It’s Overdue: Change to NFL Overtime Needed

Photo by Terryl KerrDouglas on UnSplash

It didn’t matter in the end. It didn’t matter that the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Buffalo Bills 42-36 in overtime of the AFC Divisional Round. The Cincinnati Bengals got the best of the Chiefs anyway and trotted along to the Super Bowl (where they were sadly impaled by the LA Rams). However, in an NFL Playoffs filled with entertaining games of the highest order, the Bills-Chiefs slugfest will likely be remembered as the best of them all. Being only 21, and at the liberty of my lack of encyclopaedic knowledge of gridiron football, I can confidently say that this was the most entertaining football game I have ever seen.


Although the Chiefs had numerous offensive weapons at their disposal to take over and win the game (Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, etc.), Bills fans would assuredly say that the reason that their team lost was due to the NFL’s pernicious overtime rules.


For those who don’t know, when an NFL game is tied at the end of regulation, the game goes to overtime. If the team that drives first doesn’t score, the second team has a chance to score and win the game. If they don’t score, then the ball changes possession back to the first team and sudden death contines. If the team that drives first scores a field goal, similarly, the second team again has the chance to drive again and either match the score or win the game with a touchdown. If the team that drives first scores a touchdown, they win the game without the other team getting to see the ball. Now, how is the team that starts with the ball decided? A simple coin-toss.


A fifty-fifty shot at having the chance to win the game without having to give up the ball. Although Bills QB Josh Allen had been perfect up until that point, his selection of “tails”, when the coin ultimately landed on heads, turned the outcome of the game. Fans watching knew that everything was riding on who won the overtime coin-toss, as each team’s offense had been not nearly, but quite literally, unstoppable. In the final two-minutes of the game, the two teams put up a combined 25 points. So, whomever was to win the coin-toss was to win the game.


Now, this begs the ultimate question– is this fair? Is it fair that the result of a playoff game should be largely decided by the flip of a coin? It doesn’t seem so to me. Thankfully for the future of the NFL, its system doesn’t compare to the other football leagues which it can take ideas from. The Canadian Football League, although not the most popular league (compare Grey Cup and Super Bowl ratings!), has a much better system at deciding the outcome of games.

Is it fair that the result of a playoff game should be largely decided by the flip of a coin?

Up here in Canada, the overtime rules are vastly different. Each team is given a possession beginning on the 35-yard line. If the first team scores or turns the ball over, the second team gets their chance. If a touchdown is scored, the scoring team must attempt a 2-point conversion. The winning team is the team leading after the initial possession. If the game is tied, they keep on going until there is a winner. These rules gave us an exciting bloodbath of a finish as recently as this past year’s playoffs, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders defeating the Calgary Stampeders 33-30 after two possessions of overtime drives. Exciting, right?


What about overtime in the NCAA, America’s true passion, college football? Well, their rules are also more entertaining than the NFL’s. In college football, an entire overtime period is played, and a coin toss simply decides who begins with the ball in overtime. Each team starts at the opponent’s 25-yard line, and they go until there is a winner at the end of overtime. After some recent rule changes to eliminate extremely lengthy games, teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the second overtime, and once the third overtime rolls around, the game becomes a one-play 2-point conversion shoot-out to decide a winner.


In my eyes and those of many football fans around North America, both the CFL and the NCAA have more equitable, more entertaining overtime solutions. So, what is holding the NFL back? It is hard to say, but the de facto answer is that the ownership groups in the league remain traditionalists, they don’t want rules to change. For a rule to be changed, there needs to be a majority of the 32 owners to agree. In recent appeals to drastically change overtime rules over the past decade, the owners have struck them all down.


It is difficult to say what it will take in order for the rules to change in the near future. Maybe 17 franchises will have to lose OT coin-flips in the playoffs for things to actually swing. In any case, it is clear that for fans, at least for young fans, that a move to a more equitable and entertaining overtime format doesn’t hurt anyone. It only births more opportunities to let greatness shine.


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