Why the NFL’s Proposed OT Rules Changes are Misguided
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Even though the NFL is the best marketed professional sport in the United States, the league is clearly not averse to doing things that generate bad PR. They’ll fine players for acting unprofessionally, even if there was no intent to show anyone up. They will maintain blackouts in local markets to protect the distribution of the league product, even for teams who cannot sell out their stadium. And they still have the damn tuck rule.
So I was a little surprised this morning to hear that the NFL competition committee will vote on a rule change to overtime specifially designed at giving the team that doesn’t win the coin toss a chance to respond before the game ends.
It’s a terrible, horrendous mockery of a rule.
First, the implication that the overtime rules must be changed is based of a premise that the current rules aren’t fair. It’s a false premise. If two theoretically even teams–playing at a neutral site–enter overtime together, they both have an even chance to win the game. Perfectly 50-50. It’s the very definition of fair.
What has people ticked is that, before a down of football is played, a non-football event decides which team has a relatively small advantage over the other. The coin toss does give one team a statistically significant advantage over the other, but not a particularly decisive one. It takes a 50-50 proposition and makes it about 60-40 in favor of the team that wins the toss–maybe as much as 65-35 in an offensive heavy environment.
This advantage is the cause of such outrage, so much that the competition committee has to decide on a rule change regarding the very way that we will decide football games…but only in the NFL PLAYOFFS. Remember, this rule is not good enough to decide a majority of football games, only the most critical ones.
Under the current rule, coaches have the option to avoid overtime if they think they can do better than 50-50 to win the game in regulation. One of these options is the two point conversion. If a team is down by seven, and scores a late touchdown, they can take an extra point with 99% accuracy [ex. point val = .99], or they can try a two point conversion with a 48% chance of success (plus or minus the quality of the offensive and defensive elements) [ex. point val = .96]. Essentially that’s a very similar probability to go win the game in one play vs. sending it to an overtime period.
The only real advantage to sending a game to overtime in this situation is to increase the sample of plays a team gets. So if a team goes to overtime, and ends up losing the coin toss, it’s not like they’ve been screwed over. They knew going into overtime that this outcome was a likely possibility. And they’ve got to suck it up to win the game. The penalty for failure to adapt to a dynamic situation is losing a close game. No one is not okay with this outcome.
Fans of the losing team in these close overtime games are the ones who make the most noise about the overtime rules, but ultimately, it boils down to a case of leaguewide sour grapes. Enter a preposterous rule change suggestion. A rule that, by it’s very nature, is designed to make the game no more fair.
Entering overtime, the probability of two equal teams on a neutral field winning is still identical: 50% each. This rule change makes the outcome of the coin flip far less important. But now instead of one team getting an advantage at the beginning of the period by receiving the kick, each team gets an unequal, unfair advantage. The team that gets the ball second gets an unfair advantage of knowing if they will need to score a touchdown, a field goal, or even at all. They have the advantage of getting another DOWN if they trail in overtime, as the entire game becomes four down territory at that point. Who the heck considers that to be fair?
Of course, this makes this one drive by the second team every bit as critical as the first drive of overtime under a current system. A team that punts on that drive in a tie game, or a team that kicks a field goal to tie on that possession, essentially hands the sudden death advantage to the team who got the first possession. I ask again: what overtime “problem” has this new rule suggestion actually fixed? Is the NFL not going to have a sudden death overtime? Are they planning on going to the non-football college rule?
The only actual solution to the current overtime is to make it a timed football period of finite length, either ten or fifteen minutes, and not make it sudden death. The downside to this is that overtime games will go significantly longer than they currently do. Oh, but wait, that’s also an unintended effect of the new rule proposal.
For a league that has been slow, at best, to embrace positive change, this would be the kind of jump-to-conclusions-solution that hurts the competitive balance of the league, and more significantly, panders to those fair-weather fans unable to stomach a fair result that goes against their team of choice.