Notes from combine: New rivalry, OT changes and how to help troops
Sean Payton does battle with Jerry Jones ... over a bottle of wine
New overtime format proposal has four main selling points
NFL combine thoughts, fundraising for Sgt. McGuire and much more
INDIANAPOLIS -- Headlines of the Weekend:
The Saints had some fun with Jerry Jones' favorite wine Friday night.
Overtime reform lives. I am pleased.
The Rams, NFL Network and ESPN will be the big winners on NFL Draft weekend. Tim Tebow's privacy will lose -- as will, I'm afraid, employed Pacific Time Zone people.
Running backs made a lot of NFL people happy here at the combine.
I have details, finally, on how you can help Mike McGuire's men -- and many more on the front lines.
Oh Canada, we stand on our feet for thee.
A busy week, so here we go.
I smell a nice rivalry cooking.
On Friday night, the Saints' staff at the combine gathered in a private room at St. Elmo Steakhouse, an 108-year-old Indy landmark, for a final celebratory nod to the Super Bowl win over the Colts. This is a group that likes its wine, and likes to have fun.
At the restaurant, word passed that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would have his Dallas group in this exact room Saturday night for a team dinner. Jones had even phoned ahead, according to a waiter, to make sure a magnum of a wine he loved, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, was ready to be served at dinner.
Sean Payton told the waiter he'd like to have that wine, too. The waiter told him: Sorry, sir. We have only one bottle left, and it's reserved for Mr. Jones.
Payton said he'd like to have the bottle nonetheless. I assume there was much angst on the part of the wait staff at that point. My God! Who do we piss off? One of the most powerful owners in the NFL, or the coach who's the toast of the NFL, the coach who just won the Super Bowl?
Here came the bottle of Caymus Special Selection, and the Saints' party drained it.
But drinking Jones' wine wasn't enough. Payton gave the waiter some instructions, took out his pen ... and, well, the Cowboys party found at the middle of their table the next evening an empty magnum of Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, with these words hand-written on the fancy label:
That's the kind of thing Jones will get a big laugh out of. And remember.
Have an open mind about overtime. That's all I ask.
I know I've gotten this reputation as a fan (maybe haranguer is a better word) of overtime reform, but I just know that so much has changed since the NFL adopted a sudden-death system in 1974 that it deserves a second look. Ask yourself this question: If you could invent an overtime system for NFL games, what would you invent? Maybe you'd invent the exact same system that's on the books now -- with a coin flip deciding who gets the ball at the start of the extra period, and the first team to score wins. If you would vote for that system after considering what's happened to the game in the past 36 years, that's OK. But I'd be surprised if the keepers of the flame in NFL front offices would.
On Saturday, I reported that the NFL's rulemeisters, the seven-member Competition Committee, were close to bringing overtime reform to the floor for a vote at the NFL Meetings in Orlando in March. The committee will likely unanimously endorse a plan to be introduced for the 2010 playoffs, one that will ensure both teams will get at least one possession in overtime, unless one team scores a touchdown on the first possession of overtime. A touchdown (either on special teams, offense or defense) on the first possession ends the game. No touchdown means the game goes to sudden death on the second possession. There would still be a coin flip to start overtime, and the winner would still choose whether to take the ball or play defense on the first possession of the extra period.
The new overtime rule would have to be approved by 24 of the 32 NFL teams to pass. I still think it's very iffy, and if I had to guess today, I'd say it'd fail. But the leaders of the committee, Rich McKay and Jeff Fisher, will have a couple of weeks at the Competition Committee's annual meeting in Naples, Fla., before the league meetings to refine their case. I believe these will be the major selling points of the new rule:
1. The coin flip is playing too big a part in who wins and loses. Of the 445 overtime regular-season games played in the 36-year history of the system, only seven times has the team that won the flip chosen to kick off instead of receive. And over the past 16 seasons, the number of games won by the coin-flip winner has risen sharply. Between 1974 and 1993, 46.8 percent of overtime games were won by the coin-flip winner. Since 1994, it's 59.8 percent. It used to be that less than half the OT games were won by the lucky team to start the fifth quarter; now it's three out of five.
