Since we’re getting down to the end of the regular season and nearly every remaining game is significant to the postseason, I thought I would explain the overtime procedures in the NFL so that you will understand the bonus drama that comes with the rare tied game. There is actually a significant twist to the overtime rules in the postseason as well, so this lesson is a good one to tuck away for January.
The Basic Overtime
If the score is tied at the end of regulation in a regular season game, there is one SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME period. This means that the first team to score wins. Contrast this procedure to college, where each team gets at least one possession and they take turns attempting to score. If the score is still tied after each team has one possession, they keep going. If the first team scores, then the other gets the ball to try to tie or beat the other team’s score. In both the NFL and college, the team receiving the ball first is determined by a coin toss, just as before the start of the game.
The Postseason Controversy
“Sudden death” –sounds simple, right? If it was, I wouldn’t be writing about it. The NFL recently made a change to the overtime procedures to complicate things a bit. Many times in sudden death, you’ll see that, if the team with the first possession has a reliable kicker (so, nearly every team), it will simply attempt a field goal as soon as its offense gets within a reasonable distance of the end zone. These outcomes have led to whining about how unfair it seemed to end games, especially ones so clearly hard-fought, by a field goal, as if this is somehow a dishonorable or cowardly way to end a game. Since the winner of overtime coin toss will always choose to receive the ball first, the chief complaint is that the outcome of the game becomes largely a matter of luck. This seems especially egregious in playoff games, where the outcomes are that much more fateful.
The complaining came to a fevered pitch in the postseason of the 2009 season when the Minnesota Vikings lost the NFC Championship game when the New Orleans Saints kicked a field goal on the opening possession of overtime. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl. Such was the outcry for justice that in the spring of 2010, the NFL owners voted to change the rules for overtime in playoff games. Upon closer examination, it turns out that the whiners had some basis for complaint. Since 1994, the statistics showed that the winner of the coin toss won in overtime 59.8% of the time; 34.4% of the time on the first possession. Ironically, the Vikings were one of only four teams that voted against the change.
The new rules—only applicable in playoff games—are as follows:
· If the first team with possession scores a touchdown, the game is over.
· If the first team with possession scores a field goal, then the other team gets a possession and will try to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown.
· If the game is still tied at the end of the first overtime, or if the team that received the opening kickoff has not completed its first possession (unlikely), a second overtime period will begin, and whichever team scores first wins.
Are Tie Results Possible?
In the regular season, a game that is still tied after the first overtime period goes into the books as a tie, which accounts for a third digit in a team’s record (e.g., 10-3-1). This is a pretty rare occurrence; since 1974, when the rule was first adopted, there have only been 17 tied results, with only four coming after 1989. Consequently, this rule isn’t widely known, even among players. Or, at least it wasn’t before 2008 (the last time there was a tie), when 10-year veteran QB Donovan McNabb admitted his ignorance of the fact after his Philadelphia Eagles tied the then-lowly Cincinnati Bengals. He got a lot of flak for his mistake, with some wondering if strategy in the waning moments of overtime wasn’t impacted by it. Overall, this was not a good day for McNabb, who fumbled once and threw three interceptions in the game. Not helping himself, he also stated after the game “I guess we’re aware of [the rule] now…I hate to see what would happen in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs.” Of course, Donovan, those games are fought until a winner is determined.
So, here is a summary of the rest of the overtime rules, as found in Article 16 of the NFL Rule Book:
· For both regular season and postseason games:
o There are no coaches’ challenges, and all reviews are initiated by the replay official.
o There is a three minute break between the end of regulation and overtime, and the overtime period(s) each last 15 minutes, just like any regular quarter.
· For regular season games:
o Each team is allotted two time outs in overtime.
o The overtime period is treated like the fourth quarter (e.g., there is a two-minute warning).
o A tied score at the end of the single overtime period results in a tie game.
· For postseason games:
o As discussed earlier, the first team to score wins, unless the team receiving the ball first scores a field goal on its first possession.
o A new overtime period will commence if the score is still tied at the end of the preceding period.
o There will be a two-minute intermission between each overtime period.
o The second and fourth overtime periods are timed as if they were the second and fourth quarters in a game (e.g., with a two-minute warning).
o Each team gets three time outs for every two overtime periods.
So, with playoff games, think of overtime as starting a whole new game...at least that's how the timing and time outs work.
There’s a lot to remember, to be sure, but at least now you won’t “McNabb” it when asked about overtime in the NFL!