Taking a Cue from the UFL: NFL’s Overtime Rule

It’s Super Bowl XLIV!  The Saints and the Colts.  Peyton versus Brees.  And, of course, it is held in Miami (tenth time ever).

Referee Scott Green flips the coin in the air…heads.  New Orleans wins the toss and elects to receive.

Then, methodically, Brees engineers (he’s from Purdue, after all) a six-play, 77-yard blitzkrieg of a drive capped off by a 38-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.  Saints win the Super Bowl, a mere 2:13 into overtime; and Peyton Manning never touched the ball.

Imagine if that is how the Super Bowl ended.  Granted, it would have meant that Manning would have tied up the game rather than throwing the pick-six to Tracy Porter.  That likely would have meant an even more exciting game and, of course, the first overtime in Super Bowl history.

C'mon man! Just give me two more minutes!

But an ending similar to the one described above would be anti-climatic.  It is like waiting for the controversial “Tebow ad,” only to see that it was cheesey more than anything (and far from controversial).  “This is it?”

We had already witness the NFC Championship game end in this fashion.  The Saints won the toss and drove down field for a Hartley field goal, never giving Brett Favre and the Vikings even a slim chance.  But, given Favre’s reputation, it was probably appropriate that his last possession of that game ended in an interception.

Now, in general, I have no real problem with the current overtime format.  One would hope that if you have to go on defense first that your squad is solid enough to make a stop; just one stop!  But, that stated, one lapse on the kickoff and it could be over before overtime even begins.

Look at it this way, six of the 15 overtime games last season ended on the first possession.  While not a majority of overtime games, that is the plurality.  Three more overtime games ended on the second possession.

That means that nine games ended within the first two possessions.  Of those nine, five ended in less than five minutes, including four of the one-possession overtime games.  Two of the two-possession overtime games witnessed a turnover.

Due to scenarios like this, I have long held that a logical format for NFL overtime would be allowing both teams at least one possession of the ball.  But, to apply the college format, which itself needs to be tweaked, takes out special teams; something that can be held as more crucial to the professional game than to the collegiate game.

So, perhaps the NFL can take a cue from another professional football league — the United Football League.

Yes, that’s right.  The UFL, which still has not gone under.

Under current UFL rules, overtime goes as follows:

Sudden-death rules apply in overtime like the NFL, except both teams get at least one possession. So, if one team marches down the field and scores, the opponent will get one chance to match or exceed the score (Snyder 2009).

Yes, we still exist. We even have a snazzy logo!

This article from FanHouse also notes that such a format might lead to more teams choosing to kickoff in overtime rather than receive.

Additionally, under the current NFL format, the pressure is skewed heavily towards the team that loses the OT coin toss (i.e. the defense).  It is up to the defense to make the stop on the offense.  Under a UFL-style format, the pressure is more evenly distributed to all aspects of the game.

But what happens if neither team scores after each possession; or if both teams score in the same fashion (both score a TD or both kick a field goal)?  Simple, as stated in the cited article, overtime is sudden death with the exception of the first two possessions.  After both teams have had the ball once, if the game is still tied then it reverts to sudden death rules; first team to score wins.

Does a defensive touchdown count as a possession?  Well, yes.  Although some will argue that the other offense should have a possession, if that team is already up by seven, why would they even run a play?

And, should the team that turned the ball over [Team A] have two chances to score compared to one for the other team [Team B] ?  While it is true that it could be that way once the rules revert to sudden death, with the scenario presented above it is possible that Team A could have three offensive possessions versus just one for Team B.  With offense presenting the primary form of scoring, such a requirement (offensive possession versus possession) puts Team B at a greater disadvantage.

There is precedent here as the National Football League has “borrowed” from other leagues before.  Things such player names on jerseys and shared revenue were established in the AFL, brought in after the merger.  The two-point conversion was a rule in college football, although the AFL allowed for such plays prior to the merger (it was not brought into the NFL until 1994).  The NFL has also borrowed from other leagues, such as the concept of salary caps; something that was first used by the NHL and NBA in their early years.

While in the past the NFL has chosen not to make changes to its overtime rule, it seems that attitudes towards alterations are changing.  According to reports, the NFL might look into at least altering the overtime rules for the playoffs.

According NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello, an altered format would allow “both teams [to] get the ball at least once unless the first team with the ball scores a touchdown. If the first team with the ball makes a field goal and the other team ties the game, action would continue until a team scores again.”

It is quite similar to the UFL rule with the exception of if the first possession results in a touchdown.  This latter concept is to add an incentive for teams to go for the big score rather than settle for a field goal.

Ah yeah! One more chance to throw a pick...ERR, I mean TD!

While it is a step in the right direction, I prefer the full adoption of the UFL-style overtime rule.  Kickers are still vital parts of games and to take out the kicker by offering up the carrot of ending the game with a TD seems absurd.  Many games are sent into overtime thanks to kickers; why attempt to marginalize them even more than they already are?

Perhaps the NFL does not like the unheralded kicker being the key to a critical playoff win.  Of the nine overtime games that were decided in one or two possessions, all nine ended in field goals.

Nevertheless, while I like that it would be applied only to playoff games, it should either be applied to any overtime game or the NFL should eliminate overtime in the regular season.  Ties suck, but maybe teams would be more willing to go for the kill (i.e. win) rather than settle for ties.

Maybe the NFL is finally listening.  Hopefully when the competition committee meets in late March in Orlando, they will make the right decision and implement this rule.  After all, we all would have liked to see Favre throw one more interception!

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