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Fixing Football's Overtime

Get rid of the coin toss!

by James Leroy Wilson
January 19, 2016

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Fixing Football's Overtime

You could say I'm biased. My Green Bay Packers have now lost two NFL overtime playoff games in a row without ever getting the ball.


I don't think it's "unfair." After all, the Packers did give up a touchdown in both overtimes. And the overtime rules are better than they were some years ago, when getting the ball first  and merely kicking a field goal would win the game.

(Not to mention, it's also much better than college football overtime, which changes the nature of the game by making overtime more like extra innings that start out with a runner perched on second base.)

But I never felt comfortable with the overtime rules. Something about the coin toss itself seems arbitrary and unfair.

Then it occurred to me why I felt this way. The January 16th, 2016 Cardinals-Packers game featured a coin toss in which the coin didn't actually flip. It was an unusual event.

But it prompts the thought: why even have a coin toss?

Consider these overtime changes:

  • When the clock expires, the team with the ball keeps the ball. Same down, distance, etc.
  • The opposing team is also guaranteed  one possession, whether via kickoff from the first team scoring, or from a punt, or from a turnover. If the score is still tied after the second team's possession, then the first team to score wins.

How would this work?

The most important change is that the game continues. It doesn't reboot with an arbitrary coin toss to decide who gets the ball first. If a team scores on the final play of regulation, it kicks off to start overtime. If it is at first and goal at the 1 at the end of regulation, it will keep the ball in the situation in overtime and then kick off.

There would be less incentive to "play for overtime." A team nailed close to their own goal line near the end of regulation won't run out the clock. Instead, they'll try to move the ball. When overtime begins, they'll still have the ball.

Games would be decided on strategic decisions instead of coin tosses. For instance: you have fourth down on your own 45 with 1 second left in a tied game. Do you try for a Hail Mary? Or do you punt and force the other team to have first possession near their own goal line in overtime -- knowing full well that you are also guaranteed a possession in overtime?

Taking away the coin toss would remove the anti-climatic nature of overtime. It allows the flow of the game to proceed, provides interesting strategic situations, and embraces the fairness of giving each team the ball.  

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