NFL's problem with ties after overtime will get bigger, upsetting everyone from fans to teams

“Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing. In our business there is no second place. Either you’re first or you’re last.”

Or it’s the NFL in 2018 and you tie a few times – with surely more to come.

Imagine Vince Lombardi, who popularized the “winning is the only thing” ideology, absorbing today’s NFL reality. A world where Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich was presented with a scenario last week that made it more mathematically attractive to play it safe and tie rather than play it risky and lose. Reich chose the latter and went down in flames with some Lombardi-like bravado, which apparently counts for something more than percentage points at the end of a season.

Did I like Reich’s decision? No. But there is something I hated even worse: that the NFL incentivized Reich choosing a stalemate. This is what the NFL has become in 2018, a league that shortened overtime largely to protect the viability of “Thursday Night Football” (we’ll get to that in a bit) and made ties more attractive and more inevitable.

Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates a blocked field goal in overtime against the Browns. The season opener between the AFC North rivals ended in a draw. (Getty Images)
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt celebrates a blocked field goal in overtime against the Browns. The season opener between the AFC North rivals ended in a draw. (Getty Images)

You want a real product problem in the league today? Well guess what? This one is far more problematic than player protests. It’s more mind-numbing than the overbearing protectionism of quarterbacks. It’s even worse than the rampant over-officiating of the leading-with-the helmet rule, which I still believe was quashed via a secret-handshake Illuminati meeting in August.

The league white-knuckled over all those other issues, but thus far, it’s saying little about one that should matter more: overtime.

We’ve had two overtime ties and two more near-ties in a total of six overtime games. And all of this in only four weeks. That’s a problem. And with the extra frame being shortened from 15 minutes to 10 in 2017, it’s going to get worse.

There’s a basic product issue here that the league should be apologizing for. Think of the millions of dollars that four fanbases spent to watch a pair of draws this season: the 21-21 dud between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1; and the ungratifying 29-29 knot between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in Week 2.

Fans travel for those games. They shell out large sums of money. They invest time and emotion. The players, coaches and personnel staffs cram untold hours into preparation – only to be followed by unparalleled physical violence – that culminates in, well, a whole of nothing. The upside is a half-game percentage bump for two franchises and an awkward emotional purgatory for hundreds of thousands of consumers.

All of this might be easier to swallow if it rarely happened. But the truth is the league is one more tie away this season from having to address this as a self-created crisis. Since sudden-death was instituted in 1974, the NFL has never had three games end in a tie during one season. This season, it already has two and a pair of near-misses in six overtime games.

Beyond the general malaise that ties create for overall NFL fans – a diverse group of people that also appears universally united against ties, by the way – the league also has to be concerned how the five-minute overtime shortening has played out. This is already in worst-case scenario territory.

Andrew Luck defended Frank Reich's overtime decision to go for it on fourth-and-4. (Getty Images)
Andrew Luck defended Frank Reich’s overtime decision to go for it on fourth-and-4. (Getty Images)

When the league’s competition committee was mulling this whole change over early in the 2017 offseason, there were two chief fears of shortening overtime: First, it would likely create more ties, which are bad for business; second, it would promote conservative play-calling late in the overtimes because ties are mathematically worth more in the standings than losses.

The Colts and Reich laid out the situation perfectly last week, when they were confronted by that very scenario late against the Texans. But in what had to be a huge sigh of relief for the NFL, Reich got aggressive, risking (and losing) his tie by going for it on fourth-and-4 in his own territory. Houston would eventually make the defensive stop, complete a pass and kick a winning field goal.

Reich and the Colts should have been incensed afterward because the NFL incentivized a wonky scenario that goes against the kind of competition the league is founded upon. After all, the league flaunts that Lombardi quote about winning being the only thing as a historical badge of honor. It appears regularly in NFL Films, clips and a litany of other mediums.

The league made a bad business decision in 2017. It looked at workplace safety and said it wanted to shorten overtime so that players weren’t on the field for a full 15 minutes. But it also had to admit that the truly pressing issue was having guys playing in overtime on a Sunday and then potentially having a Thursday night game the next week. After all, the league can’t risk that Thursday night cash cow. Better to tinker with other fundamental rules than fool around with the bottom line.

In the process, the NFL opened itself up to a scenario where overtimes are ending more quickly and promoting play-calling that is more about loss-avoidance than winning. Meanwhile, it’s possible to have multiple kickoffs in the extra frame, despite the league admitting that kickoffs are one of the most dangerous plays in the game.

So what needs to happen?

A good debate is coming. There will be more overtimes. There will be more ties. And there will be more players, coaches and fans who grow tired of wasted games, wasted money and wasted emotion.

Eventually, someone will point out that the college overtime system is not only wildly exciting and dramatic, but it also removes the dangerous element of kickoffs. Imagine the NFL with college shootouts, and the frenzy those overtime frames will create in fantasy football and also the micro-betting that will become more popular as gambling platforms expand around the game. Those are selling points. Not to mention the ratings, which almost always spike for a college football broadcast that goes into an overtime shootout.

Oh, and there’s also the one little thing that counts most: Someone walks away with a win. Someone walks away with a loss. Everyone walks away knowing their time and money wasn’t wasted on a frustrating standoff that will never be resolved.

For the NFL, an overtime outcome like that shouldn’t be everything. It should be the only thing.

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