If an NHL game goes to overtime, both teams play a three-on-three game for five minutes, a winner is determined if a team scores, if not it goes to a penalty shootout. This is a fair system as both teams have an equal chance to score.
If an NBA game goes to overtime, a five-minute period is played in the hope the two sides can be separated and if not they’ll continue to play five-minute periods until a winner is decided. This is a fair system as both teams have an equal chance to win.
If an MLB game goes to overtime, extra innings are used and only when a team scores more than their opponent in that inning is a winner determined. This is a fair system as both teams have an equal chance to win.
And now, ’sigh’, the NFL. If an NFL game goes to overtime and the team first receiving the ball on offence scores a touchdown on their first drive, the game is immediately ended without the opposing offence having a chance to respond. This is completely unfair as it gives the team that wins a coin toss a huge advantage.
In recent years, we’ve seen several high profile playoffs games such as Arizona vs Green Bay in 2016, Kansas City vs New England in 2019 and most recently Kansas City vs Buffalo in 2022 all decided in first possession overtime touchdowns, denying talented quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes from being able to respond as their seasons come to an end. There has been some progress, before 2010 overtime games were sudden death with any form of scoring, meaning even if a defence kept a team out of the end zone on the first possession, the team with possession could still win the game with just a field goal.
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The rule was changed for the 2010 season playoffs, now if a team scored a field goal on the opening drive, the other team would get a possession to respond, if both teams scored a field goal, then it would become sudden death from that point. This became the rule for the regular season as well in 2012. The biggest problem with the current format is that in today’s NFL, particularly in the playoffs, the talent at the quarterback position makes it much more likely than ever for elite teams to win games on opening overtime drives against tired defences.
Too often now a simple choice between ‘heads and tails’ can decide overtime before it’s really begun. To have a team not have to worry about defence, and just go out and score a touchdown to win in overtime, compared to a team who have to play defence and hope they can get a chance on offence creates a very unlevel playing field. Many in the NFL have called for a change to the league’s unfair overtime rules, and perhaps the fix lies in three-down football.
The current Canadian Football League overtime rules have been in place since 2010. Both teams are guaranteed a possession that starts on the 35-yard line. Only after both teams have played an equal number of possessions on offence, and a team comes out ahead with more points is a winner decided. There is no game clock, and the game (in the regular season) is settled as a tie if the teams can’t be separated after three possessions each. If a team does score a touchdown in overtime, they must also attempt a two-point conversion, rather than have the option to kick one extra point.
The immediate advantage is that rather than a coin toss being such a huge overriding factor in deciding a game, both teams are guaranteed to have an offensive possession, creating a much more equal system. The added addition of having to go for two points after a touchdown puts a lot of pressure on offences to reach the end zone twice, and gives the defences an immediate chance to redeem themselves. The difference between having to score six compared to eight is huge psychologically. The 2016 and 2021 Grey Cup finals both went to overtime, in both cases the team receiving the ball first scored opening drive touchdowns, but it was their defences that won them the Cup by shutting out the opposing offence, making the win feel like a more complete victory as both units played their part in overtime.
The games themselves were all the better for the format as well. In Super Bowl 51, there was a sense of inevitability when New England won the coin toss, they marched down the field and scored a touchdown to win the Super Bowl, denying their opponents the Atlanta Falcons the chance to respond. In the Grey Cup, however, there was still more pulsating football to be enjoyed after those opening drive touchdowns, and rather there being a sense of inevitability about the result, both games felt like they were there for the taking.
So after yet another NFL playoff game where a coin toss played too big of a factor in deciding the outcome, where does the NFL go from here? Should the NFL adopt the CFL method? Realistically, I don’t think they ever would fully, but what they should do is adopt two key parts of the Canadian method. Have both teams guaranteed a possession, immediately making the system much fairer to both teams. Also, the NFL should in this case also introduce the go for two mandate as well, which would create added drama, and allow a defence to redeem itself after giving up a touchdown score.
If a game featured two elite offences, it would potentially help prevent the game from being an almost never-ending shootout and thus lessen the risk of injury to players that comes with that as the task of scoring eight is considerably more difficult than just scoring six. I don’t know if/when the NFL will change its overtime policy, but I’m sure I speak for most fans when I say, I hope they take some inspiration from up north.
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