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Re-working overtime

How to make the extra period fair; NFL-wide notes

Posted: Monday March 19, 2007 8:55AM; Updated: Monday March 19, 2007 5:48PM
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The Steelers' Santonio Holmes races for a game-winning touchdown on the third play of overtime against the Bengals in Week 17.
The Steelers' Santonio Holmes races for a game-winning touchdown on the third play of overtime against the Bengals in Week 17.
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I've never been a big fan of the NFL's current overtime system. Even though only 29 percent of all overtime games have been won on the first possession of extra time, that's 29 percent too often for me. NFL teams have only 16 regular-season games a year, and those games are too important for something as vital as first possession of the ball to be determined by a coin flip. The rule is madness. Both teams should have at least one crack at the ball in overtime.

Now the NFL might be preparing to do something -- not enough, but something -- to improve the odds of both teams getting a possession in overtime. The league's annual meetings convene next weekend in Phoenix, and the rules-making Competition Committee spent time last week discussing a tweak for overtime. The change: pushing the kickoff from the 30- to the 35-yard line.

Exactly half of the NFL's 32 teams averaged kickoffs of at least 65 yards last year. Only one team, Minnesota, averaged fewer than 60 yards per kickoff. So assuming the kicking team in overtime has a guy who booted the ball to the 5-yard line under normal circumstances, there's a good chance the receiving team will start within its 25-yard line in this new system. And maybe that's just enough of a difference to keep more games from being decided on the first possession.

This tweak is just in the discussion stage, and the NFL doesn't often act aggressively to mend things that most people in the league don't think are broken. And for some reason there's not a lot of traction on dissatisfaction regarding the overtime rules. Maybe we can get some momentum here, before the meetings begin in Phoenix.

There is some impetus on the competition committee to at least make a team drive farther to get in position to win a game. And that's progress. Whether there's enough progress to get the 32 teams to vote on it, well, we'll have to see what the reaction when news about the idea starts to spread out to the teams this week.

It's such an odd concept that the three front-office people I asked about it over the weekend had various degrees of bemusement. "If they're trying to make a team earn the win in overtime, then why don't they just put the ball at the 20 and make them go 50 yards to get in field-goal range?'' one G.M. asked on Saturday. The NFL won't do that because the argument against the college overtime rule is that it makes a mockery of the game, eliminating the special-teams aspect.

If it seems as if more OT games in recent years are being decided on the first series of overtime, it's because they are, but it's a slight increase.

Year Overtime Games Won on First Possession Percentage
2006 11 5 .455
2005 14 5 .357
2004 12 4 .333
2003 23 6 .261
2002 25 10 .400

Five-year totals: 85 overtime games, 30 won on the first possession (35.3 percent).

Totals from 1974 to 2001: 317 overtime games, 87 won on first possession (27.4 percent).

Overall: 402 overtime games, 117 won on first possession (29.1 percent).

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