NFL to examine the state of overtime

March 20, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Updated March 21, 2010 at 10:22 p.m.

(EDITORS: This story is embargoed for Web use until 1 a.m. EDT.)

By Tom Silverstein

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


If the National Football League needed a test case for proving why it might be worth changing the current sudden death format, it could pick the Green Bay Packers' overtime history.

Since sudden death was introduced in 1974, the Packers have played 32 overtime games, and the results line up neatly with the argument that will be presented by the NFL's competition committee at the annual owners meetings this week in Orlando, Fla.

According to Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, who is co-chair of the competition committee, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of times the winner of the overtime coin flip wins the game and the number of times the game ends with just one team getting the ball on offense.

The shift can be traced to a rule change in 1994 that moved the kickoff from the 40-yard line to the 35, an attempt to reduce touchbacks that were occurring because of rapidly improving kicking games. Whereas getting beyond the 20-yard line used to be the goal of most kickoff return units, now the standard is getting beyond the 30.

From 1973-'94, the team that won the coin toss won the same percentage of games (46.8) as the team that lost the toss. But with the kickoff moved back and field-goal accuracy reaching unparalleled heights, the numbers have shifted.

"Changes occurred over time," McKay said. "Now the numbers have changed pretty dramatically. The team that wins the toss wins 59.8 percent and the team that loses the toss wins 38.5 percent. The pros of (making) the switch is it tries to rebalance the advantage that's been gained."

The competition committee will present a change that will require that the coin toss loser get the ball if the coin toss winner manages only a field goal on its first possession. If the coin toss winner scores a touchdown, the game is over. Once the coin toss loser gets the ball, it's back to sudden death.

The rule would only apply to postseason games.

Owners and general managers have been reluctant to change the format before, but with the statistical evidence so strong, and the NFC Championship Game last season being decided on a field goal in overtime (depriving the league of a Brett Favre Super Bowl), there may be enough momentum to pass the proposal.

"It will be interesting to see when we get to that discussion," McKay said.

If he wants to present empirical evidence of the importance of the coin flip and the effect increased field-goal accuracy has had on overtime games, he need look no further than the Packers.

In the era before the kickoff change, the Packers were 12-5 in overtime coin flips. Their record in those games, however, did not reflect their coin-flip success. They were just 8-9 in those games. In seven of those 17 games, the two sides combined for four or more possessions in overtime.

The best example (or maybe the worst) was a 17-17 tie the Packers played against Denver at County Stadium in 1987 in which both teams had three possessions. Kickers Al Del Greco and Rich Karlis missed game-winning attempts of 47 and 40 yards, respectively.

Clearly, field goal kicking has been a factor. In those 17 overtime games the Packers played, field goal kickers made just 9 of 18 attempts (50 percent) during the overtime period. As a result, only four games were decided on the first possession, two of them on touchdowns.

Fast forward to '94 through the present and there is a huge swing in how the games are decided.

The Packers are 7-8 in overtime coin flips since '94 and their record in those games? It's 7-8.

Of those 15 games, eight have been won on the first possession (53.3 percent), not including the Arizona wild-card playoff game this year in which the Cardinals won on a defensive touchdown on the Packers' first possession.

To hammer in McKay's point about field goal accuracy, kickers have made 10 of 11 field goal attempts (90.1 percent) in those 15 overtime games the Packers have played since '94. The Packers have won four on the first possession and lost four without ever getting the ball.

McKay said moving the kickoff back to the 40 has been proposed before, but has been rejected because it doesn't address the increase in field-goal accuracy. For the current proposal to pass, 24 of the 32 teams will have to vote in favor of it.

The overtime rule probably will be the most hotly debated rule change at the owners meetings, but not necessarily the most important topic. This gathering will allow the owners a forum to discuss the current labor situation and discuss the prospects of a potential lockout in 2011.

There won't be any agreement with the players union, but the owners will be updated on the current state of negotiations.

Some other issues that will be discussed:

Toughening the defenseless receiver rule so that a receiver must be given time to defend himself before taking a high hit.

Changing dead-ball foul rules so that if an infraction occurs at the end of a half or regulation, it will be enforced at the start of the next period.

Imposing a 10-second run-off when a team is successful overturning a play through instant replay when the clock normally would have continued running.

Making the "do over" rule permanent for plays in which the ball hits the scoreboard. The rule was put in last year on a temporary basis after a punt hit the scoreboard at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

Changing the numbering system to allow for the many hybrid defensive end/linebacker players that have become more common with the increase in 3-4 defenses.


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