No contest: NFL's overtime system is the worst in sports
The NFL will soon have a Super Bowl decided by coin toss without a rule change
Since '04, 62 percent of teams that win the toss went on to win the game
A good system needs to be fair, full of drama, authentic and fan friendly
The first step toward recovery, of course, is admitting you have a problem.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got close to a successful intervention with the league's 32 owners before Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa in February. That's when he tried to splash cold water on their faces and rehabilitate the league's imbalanced overtime system. Ultimately, the league's competition committee did not pursue a better way to break ties. That's why the NFL, which opened its 90th season with yet another overtime game on Thursday, retains the undisputed position of having the worst overtime system in sports.
It is a dubious title for the world's greatest sports league to have, but the NFL has earned it. For 60-minutes, NFL gladiators can sweat, bleed and bruise their way toward victory. But victory still could all come down to heads or tails and a 170-pound kicker's mental state.
Frankly, the odds are stacked against overtimes lasting more than one possession. NFL rules constantly are tweaked in favor of offenses, and in today's era of pro football, kickers are more accurate and have stronger legs. In fact, over the past five years, nearly 62 percent of teams winning the overtime coin flip have gone on to win the game. It happened again Thursday night with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning the coin toss and going on to kick the game-winning field goal against the Tennessee Titans 10 plays later.
The best overtime system in sports? We'll get to that. But first, let's outline the four factors used to determine which league does it best when regulation play is not enough:
1. Fairness -- Yup, the day is coming when the NFL's greatest game, the Super Bowl, will be decided in large part by a coin flip. And imagine the uproar and outcry for change then. Already, the world's biggest game, soccer's World Cup, has been decided by a glorified shell game, most recently in 2006 with a penalty-kick shootout. Guessing games should not help determine champions.
2. Drama -- If you can feel a knot in your stomach and lump in your throat, the overtime system has done its job. If you experience a nervous twitch, better still. Remember that feeling you had right before Carlton Fisk's Game 6 swing? Or Boise State going for two and Ian Johnson taking the Statue of Liberty handoff? Or Tiger staring down the putt on No. 18 -- the 90th hole -- at Torrey Pines? That's drama.
3. Authenticity -- Is the overtime legit? Does it really determine the best team or player? And does it avoid compromising the integrity of the game for the sake of time, simplicity and/or TV? College football overtimes are fun and exciting, but they hardly stay true to the kind of football played through the first 60 minutes.
4. Fan friendly -- If a fan has to have the rules of overtime explained to him/her, it's probably not a good overtime (see college football, soccer and the Arena Football League).
Considering those factors, two sports clearly have the overtime edge. But if we're talking about the best and worst tiebreakers, we can't have a tie at the top, now, can we? So we'll give the edge to baseball, because it is a team sport, with more moving parts involved and much more coaching strategy and dependence on depth.
The best (and worst) overtime systems:
1. Baseball (pro and college) -- The big-leaguers and major league-wannabes lead the class on all four fronts. Extra-innings could not be more equitable. The teams play until there is a winner. No sport offers more overtime drama, because none gives you more time to think about all the potential ecstasy or angst. When the Mets and Astros played arguably the greatest baseball game ever in the 1986 NLCS, emotion swings were dizzying through nearly five hours and 16 innings. When Boston College and Texas locked into an NCAA Tournament marathon in May 2009, they just played. And played. And played. For 25 innings. Authenticity? Nothing changes from regulation to overtime in baseball -- pitchers pitch, hitters hit, fielders field. There's no clock and no special overtime rules. And it's about as Fan Friendly as any game gets.
2. Tennis -- Andy Roddick and Roger Federer played 95-minutes of heart-stopping tennis at this year's Wimbledon Final. That was in the fifth-set alone, in which Federer ultimately prevailed 16-14. Like baseball, the rules don't change, the players keep playing and the emotion and drama can be drenching. Tennis may not be close to the most popular sport in this country anymore, but it does it right.
3. NBA/NCAA basketball -- The only things that keep basketball from being the best system are players fouling out and bad free-throw shooters. The fairness and authenticity are top-notch. Drama can be more exhilarating than in any other sport, with Christian Laettner- or Michael Jordan-like moments. But hoops loses a bit to baseball and tennis because the best players are not always on the floor. They foul out.
And If more players could make free throws, the final two minutes of a game would be much more exciting (and would not take 20 minutes to play). Coaches would not be nearly as willing to send opposing players to the free-throw line down the stretch.