2. Overtime has become over-reliant on playing for field goals. In the first five years of overtime, NFL kickers were accurate on 61 percent of their attempts. In the last five years, the number is 82 percent. Except for the lousy performances of kickers in the playoffs this year, you can see why teams play for the field goal in overtime. Teams surely do: Since 1994, 73 percent of overtime games have been won by a field goal.
In the Saints' one-possession overtime victory over Minnesota this season, New Orleans won the toss, returned the ball to its 39, got two drive-enhancing penalties totaling 17 yards, struggled for 22 more yards, and won on a 40-yard Garrett Hartley field goal.
Think of it this way: When overtime was invented in the days of the Nixon Administration, the kickoff point was five yards to the kicking team's advantage, and a 40-yard field goal was a real challenge. Now the receiving team rarely starts at the 20, and a 40-yard field goal is probably an 85-percent guarantee.
3. The game has changed since the kickoff point was moved from the 35- to the 30-yard line in 1994. More balls returned instead of touchbacks, essentially. In overtime, teams are tired, mistakes are made. Instead of the offense taking over at the 20, now there's more of a chance to get a big edge on the opening kick and make a short drive for a field goal. One of the nearly two dozen players who sat in on the Competition Committee's meeting in Indianapolis to give input, Houston tackle Eric Winston told me over the weekend, "They're trying to prevent the 45-yard kick return, then a pass-interference call, then kneeling on the ball on third down, then kicking an easy field goal.''
4. The more-exposure-to-injury argument, really, is bogus. On average, the NFL plays 12 overtime games a year. That means a team has a 75 percent chance of playing an overtime game in an average year. And with more games now being won on the first possession of overtime (34 percent of games since 1994 have been won by the coin-flip winner on the first possession, compared to 25 percent in the earlier era), half of your team isn't going to take the field for a third of the OT games anyway.
Do you realize that Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne, the vets the Colts want to uber-protect from injury, have not played an overtime snap in the past 88 Indianapolis games? The Colt D had to play a series in the overtime playoff loss at San Diego in the 2008 season, but the offense hasn't played a fifth quarter since Dec. 26, 2004.
I'm not saying injuries don't happen in overtime; of course they do. But we're not talking about players playing three or four extra quarters a year; we're talking, on average a couple of extra series -- and in some cases, like the Colts', no offensive overtime snaps since Donald Brown was in high school.
I always hear players don't want to change the rule. I talked with three who attended the meeting in Indianapolis, and none seemed bothered by the change that could extend overtime a few plays. "I'm super in favor of it,'' Winston said. "I'd like to see the game not be so dependent on the coin flip.''
I've thought about this proposal a lot over the weekend. For a long time, I've wanted a strict two-possession system -- or at least one, as in the January Green Bay-Arizona playoff game, with the defense touching the ball and winning the game on the first possession. I still think it would be better to guarantee each side a shot at the ball, but I can live with this. It's a nod to the teams worried about exposure to injury; now a team can win on the first possession by playing aggressively for the touchdown. It minimizes the reliance on field goals.
But there's one unintended consequence that could complicate approval. (Then again, who knows? Maybe the intrigue, and the desperation, will help sell the system.) If Team A scores a field goal on the first possession, Team B would never punt, thus increasing its chance to score and extend the game. As the football analyst Brian Burke wrote in an email this weekend: "The second team with possession will have 33 percent more downs available to them on every series, without being concerned about the clock, and scoring becomes much more likely.'' (You can read his full explanation, with a few mathematical formulas that fly right over my Ohio University head, at advancednflstats.com.)
More intrigue, more desperate fourth-down conversion attempts. Good! Sounds like an added plus to me.
Could the game still be a field-goal derby? Sure. But this proposal would motivate teams to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. There'd be some drama now, too, with the coin flip, and some teams I'm sure would choose to defer so they'd know how many points they have to score to either win or extend the game.
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