Overtime loophole exploited by 3 of last 5 NFL champs

NFL Buffalo

HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 05: James White #28 of the New England Patriots scores the game winning two yard touchdown in overtime against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The NFL tried to make overtime more fair in 2012. And failed. 

The problem? The league tried to make overtime more fair.

Overtimes decided by one possession were being harpooned as if they came out of a Ted Wells report. 

“Win the coin toss, complete a pass and kick a field goal.” That was the accusation of the evil sudden death overtime had wrought. 

It didn’t matter that, from 2006-2011, teams with the first possession in overtime won only 52.2% of the games (47-43-1). Hardly a torches and pitchforks type injustice. 

Modified overtime arrived during the 2011 postseason anyway with the first possession field goal as the scapegoat. 

Little has changed. Six games to be exact. 

Under modified OT, 81 of 87 games ended with exactly the same winner sudden death would have produced. The six changes include creating three ties.

If anything, the new format has made the coin toss MORE important. Teams with the first possession have won 54.7% of modified OT games (46-38-3). 

It’s a classic “forest for the trees” issue. 

The NFL worried too much about making the number of possessions in overtime equal without paying attention to the total possessions in the game. 

It leaves open a loophole Super Bowl champions have exploited for years. Even this year. 

The Patriots had 12 possessions in Super Bowl 51 (13 if you count catching a punt on the final play of regulation). The Falcons had 11. 

However, the final Falcons possession was allotted 52 seconds. 

Can you score in 52 seconds? Of course. Is it easy? No. Is it fair?

That’s the question the NFL should consider. 

The Patriots and Falcons each averaged more than 2.5 points per possession last season. New England had 12 mostly unlimited possessions in the Super Bowl. Atlanta had 10 plus their final 52 second touch. 

With two extra possessions, the averages say New England should score 5-6 more points. Anyone remember the final score?

With no clock, baseball can ensure equal chances to score. With 200-plus possessions per game, basketball can make a difference of one or two possessions between teams trivial. 

In the NFL, most games have between 20 and 25 possessions. Sometimes, less. 

Two extra football possessions is similar to giving one team 11 at-bats in a baseball game or 20 extra possessions in a basketball game.

NFL Plus Two possession games happen just two or three times a year, but it has helped decide three of the last five Super Bowls. 

In 2015, Denver beat Cleveland in overtime during week six. Both teams had 16 possessions, but two of Cleveland’s touches came with 18 and eight seconds left in a half. 

If the Broncos don’t win the game, they lose the AFC West to the Chiefs and homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs to the Patriots. 

Good chance if that AFC title game is in Foxboro, we’re discussing either the six-time champion Patriots or Cam Newton as a Super Bowl winner today. 

It was a good break, but Denver was just getting even.

After the 2012 season, the Broncos were knocked out of he playoffs by the Ravens in double overtime. 

Both teams had 15 possessions, but two of Denver’s came with 36 and 31 seconds left in the half. 

At the time, Broncos coach John Fox was crushed for playing it safe on that final touch when he had Peyton Manning at the height of his powers. Rightly so. 

What if Manning got an equal number of unlimited possessions? What if it was just one less?

Denver had homefield advantage that season, too. It’s not unreasonable to think Peyton would have earned ring number two. Or maybe Colin Kaepernick (gulp) would be a Super Bowl champion. 

There’s plenty more. Jameis Winston and the Bucs missed out on a playoff spot this year because Detroit beat Minnesota in Plus Two possession game. 

Back in 2001, the Tuck Rule game was a Plus Two possession game for the Patriots because OF COURSE it was. 

The solution is simple, straightforward and easy to understand. 

Just keep playing football. 

Forget the coin toss. End the fourth quarter of a tie game like ending the first or third quarter. 

Extended overtime. 

Under this format, the Patriots tie Super Bowl LI and kickoff. The Falcons take over with 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter. If they still have the ball when the fourth quarter ends, they still have the ball when overtime begins.

Same down, same distance. Next score wins. 

If the Falcons drive five minutes and kick a field goal to win four minutes into overtime, the one possession overtime critics might be ready to get the mob together. 

And yet, in that scenario, the game ends with both teams receiving 11 possessions. 

The coin toss would no longer play a role in deciding anything but the first possession of the first quarter. 

One score would again be enough to decide overtime, making games most often shorter and less wearing on players. 

Since teams could no longer have the last possession of the game AND the first possession of overtime… no more Plus Two possession games. 

The only caveat to Extended OT would be that teams could not switch ends before overtime. This would prevent a team from taking a knee in the fourth quarter to get the wind at their back for OT. 

It’s not a perfect solution. Yes, in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots had a somewhat limited possession to close the first half that would count among their 11. 

It’s still better than what the NFL has. 

Extended overtime would have prevented the league another 107 of those kickoffs they’re trying to bury.

It also would have saved a large chunk of these 200-plus snaps accumulated after a first possession field goal that no longer can decide a game. 

If the league truly is interested in increased player safety, Extended Overtime does it better than any current idea.

That includes the ten minute overtime limit likely to be discussed this week at the owners’ meetings. 

Ten minutes may be less than 15, but it opens the door to two major issues. 

First, there were 12 games under modified overtime that were not decided or a deciding score was not imminent after ten minutes.

Not all of those would end in ties with a ten-minute limit, but some would.

If owners don’t think more ties are bad for business, they should check with the NHL. That league has spent the last two decades nearly selling its soul to avoid ties in the regular season. 

Second, ties would only be avoided because teams would increasingly rush snaps as the ten-minute limit approached. A similar number of plays in less time isn’t exactly saving player wear and tear. 

Overtime fixes have always been too fixated on overtime itself, as if it’s a stand alone game. 

That approach has allowed a coin toss to still have an important role in deciding who wins. Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff was still complaining about that just this week. You can understand why. 

To account for the coin toss, overtime was extended. Now, to account for an extension, it’s may be shortened. To shorten overtime, owners are trying to make friends with creating more ties. 


Overtime is just one part of the game, the mechanism to break a tie. 

Make the game more fair and overtime will solve itself. 

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