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Overtime Rule Change Proposal: Last Clear Chance

Posted by Jason Lisk on January 9, 2009

Following the Colts loss to San Diego, where Manning did not touch the ball in overtime, Peter King wrote that the overtime rule was the "dumbest, stupidest, and most indefensible rule" the NFL has. Now, I don't think it's actually the dumbest rule.

For example, last year I proposed that the league should eliminate the automatic home game for division winner rule and allow wildcard teams with better records to compete for home games. The owners tabled a similar proposal put forth by Roger Goodell and the competition committee last off-season, but I predict that something similar will be in place by the 2011 season if not earlier. The primary reasons I saw from the owners for rejecting it really don't hold water. "It will diminish the value of a division title"--I think that teams that play one of the easiest divisions of all-time and go 3-7 outside of the division do that. "It will hurt teams that play in tough divisions and reward wildcard teams that play in easy ones"--absolutely false based on history, as the strong wildcard teams generally play in tougher divisions and lose out because of being paired with a #1 or #2 seed. If a team wins a division at 9-7 or worse (and thus every other team had 9 or fewer wins), then I submit that the division was in fact, not a tough one. "Tradition: Division winners have always been granted a home game"--again, this is not true, unless tradition goes back to 1990. The NFL has, and I believe will again, changed its playoff structure for the better. Until 1975, for example, division winners with the best record could be forced to go on the road based on a pre-set rotation that assigned home games, without considering a team's record. But I digress.

Like Doug did a couple of years ago,I realized that I've not publicly championed a different overtime system. Like Doug, I also don't have a particular dislike for the overtime system the NFL employs. In fact, it has some nice features-it is simple and fair, oh, and both teams know what the rules are. Prior to the coin flip, both teams have the same chance of getting the ball. Now, Peter King doesn't like it because their is alot of luck tied up in that pre-coin flip fairness. So I've got a solution that solves King's issue (the coin flip) and also, much like Doug's earlier suggestions, should reduce the actual number of overtime games by increasing the incentive to avoid it.

I'm going to completely pervert a legal concept and call my overtime proposal the Last Clear Chance Rule. For jurisdictions that adopted some form of the Last Clear Chance doctrine, even when a plaintiff committed some act of contribututory negligence in causing an accident, the plaintiff would not be barred from recovery if the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the accident. Well, twisting that for football, we can say that both teams have "contributed" to causing overtime by their play. However, in most cases, one team had the final chance to avoid the overtime. Here is how my rule would work.

1. Eliminate the coin flip at the start of overtime. The team with the "last clear chance" to avoid overtime must kick off to start the overtime period.

2. If either team has scored in the final five (5) minutes of regulation, and regulation ends in a tie, then the last team to score in regulation was the team with the "last clear chance", unless that team scored the maximum number of points possible on that possession-8 points (resulting from a touchdown and 2-point conversion). In the event the last team to score did score 8 points on the final scoring drive, then the other team kicks off to start overtime.

3. If neither team scored in the final five (5) minutes of regulation, and regulation ends in a tie, then the last team to punt the football was the team with the "last clear chance", and must kickoff to start overtime.

That's it. Three fairly straightforward rules, but they eliminate the coin flip (and alot of the luck) associated with overtime, and add in strategies that may dictate overtime avoidance. Other than changing incentives, though, the game of football remains the same and overtime would proceed as it already does. And unlike the uncertainty of overtime and coin flip (you can't go back and change a decision at the end of regulation based on knowing the result of the flip), with my proposal, coaches would know the potential outcome and could make decisions accordingly.

Let's say that you are down 7 and you score a touchdown. In the current system, most of the time the coach would kick the extra point and take his chance in overtime, since the 2-pt conversion rate is a little less than 50%. However, under my proposal, the 2 point attempt becomes far more attractive, and teams will tend to decide the game in regulation.

Or consider the situation in the San Diego-Indianapolis game last weekend where the Chargers were in comfortable field goal range, had a third and long, and played it safe and ran a draw. They kicked the field goal and went to overtime. Under my proposal, the Chargers would know that they would, in essence, lose the toss and have to kick off if they did so. Don't you think they may have been more aggressive with their playcalling on third down or for that entire set of downs, and tried to win the game outright, if they knew they would be giving the ball to Manning in OT? And the field goal would still be a last resort option (better to go to overtime than lose outright), but it wouldn't be as attractive as it is now.

Or in cases where neither team has scored in the final five minutes, consider a team facing a 4th and 2 at the opponent's 40 with a minute left, and only 1 timeout. What would most coaches do in that situation now? They'd probably punt down to the other team's ten and play for overtime. Under my proposal, that decision may mean you have to kick off, if the other team isn't forced to punt themselves with the time remaining.

So, even though our proposals are a little different, I'm going to borrow some thoughts from Doug here:

And I donโ€™t think there is any circumstance where the end of regulation would be less exciting under my system than it is under the current system. Yes, weโ€™d lose the overtime, but overtime is pretty boring anyway. It usually consists of 0, 1, or 2 punts, a 40-yard drive, two kneel-downs in the middle of the field, one timeout to ice the kicker, and then a field goal. I can live without that.

The thought of overtime is pretty exciting--two teams that have battled to a dead even draw, with every thing on the line. The actual witnessing of overtime, though, is not. I could also, frankly, do without overtime if it meant more plays where the game truly was on the line at the end of regulation. My proposal wouldn't outright eliminate overtime, but it would make teams play to win the game in regulation, and create more excitement and require less time.

ADDENDUM: In light of Larry Seltzer's comments about the winning percentage of teams winning the coin flip, here is an article written by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats. He cites a winning percentage for the coin flip winner of 60%, for the period 2000-2007. I trust a larger sample size to a smaller one. Even if the result was 12-13 this year (which I haven't confirmed) the coin flip winner is likely to win somewhere between 55%-60% of the time.