January 06, 2011
At the time the NFL announced it would change the overtime format for the playoffs, the idea seemed like a misguided overreaction to the NFC championship game, which ended on a first-possession field goal in overtime thanks to Brett Favre's(notes) penchant for throwing crippling interceptions in the biggest of spots. But now that the rule (which states that a team winning the toss can't end the game on a field goal on the opening drive) could be used in a few days, a number of other things have become evident: One, beginning a brand new format in the playoffs could be a major issue. Two, there are just as many problems with the new rule as the old one.
For example, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh explained (via the New York Times) why deferring the opening kickoff might be a good idea:
"There is more value in the second possession than there has been in the past. [...] On the second drive, they basically have four downs to move the ball down the field. That second drive has a real good chance to move down the field percentage-wise more than it normally would. So you have to keep that in mind. You might see some teams defer."
So let's say you win the toss, kick a field goal, kickoff to your opponent and get them into a fourth-and-15 backed up in their own territory. You're feeling pretty good. Then they convert a first down. Later in the drive, that opponent has a fourth-and-2 from midfield and converts again. Eventually this leads to a game-winning touchdown. How is that any fairer than the old rule? In both cases, the defense fails. But with the new system, the coin toss-winning defense has to stop the offense in four downs rather than three.
Not that any team is going to defer (for the time being, at least). The mere suggestion that Rex Ryan would consider doing so inspired so much backlash that he had to come out and say that the Jets would take the ball if they won the toss in overtime this week.
How would a team even know whether deferring is a good idea? It's not like any coach has ever been in a game situation involving these rules. Like or hate the new overtime rules, the fact that they're getting its trial run during the playoffs is insane. Whenever the rule comes into play, it will be the first time any NFL coach has ever dealt with it. What better time to test something out than in the biggest stage in the sport? Roger Goodell thinks ending a Super Bowl with a field goal on the first possession is bad? How about ending a Super Bowl with a new rule that nobody in football has ever had to deal with before?
Let's take a step back and think about this for a minute: A new format that fundamentally changes the game is being instituted before the playoffs without any testing. Only the NFL could get away with that. Can you imagine if Bud Selig tried to do this in baseball. Maybe before the playoffs he issued a decree that a team has to win by two runs in extra innings. He'd be mocked in every sports column and on every sports station in America. The NFL does it and nobody bats an eyelid. Flippantly changing a rule that's been in use for 40 years and giving it no trial period? Sure, why not!
All this carping may be for naught, though. The new rule wouldn't have been used in 89 percent of the NFL's overtime games during the regular season. There were 19 games that went into extra time in 2010 and both teams got possession in 17 of them. The other two games might have used the new format, as the team winning the toss kicked a field goal on the first possession. In the playoffs, that means their opponents would have gotten the ball back. Or would they have?
In the first OT game decided by a field goal on the first possession this year, the New York Jets kicked a field goal on third down to defeat the Detroit Lions. In the other game, those same Lions had third-and-2 at the Tampa 17-yard line and ran the ball to the middle of the field to set up a 34-yard field goal by Dave Rayner(notes). Both teams were playing for the field goal, not for the touchdown. With the postseason rules in effect, the game plans would have been different. Since a touchdown wins the game and a field goal gives the other team the ball back, the Jets wouldn't have kicked on third down and Detroit wouldn't have set up the kick. They'd have been trying to get into the end zone. Maybe the end result would have been the same, but the path to get there would have changed.
The regular-season overtime rule isn't perfect; it's far from it, in fact. But neither is this one. And that's the thing: giving another team possession after a field goal isn't going to end the complaining. Teams still want to win the toss, a touchdown on the first possession still wins it and now there's the added concern that a team getting the ball after an opening field goal has the advantage of using all four downs. If anything, the carping about overtime rules will get louder now.
Of course, that's assuming said rules get used this year at all.
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