NFL's New Overtime Rule: Making Football Fair Again


Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Remember the critical play in last year's NFC championship game? The one that tipped the momentum in favor of the New Orleans Saints once and for and all and gave them a clear path to victory? The one that was arguably the single most important of the season?

No, I'm not talking about Brett Favre's drive-killing interception at the end of regulation. The play that decided the game—and ultimately the season—was the overtime coin toss.

Once the coin flipped in the Saints' favor, they took possession, marched down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal to earn their spot in Super Bowl XLIV. The Minnesota Vikings never had a chance to respond.

The Saints' 31-28 win once again exposed the NFL's Achilles' heel, its antediluvian overtime rules that often leave the outcome of a tightly contested football game subject to the whims of 'head or tails.' Fortunately, a new system set to debut in the playoffs this season finally brings the league closer to an equitable approach to extra time.

Since the league first contemplated the idea of overtime in 1941, NFL games that go into extra time have been decided by the sudden death format—whoever scores first wins. The method of deciding which team gets the all-important first possession of overtime has been set in stone for just as long: a coin toss, identical to the one that occurs at the beginning of each game. The team that wins the toss chooses whether they want to receive the ball or kick off to the other team. Teams often choose to kick it away at the beginning of games, but in overtime, when scoring first is all that matters, they choose to receive virtually every time.

The problem with the old system is blindingly obvious to anyone with common sense or a high school understanding of math. Even the biggest NFL neophyte gets the equation: scoring first equals victory, and teams score when they have the ball (fumbles and interception returns notwithstanding). So whichever team has the ball first is more likely to win. And the decision of who gets the ball first is made by a coin toss, the paragon of pure chance.

Defenders of the system argued it was the fairest way possible to conduct sudden death overtime. And that's true—if you're going to award a team the first possession, the best way is through a 50/50 coin toss.

Or you could just abolish sudden death overtime and adopt a system closer to the one used in college football, where each team gets one possession per overtime. And in the wake of the Saints' overtime win in January, that's exactly what the league did.

The new system is designed to eliminate the biggest iniquity of sudden death overtime: A team wins the toss, drives 35 yards, and kicks a game-winning field goal. Under the new rules, whoever wins the toss (and therefore gets the ball first) wins the game if they score a touchdown on the first possession. If they just kick a field goal, the other team gets one possession to tie with a field goal of their own or win with a touchdown. If the team with the ball first doesn't score at all, the old sudden death rules kick in.

The rule is overly convoluted, and it still forces teams who lose the coin toss to keep their opponent out of the end zone. But it's a lot harder to score a touchdown than a field goal, and after 69 years of sudden death it's a big step in the right direction.

The rule only applies during the playoffs, though owners have said they're open to expanding the system to the regular season in the future. But come January, the biggest games of the season won't be purely decided by a coin toss. And that, undeniably, is progress.