Overthinking Overtime

As football’s overtime format has been debated and changed over the years, it seems each effort to address a particular concern has introduced a new concern of its own.

The NCAA introduced overtime in 1996, in part, to eliminate ties from the game. But by doing so, many college football games turn into absolute marathons, with regulation games often exceeding 3 ½ hours and ending with final scores and individual statistics that are completely warped and misleading. More significant, though, is that starting field position – the opponent’s 25-yard line – is so drastically different from what we normally see (somewhere much closer to one’s own 25-yard line). When a sport departs from its own norm in a key area, the product is, to some extent, unsatisfying. College football overtime is no exception, as teams so often score without even advancing the ball. (Of course, this concern could be addressed by offering less offensively-friendly starting field position, but this would make unpalatable long games last even longer!)

As for the NFL, for many years insiders and fans criticized the perceived disproportionate importance of the coin toss under the true sudden death format. The NFL has addressed this in recent years with the modified sudden death format, which allows games to continue after a first-possession field goal. While addressing the criticism of the previous system, the league has increased the likelihood of longer games (which would seem to undermine its effort to protect players from injury) and ties (which NO ONE likes). Since this contrived format’s full adoption two years ago, two games have ended in a tie, another game (the Ravens/Broncos January 2013 playoff game) proceeded to double overtime, and a higher percentage of overtime games have lasted until the final minutes/seconds of the period.

I propose the following solution to these flawed overtime efforts: if the fourth quarter ends in a tie, just keep playing! If the clock reaches zero with Team A facing, say, 2nd-and-7 at their own 31-yard line (or any down or any distance or any field position, for that matter), then simply regard overtime as a true sudden-death extension of the fourth quarter, beginning with Team A facing 2nd-and-7 at their own 31-yard line, and continuing until one team scores (and wins) in any fashion.

This strikingly simple approach would be superior to current overtime formats in the following ways:

  • Reduced chance of a tie (compared to the NFL)
  • Reduced chance of an excessively long game
  • Reduced chance of injury
  • Reduced chance of warped individual statistics
  • Elimination of warped final score
  • Not arbitrary in nature
  • Elimination of desperately silly game-ending plays (which can be seen currently when a team must convert a fourth-and-really-long situation to stay alive)

In addition to all of these positive effects, my favorite implication of the proposed format is that it grants initial possession to a team that has done something to earn it. After all, the team with possession at the end of a regulation tie game must have done one of the following:

  • forced a turnover (or turnover on downs)
  • forced a punt
  • recovered its own onside kick
  • received a kickoff after allowing a game-tying score (this seems dubious at first glance, but even this scenario implies that the possessing team must have been the first to reach the applicable score)

In my view, each event gives a team a more convincing claim to possession than winning a coin toss.

Fans of all sports often romanticize about the excitement of overtime. However, these extra sessions actually allow fans to kick back and settle in for a period that is likely to last for ten or more real-time minutes. College football is a prime example, and with the recent change in overtime format, the NFL has made itself more susceptible to the same unappealing phenomenon. But by simply continuing to play through the end of regulation in tie games, football can stake its claim to the most exciting overtime of any sport, all while improving the fairness of its overtime in the process.

Photo by Mike Pettigano (Creative Commons license)

Nicholas Patrick

Nicholas Patrick serves as a school principal, doctoral candidate at Miami University, member of the Cincinnati Reds grounds crew, devoted fan of the Dayton Flyers, and founder and coordinator of M-SportsFans (the official national Special Interest Group of Mensa members dedicated to sports and sports analytics). His research and writing have been featured at the SPEIA Basketball Analytics Summit, Mensa Annual Gathering, Sports Illustrated/The Cauldron, RushTheCourt.net, Redleg Nation, and the University of Cincinnati's Sports By the Numbers course.