March 23, 2010
Coaches and general managers are still cool to the idea, but pro owners -- hoping to avert a "doomsday" scenario by which the Super Bowl could be decided by an anticlimactic, sudden-death field goal in overtime, the way the NFC Championship was decided between the Vikings and the Doc's beloved Saints in January -- voted overwhelmingly today to change the OT rules in playoff games:
The new rule says the team that gets the ball at the start of overtime can win on the opening possession only with a touchdown. If that team kicks a field goal, the other team gets a possession with a chance to either win with a touchdown or tie with a field goal. If the score is tied after that, it would be sudden death from that point on.
If neither team scores on its first possession, the game would continue on a sudden-death basis.
The "Brett Favre Rule" is a naked reaction to New Orleans' 31-28 win over Minnesota, which was greeted with some degree of handwringing because the great and mighty Favre didn't get a chance with the ball in the extra frame, and the Saints benefitted from a handful of iffy calls on their way to the winning kick. As a Saints fan, I should probably be a little indignant. But as a longtime critic of the coin-flip/sudden-death system, in general -- which certainly has not always worked in New Orleans' favor -- I appreciate the owners' willingness to finally address a persistent defect in their product. The new rule is such an improvement, in fact, that it begs the question here: Does college football need to overhaul its own overtime system?
From its inception in 1995, the NCAA format avoided the glaring injustice in the NFL's sudden-death system by ensuring both teams were guaranteed to touch the ball the same number of times. By beginning those opportunities at the opponents' 25-yard line, though, it set itself up for the opposite problem: Scoring -- and responding to scores -- is too easy. Granting alternating possessions with the ball already in scoring position is an inherent bias against strong defensive teams that thrive on winning field position, and also means games can drag on forever as offenses light up the scoreboard thanks to the short field, or else play conservatively to guarantee at least the three points they need to stay alive. As a result, college has delivered marathon sessions with no equivalent in the NFL, namely the three seven-overtime games (between Arkansas and Ole Miss in 2001, Arkansas and Kentucky in 2003 and North Texas and Florida International in 2006) in the last decade. Thrilling, maybe, but also bordering on the absurd or (if you're an exhausted player trying to win a tense, emotional game on fumes) even cruel.
But the other, bigger problem with the college overtime system (and a strength of the NFL's format, old and new) is that it completely removes fundamental elements of the kicking game, specifically punts and kickoffs, without which the generous starting field position for the offenses resembles the game of football to about the same extent as a series of penalty kicks resembles the game of soccer. Distilling the outcome to a shot at points from inside the red zone, like distilling a match to a free shot on goal, undermines the myriad strategies and subtleties that make up the vast majority of the game.
The perfect overtime format, it seems to me, would resemble as closely as possible extra innings in baseball, because extra innings most closely resembles the rest of the game. In fact, it doesn't recognize the difference between extra innings and the rest of the game; the teams just keep playing with no acknowledgement that they're in "extra time" until both have had an equal number of opportunities and one side has scored more. The owners' rules changes bring the NFL in line with that concept -- replacing a team at-bat with an offensive series -- by allowing the loser of the coin toss a chance to response to an opening-possession field goal. Essentially, they're going to just keep playing until one team has scored more, although the "right to respond" won't extend past the first set of possessions (for all intents and purposes, an "inning"). Baby steps.
On the college end, at some point there will be another seven-overtime game, or eight, or ten, or some other variety of overtime controversy in a blockbuster BCS game, and the NCAA will be forced to consider more than a few minor tweaks to the existing system. When it does, the NFL's new plan (which I suspect is going to be a hit) looks like a good place to start.
But I'm also interested in what you think. Theories for fixing overtime are legion already, many of them delightfully weird. (I'm a big fan of the field position auction, personally, though hardly naive enough to think it has a chance of existing.) Pass along some of your favorite overtime fixes to sundaymorningqb -at- yahoo, etc. (or just hit the "e-mail" button below) and I'll work up a few of the best into a running offseason