFL playoff overtime format isn’t as egalitarian as the college model, but it is a huge improvement over a format in which correctly calling “heads” gives a team a 60% chance of victory. The weight of those statistics finally proved too much for the ever-present institutional resistance to change.

The only thing wrong with the owners’ decision is that they limited the change to the playoffs. A week sixteen or seventeen game between two teams on the wild card bubble shouldn’t come down to a coin toss either. Nor, for that matter, should a week one game between two teams that might eventually wind up on the bubble many weeks later. Hopefully we won’t have to wait years for NFL owners to acknowledge that reality.

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