Friday, November 16, 2012

Overtime Overload

By now you’re probably aware that we witnessed a supreme rarity over the weekend:  a tie game.  This one was between the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers—deadlocked with 24 points each at the end of regulation, the game proceeded into overtime.  Neither team scored again, making this an even more unusual result, as it was marked by a touchdown negated because of a penalty, a missed 41-yard field goal attempt, a 53-yard field goal negated by a penalty that resulted in a missed 58-yard try.  So, for both teams, that’s two scoring plays called back for penalties and two missed field goals each.  Not a performance coaches Jeff Fisher (above left) and Jim Harbaugh (above right) want to remember.

Although tie results don’t happen often in the NFL (there have been just 18 ties since 1974 with only five in the last 23 years), I thought it would be a good time to review the rules regarding overtime, and exactly when a game is deemed winner-less.*


The Way It Was

Back in the day (2010), games deadlocked at the end of regulation went to a SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME period.  That meant that the first team to score won.  Which team would receive the ball first was determined by a coin toss, just as it is before the start of the game.  Many times you would see that, if the team with the ball first had a reliable kicker (which is nearly every team), it would just attempt a field goal as soon as its offense got within a reasonable distance of the end zone, even before fourth down. 

These outcomes led to whining about how unfair it seemed to end games, especially ones so hard-fought, by a field goal—as if this was somehow a dishonorable or cowardly way to end a game (much like the way coaches felt about having the quarterback kneel with the ball to run out the clock and seal the victory).  Since the winner of overtime coin toss would always choose to receive the ball first, the chief complaint was that the outcomes of these games were largely a matter of luck.  This seemed especially egregious in playoff games, where the outcomes are that much more significant.


The Way It Is


The whining came to a head in the postseason of the 2009 season when the Minnesota Vikings faced the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game.  The Saints got the ball first in overtime and kicked a field goal on their opening possession; they went on to win the Super Bowl.   Such was the outcry for justice that in the spring of 2010, all but four of the NFL owners voted to change the rules for overtime in playoff games.  Ironically, the Vikings were one of the four teams that voted against the change. 


Upon closer examination, it turns out that the whiners had some basis for complaint.  At the time, the statistics had shown that over the previous 15 years the winner of the coin toss won in overtime 59.8% of the time; 34.4% of the time on the first possession. 


In 2011, the new rules adopted by the owners only applied to playoff games.  This year, they became applicable to all games.  Those rules are as follows:  

·  If the first team with the ball scores a touchdown, the game is over;

·  If the team kicking off at the start of overtime scores a safety on the receiving team’s possession, the game is over;

·  If the first team with the ball scores a field goal, it then kicks off to the other team, who will try to tie the game with a field goal or win with a touchdown ;

·  If the game is still tied after each team has possessed the ball, the next team to score, no matter how they score, wins.


The McNabb Affair (Or, "What Am I, a Lawyer?!?")


In the regular season, a game that is still deadlocked after one overtime period goes into the books as a tie—even if the team that kicked off to start overtime never possesses the ball (which is highly unlikely).  So, you only have that one extra period to win the game.  Since the tie game is so rare, this rule isn’t widely known, even among players.  Or, at least it wasn’t before 2008, the last time there was a tie.  That game was between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals.  After the game, 10-year veteran QB Donovan McNabb admitted his ignorance of the possibility that a game could end in a tie.  He got a lot of flak for his mistake, with some wondering if his on-field strategy in the waning moments of overtime was impacted by it.  Overall, this was not a good day for McNabb, as he fumbled once and threw three interceptions in the game. 


Not helping himself, he 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, in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, the battles are fought until a winner is determined—if the game is still deadlocked at the end of the first overtime period, we move to a second overtime period.


But Wait… There’s More!


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 timeouts 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 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 additional 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 timeouts for every two overtime periods.


There’s a lot to remember, but at least now you won’t “McNabb” it when asked about overtime in the NFL!


*For loyal Naptime Huddle readers, this all may seem familiar.  Last December I wrote about how overtime works, and since those rules changed in the last offseason, I also published a post this past September covering those changes.  Now you have all of that information combined in one post!

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