For the 4th year in a row, thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers vs Detroit Lions game, another football game ended with the worst possible result… a tie. Read the current NFL overtime rules and you come up with a convoluted list of situations and what ifs, that in no way resembles a well constructed procedure for overtime. Instead, what football fans now enjoy is akin to multiple coders inserting their own lines of code, over time, to keep a program running. Sure it works, but not efficiently, and with each additional fix, a new mess is waiting just around the corner, and that is what we now get to enjoy: The most confusing, and frustrating overtime rules in professional sports.
It wasn’t always this dire. The NFL used to hate ties as well. When the AFL and NFL merged in 1966, there were no overtime rules. If the game was tied at the end of regulation, the game was over and ruled a tie. Simple, but boring and anticlimactic. Overtime didn’t exist until the 1974 season. Before that, in the first eight years of the combined NFL, fans got to enjoy 53 ties that affected 106 teams. Ugh…
So the NFL did the right thing and said, “Enough of stalemating and kissing sisters. It’s time for a change!” And the overtime period was born. Rules were pretty simple then. Put another 15 minutes on the clock and the first team to score, wins! The Steelers played the Denver Broncos to a tie in the first year under the new rules, but at least it was the only tie that year. There wouldn’t be another tie for two more years. Success! In the eight years after that rule change, the number of ties dropped to five total. Now there was proof that the rule worked!
37 full seasons under the sudden-death overtime rules netted 17 total ties for just under one tie every two years (or a 46% chance of it happening during a season). The ties were so rare in the late 90s and 2000s, that players didn’t even know that games could end with one (just ask Najee Harris).
Najee Harris after Sunday’s 16-16 tie with the Lions: “I didn't even know you could tie in the NFL," Harris said, via @bepryor. "In my mind, I was sitting on the bench saying, 'I've got another quarter to go.' But someone came to me and said, 'That's it.’https://t.co/rZqQemPJ6F
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 15, 2021
Time passed and the game changed. Kickers became more accurate, and the kickoff line was moved back. This created an interesting statistical trend that showed the team that won the coin toss, was winning the game, most of the time. Now teams were frustrated because they can lose on a kick during the opening drive, without a chance to score themselves. So the NFL inserted some new lines of code, and overtime was no longer simple.
For the 2010 postseason and henceforth, the game shall still be sudden death. Unless it’s a field goal, then we give the ball back to the other team so they can try and score. Um… but if they score a touchdown the game is over. Or a safety. What about drop kicks? …Shhhh. Just sign the rule change). And thus it came to pass, and the football fans now had a newer more exciting overtime… that led to more ties.
From 2011 through 2016, there were five ties. Just under one a season, for an 83% chance of happening each year. With this rule change, the rate nearly doubled, so now fans get to enjoy MORE TIES! YAY! Now if you think about it, you can see that more possessions in overtime, lead to more time off the clock in overtime. Which leads to more teams being unable to best the other in 15 minutes. Statically this makes sense.
I know how to fix this! We must shorten overtime from 15 to 10 minutes! And the rule was changed again in 2017. More possessions with less time should logically yield more draws, but 2017 came and went without a single tie. Whew. Not so fast! 2018 had two ties, 2019, 2020, and 2021 each have one tie, and the rate is now 100%, averaging one tie per season since dropping OT to 10 minutes.
The system is broken, the rules are terrible, and football in overtime is far from enjoyable, unless you watch college football. Like it or hate it, the college football overtime is simple, exciting, and the best part: there is ZERO CHANCE OF ENDING WITH A TIE! Each team gets the ball on the 25 with a chance to score. Overtimes are played like innings until one team has the higher score after an equal number of possessions. This version was perfect until the FBS decided this year that they wanted to change the system to look more like overtime shootout in soccer or hockey by having each team just go for 2 as their scoring attempt beginning with the 3rd overtime.
The NFL should take notice. I’m not saying adopting the college OT rules exactly the way they are written is the answer. Professionals should probably start with the ball on the edge of field goal range (40-35 yard line), and I do like the rule starting with the 2nd OT period of college; If a touchdown is scored, you must go for a 2-point conversion. For the NFL, I’d adopt that rule for every touchdown scored. That would limit the number of possessions while eliminating the tie. Even the NFLPA can get behind limiting plays, all in the name of player safety, which is the argument that sold the 5-minute overtime reduction.
Plus, fantasy football fans can now root for their players to score more TDs or kickers to score more FGs in overtime, making fantasy week even more exciting.
I can only dream for this day. A utopia, with only winners and losers. Where ties only exist in Father’s Day gift boxes or worn around the necks of working class heroes. Where NFL fans can untie the knots in their stomachs, and go back to enjoying the excitement of overtime football!