In Defense of NFL’s OT System


Although not as controversial as the playoff system in college football, or lack thereof, the current, sudden death overtime system in the NFL has its share of critics.  The source of dissatisfaction is apparently in the stats.  To me, it’s not entirely clear which statistic causes the debate, whether it’s the 25% to 40% of teams winning overtime on its first possession or the 50% to 60% of teams winning the game by winning the coin toss.  Regardless, the criticism is (apparently) based on the belief that it’s unfair for a victory in overtime to be largely determined by the fortuitous drop of the coin.

I never understood this criticism.  Ignoring the numbers for the second, something y’all will rarely hear me say especially when the math suggests the factor of the coin drops is statistically significant, the formula for winning in overtime is exactly the same as those in regulation:  play good offense, good defense and good special teams.  Regardless of how the coin drops, the team is not going to win if it has an offense coached by Art Shell or a special teams that fumbles the kickoff.  And it certainly shouldn’t win if it has a defense coached by Mike Shanahan.  Unlike in college football, where overtime play begins in field goal range, the NFL requires the offense to earn the points by orchestrating a drive down field.  The Patriots, in losing for the first time in 7 overtime games last season, permitted the Jets to convert a 3rd and 15 from its own 15.  Although the Pats never had the chance to go on offense in that game, it’s not the coin flip that cost the game.  It’s their aging defense that couldn’t hold on in a 3rd and forever.  A good defense is a good offense, it’s often said, and a punt in that situation would have led to great field position.  I was certain the Pats would win when the defense pegged the Jets in a 3rd and 15.

What exactly is “unfair” about an overtime system that refuses to reward bad defense and poor special team escapes me.  Those who urge that both teams should get at least one possession in overtime wants to shift the focus of overtime to the offense rather than the three-tier balance that’s required in regulation: the defense may suck, but you can still win if the goodness of offense is more than the suckiness of the defense.  The so-called “fair” overtime system would change the game of football.  Much like in tennis, where singles and doubles are completely different games although played under mostly identical rules, so football will be in regulation and overtime even if the game is played with the same ball, field and the players.

In overtime, I want to see the same football as I do in regulation, except with more thrill.  Isn’t that exactly what the current system provides?

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5 Responses to “In Defense of NFL’s OT System”


  1. 1 Chris Schroeck March 7, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Well, the one thing I wouldn’t want to see in the NFL is the college system.

    I agree that I don’t see too much wrong with the current system, but I don’t really know the numbers. Until a couple of years ago, the numbers really didn’t show a problem. As I understand it, the concern now is that with the kickoff moved back, average starting field position from a kickoff is much closer to field goal range than it used to be. In other words, as I understand the argument, when a team receives the ball from a kickoff, the game is actually now somewhat “stacked” in favor of the offense. That doesn’t mean the offense will necessarily win, but the chances are higher than they used to be.

    Still, I don’t see any great injustice as is, and I don’t know what a proper “fix” would be.

    And by the way, my Bills just signed T.O. I have no idea what to think about that. That is a batcrap crazy signing.

    • 2 joesas March 10, 2009 at 9:40 pm

      Your Pittsburgh Pirates are for the most part irrelevant, but here’s a reason to root for at least two players in their system:

      http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/03/03/indian.reality.show/index.html

  2. 3 joesas March 9, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Hmmm… I never thought about the new rule pushing the kickoff back. In fact, I’d forgotten about it.

    I could see that making a difference. I don’t know whether the numbers I cited were before or after that change (I think before), but it was shown that the impact of the coin flip was mathematically significant.

    My thought is that regardless of whether the math says whether winning the coin toss matters, you still have to play the game–and you should lose if you can’t.

    Yeah, I was wondering about your thoughts on the TO situation. I don’t see that ending well, to be honest. He destroys every team he gets in contact with. The Bills resurrection may die with him.


  1. 1 “Taken” is simply mindless yet surprisingly well developed « The World According to Joe Trackback on March 9, 2009 at 12:31 pm
  2. 2 What I Learned About Writing « The World According to Joe Trackback on May 9, 2011 at 9:02 am

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