4. NHL/Hockey -- Some of the greatest overtime games ever played have been in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The overtime system is just about perfect, except for a pair of warts that loom large when it comes to Authenticity and Fan Friendliness.
Only in the postseason does hockey play until there is a decision. In the regular season the sport goes the sudden death and shootout route. And the NHL remains a sport whose message gets lost on casual fans, unless they're watching on HD. A lot of fans just don't watch hockey, which means when they do, they just don't get the rules.
5. Golf -- It compromises little when it comes to overtime. Tied after 72-holes? Fine, let's play 73, 74, 75, whatever it takes. Special mention should go to the U.S. Open, which takes the playoff to the next level, playing an entire extra 18 holes or more the next day.
Still, because some players' games are more suited for certain holes than others, the Authenticity can be compromised if the playoff hole suits one player more. Golf also loses points because it is an individual sport, and it can be less than Fan Friendly if the playoff is called for darkness.
6. NCAA football -- Admit it, you still have to think hard or maybe read the TV graphic whenever a college football game goes into overtime. Is it after two overtimes when a team has to go for a two-point conversion, or after three? (It's after two, by the way.) But as much as college football passes the Drama and Fairness tests, providing superb finishes in recent years, it fails miserably on Authenticity and Fan Friendliness.
Most fans have not committed college overtime rules to memory. And starting at the 25-yard-line with no kickoffs involved is not how the game is meant to be played. Any time a team conceivably could have a game-winning "drive" without even getting a first-down, something's wrong.
7. AFL/AFL2 -- OK, it's the now defunct Arena Football League, but the AFL2 is alive and well. It's not Fan Friendly because of its lack of broad appeal, nor Authentic. Let's face it. It's gym-class football. But it still had a good overtime system that works. Take note, NFL. Each team gets one possession in overtime. If the teams remained tied, the game becomes sudden-death and is played until there is a winner.
8. NASCAR -- There's a certain letdown anytime there's a wreck or breakdown late in a race and the 500-mile race has to become 500-plus. Here comes the Yellow Flag, literally bringing a bump-and-grind race to a screeching halt. In July '08, NASCAR instituted an overtime procedure, where one attempt would be made at a green/white/checker finish if a caution occurs within the final two laps. And the green-white-checker overtime finish offers big-time thrills and racing. The biggest problem is in a sport where fuel regulation is so important, some run out of gas or sputter and the best car and driver do not always win.
9. World Cup/soccer -- The NCAA uses a Golden Goal rule, which is a fancy way of saying sudden death. Not good. FIFA, however, at least tries to finish a game true to regulation. An extra 30 minutes of soccer is played, with the teams switching sides after 15 minutes. The problem is, if after 30 minutes the teams remain tied, the teams play a penalty-kick shootout, which is little more than a guessing game on the goalkeeper's part. It stinks.
10. NFL -- Heads we win, tails you lose. For such a detail-oriented league that demands perfection, from how players wear their socks to constantly tweaking rules, to leave the overtime system as is remains a mystery.
Last season the system left Peyton Manning's Colts and Tom Brady's Patriots out of the Super Bowl race. The Patriots, you'll recall, lost a 34-31 regular-season game to the Jets, with Brett Favre leading his team to the winning field goal on the extra period's first possession. Patriots backup Matt Cassel, subbing for the injured Brady, could only watch from the sideline and the 11-5 Pats eventually missed the playoffs by a single game.
Manning had a similarly frustrating front-row seat to all that is wrong with the NFL's overtime system a few weeks later. Manning never even got to touch the football in overtime, and the Colts were ousted by the Chargers in the wild card round. Clearly, the system needs to be changed.
There are a number of options out there, although most either would be nixed by the NFL Players Association or muddy the game. Play a full overtime quarter? Perhaps. Use the NCAA system? Never. Too much of a risk for injury if the overtime goes long. Give each team one possession before heading into sudden death if they remain tied? This was one option the competition committee apparently considered, but did not like.
Might I suggest a first-to-six option? The first team to score six points wins. It wouldn't have helped Manning's Colts last season, but, hey, if you can't keep the opponent out of the end zone, that's your problem. First-to-six also rewards the daring. Say the Cowboys have a fourth-and-two at the Redskins 10. Should they kick a field goal and risk the Redskins scoring a touchdown? Or go for it and risk not making it?
However the NFL does it, it needs to get done quickly. Until its system changes, the best league on earth only will continue to leave fans with an empty, unfulfilled feeling. Sort of like Manning last January.
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