The NFL owners on Tuesday approved a drastic change to the NFL’s regular-season overtime format: cutting its maximum length from 15 minutes to 10.
With games played as frequently as four days a week, the NFL says it’s trying to avoid the dangerous combination of long games and short recovery periods. The move may also be a reaction to last season, when six games went more than 12 minutes into overtime. Those included the Week 7 “Sunday Night Football” stinker, during which two teams spent five full periods slogging toward a 6-6 tie.
But like the 2012 overtime modification, in which the sudden death format was changed so that a team couldn’t win the game with a first-possession field goal, Tuesday’s rule could be at the expense of overtime’s main purpose: deciding a winner. Since 2012, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, 83 regular-season games have gone into overtime, with five resulting in ties. Of those 83, 21 games lasted more than 10 minutes, with 16 tied at the 10-minute mark. Under the new rules, those 16 games would have all resulted in a draw. (With the change, two of the actual ties would have ended up with a winner, and three would have remained ties.)
In addition to potentially tripling the rate of ties, the 10-minute overtime wouldn’t necessarily save that much time either. The 83 overtimes since 2012 would have been 49 game-seconds shorter on average.
|OT RULES||TIME ON CLOCK||FIRST POSSESSION FG WINS?||AVG OT LENGTH||TIE RATE|
|Old rule (2012-16)||15:00||7:28||6.0%|
|New rule (2017- )||10:00||6:39||19.3|
|Sudden death (1974-2011)||15:00||✓||6:47||2.4|
The amount of time left on the clock affects play-calling and decision-making. Some analysts, like the MMQB’s Peter King, argued that if overtime were cut to 10 minutes, coaches would call games “faster,” pushing to get a win while the clock winds down. Maybe — but since 2012, 70 of 83 overtime games had at least two possessions, and the average elapsed time at the end of the second possession was 5:57. That means the average third possession would start just 4:03 away from a split decision. Will the NFL’s generally risk adverse coaches really jeopardize losing a bird (or, in this case, half a bird) in hand by diving into the bush to chase a full victory?
The new system already has one detractor: Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He won the 2009 NFC championship game by completing just two short overtime passes to set up the field goal that gave New Orleans a sudden-death win — and a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.
“I would disagree with [the rule change] because more games are going to end in ties now,” Brees told “The Dan Patrick Show.” He added that he wouldn’t be opposed to the NFL’s adopting rules that were similar to the “exciting” college format. In NCAA D-I football, each team’s offense lines up on the other team’s 25-yard line and takes turns trying to outscore each other, possession for possession. Although this scales back special teams and puts the bulk of emphasis on red-zone play, the baseball-like system of alternating possessions feels fairer to some fans.
The NFL game may be best served by rolling back the 2012 modification in which the league changed regular-season overtime from sudden death to occasionally prolonged death. That change targeted the perception that games were too often being decided by coin flips: All the receiving team in OT had to do was make a few first downs and kick a field goal, as Brees’s Saints did in 2009.
Under the 2012 rules,1 teams were given a chance to respond if they held the receiving team to a field goal on its first possession. Given the chance, though, few teams have responded to period-opening field goals with a score of their own. In five seasons, according to Pro-Football-Reference, there have been only seven occasions when a team kicked a field-goal on its opening drive that was directly answered by their opponent scoring.
As the table shows, the old sudden death rules, in which a tie occurred only if no one scored during the 15-minute overtime period, would have reduced average overtime duration nearly as much as the 10-minute cap, but with far fewer ties.
Of course, if player safety is truly its highest priority, the NFL would do away with regular-season overtime altogether. Assuming that King is right about how coaches will react to a shorter overtime, removing it would force them to be more aggressive in regulation. If he’s wrong, at least we wouldn’t have to sit through 10 minutes of timid, tired football to get the same unsatisfying result.
CORRECTION (May 24, 10 a.m.): An earlier version of the table in this article incorrectly said the NFL’s sudden-death overtime period from 1974 to 2011 was 10 minutes long. It was a 15-minute overtime.