Eliminating NFL Overtime


Realistic rating: 4.5

After the Week 12 Packers-Vikings game ended in a tie, making 2012-13 the first back-to-back seasons with ties since 1988-89, there was again much consternation about games ending in ties and how THIS IS AMERICA. TIES ARE FOR EUROPEAN PUSSIES.

Emerging from all the noise condemning the NFL’s OT rules was a very reasoned response by AdvancedNFLStats’ Brian Burke, who argued that the NFL’s current rules were poorly structured because they are contradictory to the extra period’s goal of avoiding ties while also prolonging the additional period.

This seems like a bit of a tautology, though. “______ is bad because it doesn’t deter the likelihood of what we’ve defined as bad.” But why are ties or prolonged OT periods something to avoid? (For a much less nuanced take on this debate, the increasingly irrelevant Sporting News offered a #HotSportsTake that basically says, “The current OT rules are bad because ties are bad,” and then goes on for many more paragraphs to basically say, “Ties are bad because teams don’t want to tie.”)

While everyone seems to focus on how to simplify the NFL overtime rules, here’s my proposal for the most simple solution: Not have overtime at all. Just end the game in a tie if it’s deadlocked after 60 minutes.

Because the NFL season is only 16 games (i.e. each game represents 6.25% of the season), it is the only sport that can accommodate (and in my opinion, should welcome) ties without significantly diminishing game-to-game excitement. In the NFL, a large swath of teams routinely miss the playoffs, earn first round playoff byes, are assigned different playoff seeding, or see major shifts in draft position by a difference of a single game, and not all games are created equal. The Cowboys’ Week 8 final possession nail-biter loss to the Lions counts the exact same in the standings as their 49-17 blowout loss to the Saints two weeks later.

The fact is that wins and losses are binary outcomes that are not nearly granular enough to truly determine the better team in a season that only produces 16 such outcomes. (In 82- and 162-game seasons, this binary outcome is not only tolerable, but necessary, as any more granularity would further sap the already-small level of game-to-game excitement.) There’s a reason statisticians don’t really look at wins and losses when analyzing teams. (Sadly, many fans and “experts” don’t even use wins and losses, but something far less granular to evaluate teams: championships.)

Now for those concerned about seeing a standings filled with records like 10-3-3 and 7-5-4, that hysteria is very overblown. Only about 7% of all NFL games go to overtime, or roughly one per season for every team. While relatively rare, ties would have the benefit presenting the standings as a slightly better depiction of a team’s actual body of work for each season.

The other big thing to consider here is injury risk and fatigue. Is it fair for a two teams to have to play an extra period, risking injuries to all their players and also further wearing them out for next weeks’ game? Overtime in a sport as violent as the NFL is almost a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which it would be mutually beneficial for both deadlocked teams to simply agree to a coin flip to determine the winner rather than for each of them to risk incurring negative effects on their respective futures.

So rather than trying to fix the OT rules many people seem to despise so much, let’s just leave them for this weekend’s games and the rest of the postseason.

Bottom line: This likely wouldn’t happen because of the heavily ingrained cultural aversion to dreaded ties. The only foreseeable way the NFL would eliminate OT is if the sport became so dangerous that any additional time playing the game was thought to be reason to avoid it.