Let me set the scene for you: At the end of regulation, the Saints and Colts are tied at 48 in what has already been proclaimed the Greatest Sporting Event in the History of the West. In overtime, however, whoever wins the coin toss unimpressively moves 35 yards down the field and anticlimactically kicks a championship-winning field goal. Its status as GSEHW is quickly revoked and handed back, somewhat perplexingly, to the Toronto Blue Jays’ 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers from June 17, 1995.
Let me reset the scene for you: At the end of regulation, the Saints and Colts are tied at 48 in what has already been proclaimed the Greatest Sporting Event in the History of the West. The drama doesn’t cease there but rather builds to an astonishing Wagnerian crescendo in overtime, where one of the teams finally crosses the goal line to claim the Lombardi Trophy. The game’s status as GSEHW is not only confirmed but changed slightly, with “West” being replaced by “World.” This is possible because, finally and logically, we have changed the rules that govern overtime in the National Football League.
There is no secret that overtime in the NFL is broken. The team that wins the coin toss wins an alarming amount of the time—close to 60 percent since 2000. Despite a prominent countryman of mine’s firm belief that chance is the only reasonable divinity (Tim’s favorite, Camus, although I doubt he understands the complexity of The Fall) or a not-so-prominent co-blogger of mine’s own investigation into the morality of the coin toss, the outcome of football games should not rest on the flick of a referee’s finger.
And yet everyone is so quick to connect the significance of the coin toss to the inefficacy of a sudden-death model. The common belief is that if we have a sudden-death overtime, then the coin toss will be the determining factor. This is not true. I contest that football should have a sudden-death overtime through our old friend, the process of elimination. Alternatives to sudden death include such things as a timed period, a college system, or some sort of equal-possession rule. Here are the problems with each:
1. Football is too arduous a game to require its practitioners to play a set number of minutes again. And how many minutes would it be? Anything five or less and you’ve practically got sudden death again. In fact, in any single period, the team that receives the ball first (i.e. wins the coin toss) maintains a tremendous advantage over the other team, by virtue of always being a possession ahead. The only way to make this work would be to play two periods of equal length, in which the team that receives the ball in the first extra period kicks off in the second. This solution is, I think we can agree, a bit outlandish.
2. The college system fundamentally changes the way the sport is played by giving teams the ball in easy field-goal range. It becomes so easy to score that both teams often trade scores for numerous periods. This can occasionally make for entertaining games, but they are games that lack competitive (and statistical) integrity. The college system could work on the professional level, but only if teams started from, say, their own 40-yard line. Still, it is far from ideal.
3. An equal-possession rule, in which the team that kicks off to start overtime always gets a chance to answer the other, seems logical prima facie. The problem is that while the number of possessions may be equal, the circumstances surrounding them never can be. For instance, let’s say Team A wins the toss and, wisely, kicks off. Team B then throws an interception that is returned to the 5-yard line. Team A promptly kicks a game-winning field goal, even though their offense did not have a chance to commit the same mistake Team B’s did. Another example: Team B, with the ball first, reaches Team A’s red zone, and on 4th-and-inches, boldly goes for it, knowing Team A has an excellent offense likely to score a touchdown. Team B is stuffed. Team A then drives down the field, faces a 4th-and-inches in a similar spot on the field, and kicks the game-winning field goal. In essence, the offenses did not perform any differently. It is just that the circumstances dictated one outcome for Team B and a separate one for Team A—circumstances themselves that were dictated by, gasp, the coin toss. (And if you contest that these advantages exist throughout a football game, you are correct. It is just that Team A has the advantage in the first half while Team B gets it in the second, thus equalizing the effect of the coin toss.)
And so we come back to my initial point: that the problem with the NFL’s overtime is not that it is sudden death. Here is my next one: The problem is that it is sudden death when it is too easy to score. Consider: The other sports to employ sudden death are soccer and hockey—both sports that do not boast of freqeunt scoring. A higher-scoring sport (basketball) does not use sudden death; it would be ludicrous.
The solution to the problem is very simple now, even obvious: We just make it harder to score. And how do we make it harder to score, you ask? By stealing something from the Ligue Canadienne de Football (or CFL here in the States): We allow only three downs.
Think about it: Forcing teams to achieve 10 yards on only two plays before facing the classic schoolyard “stickin’ or kickin’” dilemma means that only the truly great offenses can move into scoring position in a single drive. In fact, you may see more teams that win the coin toss choose to kick off and hope to take the field in better field position after stopping their opponent’s offense. At the same time, scoring would not become so difficult that we would see several ties each season. Teams would eventually score, by becoming more aggressive on offense and by working field position; it would just happen later in the period, long after the effect of the coin toss has worn off.
What are your objections? Taking away one down does not fundamentally change the way the game is played, in the same way that making overtime four-on-four in the NHL does not alter that sport’s aesthetic. You slightly change the way you call plays; that is all. If you want to point out that the coin toss would still have an effect since the winner would always be a possession ahead (my argument against a timed period from above), you have to understand that getting the ball first would, in this case, not always be an advantage. A two-and-out on your opening drive is likely to give the opponent possession in strong field position, an advantage that can be perpetuated in subsequent alternations of possession. If you think the advantage is still strongly on the side of the team that gets the ball first, you are an ignoramus. If you think the focus should be on some sort of pre-overtime auction, in which the teams bait each other to take the ball deep in their own territory, then you’re a bigger fan of economics than football.
It’s the only way to preserve football’s dignity and its competitive spirit. And we have to act now. Because we want Super Bowl XLIV to truly be the GSEHW.