NFL OT Rules Go From Unfair To Convoluted

The NFL's member owners held their annual league meetings in Orlando, Florida last month, and traditionally these proceedings have proven far more valuable for the respective coaches and general managers – who tag along to seek each other out to talk trades – than for the owners themselves, who do their usual backslapping and glad-handing but accomplish little.

All that changed on Mar. 23 though, when the owners voted through sweeping changes to the overtime rules during the playoffs. No longer can a team advance in the postseason tournament simply by scoring a field goal on the opening possession of overtime, like the New Orleans Saints did in last season's NFC Championship Game to beat the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 at the Superdome.

Instead, thanks to the rule changes, if the receiving team scores only a field goal in its opening possession, the team that kicked off in overtime will have its own chance to drive for the tying score, forcing the game into "sudden death" where whoever scores next wins.

The new rules – which are the first tweaks to the league's overtime rules since 1974 – have all sorts of stipulations that the coaches, players and officials are going to have to adjust to. For example, the game can still end on the opening possession if the receiving team scores a touchdown rather than a field goal. Conversely, a defensive score would automatically end the game as well, regardless of whether it's a touchdown or safety. If the team that receives the ball first is forced to punt or simply turns the ball over, then whoever scores next wins.

Perhaps the oddest part of the rule – and surely the part that will cause the most confusion – concerns onsides kicks. For some reason the owners decided that if the team kicking off during overtime successfully recovers an onsides kick, then they can win just by scoring on that drive, even if they only get a field goal. Apparently the league is counting "being in the position to receive a kickoff" as a possession, regardless of whether anyone on the kickoff return team touches the ball or not.


The important thing to remember is that these overtime changes will only concern playoff games – unless the owners decide to implement them for the regular season as well when they meet again in May. However, if the league's head coaches have anything to say about it, that notion will be swiftly put to rest, because many of them have already complained about the new rules, saying that they weren't consulted on them and that they'll now be forced into making unfamiliar and untested strategic decisions during the most important games of the season.

I can't imagine these rules being voted in for regular season overtime games as well. Then again, I would've never thought that the playoff overtime measure would be so universally embraced; 28 votes to four. Ironically, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was one of the "nay" voters, not because he disliked the changes but rather simply due the fact that he didn't want one set of rules for the regular season and another for the playoffs.

Personally, I wasn't a fan of the old overtime format – to me it was akin to saying that if a team scores in the top of the 10th inning in baseball that the game's ends – but I don't think these changes are any better.

To me, all the league's done is swung the advantage from the team that gets the ball first to the team that's kicking off. Think about it: The receiving team is still going to play a traditional three down game, and on fourth downs they'll either kick the field goal or punt, depending on field position. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that they got a field goal. Then the second team has the advantage of having four downs to make a first down and keep the game going, knowing they have no choice but to score at least three on their drive.

The squad that's defending first has the luxury of playing "bend but don't break" defense, because all is not lost if they give up a field goal. Their opponent's defense, however, will be in a trickier spot, not just because of having to stop four downs instead of three, but also because they won't be sure of the offense's intentions. Will the team trailing be playing conservatively to just tie up the overtime and see what happens, or will they go for broke to score a touchdown and end it right then and there?

Obviously, there are a lot of variables to think about, and I don't at all envy the first coach who'll have to decide – in a playoff game no less – if he wants to kick the ball off or receive (though with these new rules I'd choose the former).

It's a shame that this format is what the league decided on, when there are simpler and fairer ways to decide the outcome, like not changing anything and just playing a shorter extra period – say ten minutes instead of fifteen – and keeping all the other rules in place. This takes the "sudden death" element out of the overtime and simply awards the victory to whoever's leading after a designated time, just like a regular game. Both the NBA and NHL do this with their overtimes.

Or, to make it even simpler, we could just move the kickoff in overtime back to the 35-yard line instead of the 30, which will produce more touchbacks and force teams to have to march 50 yards for a field goal instead of the current 40. Then there is the faction of fans who want to eliminate field goal kickers in overtime altogether, with the idea being that the winning score must be a touchdown or safety. Another idea (and my favorite) is to not worry about who has how many possessions and just say whoever scores six points first wins. The new rule is kind of like a variation of this, but not exactly.

It's all so confusing and one gets the feeling that no matter what the league ultimately decides to do, it'll be impossible to make everyone happy. Our only solace as football fans is that we're not alone.

If you think you're frustrated by these overtime rules try mentioning the phrase "penalty kick shoot-out" to a die-hard soccer fan and see what happens.

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