NFL Overtime Rules: A Proposed Improvement Blending College and Pro

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; An overall view of the coin toss for overtime during Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; An overall view of the coin toss for overtime during Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY Sports /

When it comes to overtime, it doesn’t have to be a choice between the NFL or college football’s rules. Here is an idea better than both.

The NFL’s overtime rules are once again a hot topic among football fans following the New England Patriots’ win in Super Bowl LI. Opponents of the current rules decry the fact that the Atlanta Falcons never had a chance to possess the ball in overtime. Proponents will state that the fault for that lies with the Falcons defense for giving up a game-ending touchdown. Under current rules, even holding the Patriots to a field goal would have given the Falcons a possession.

To be clear up front, I don’t have a problem with the current NFL overtime rules. In fact, I didn’t have a problem with the previous rule that ended the game on the first score no matter the circumstances. However, I can appreciate the perspective of those that have a big problem with only one team holding the ball in overtime. I don’t come at it as a matter of general fairness as much as competitive balance. Some teams are better offensively while others are better defensively. If a game is close enough to be tied after 60 minutes of regulation, why decide on a winner with a system that doesn’t balance offense and defense for both teams?

I know what you’re thinking: go to the college system! No. Arbitrarily placing the football at a specific spot already in field goal range then giving the ball to the other team at the same spot regardless of the outcome of the first possession does not reflect what happens during a real football game. If the NFL is going to make a change to their overtime rules, it should be a hybrid.

What’s good about NFL overtime? It is played a lot like the rest of the game was played. What’s good about college overtime? Teams have to win with both their offense and defense seeing the field (barring a defensive touchdown on the first possession, but no one would argue against that ending the game). Let’s take the best of both systems and come up with something better.

The coin toss

Currently, both NFL and college football times begin overtime with a coin toss. I say get rid it. There was already a coin toss to start the game so there is no need to have another. The team that lost the opening coin toss gets first choice to start overtime. This way no one can say a coin toss decided overtime because both teams can play out regulation knowing how overtime will start, or at least which team will get the choice to kick or receive. It also cuts down on the added time of a purely administrative aspect of overtime.

The clock

Instead of setting the clock for a fifth 15 minute period, I propose setting the clock at three minutes for each possession. The average touchdown drive during the 2016 season was 3:43. Three minutes doesn’t automatically put a team in a two-minute drill such that the running game isn’t part of the equation, but it also sets a time limit that ensures overtime won’t drag on and on.

Game play

Overtime is played in sets of offensive possessions, each beginning with three minutes on the clock.

The first possession starts with a kickoff and that possession is played out to its conclusion, no matter what that is. If the possession results in a score, the other team takes possession following a kickoff and a fresh three minutes goes on the clock.

If the team with the ball first fails to score, the other team will begin their first offensive possession based on the result of the first possession, whether or not that is a result of a punt, missed field goal or turnover. Again, three minutes goes on the clock.

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Ending the game

If the tie has been broken after the first set of possessions, the game is over. If the score is still tied, a second set begins. If no one leads after the second set, the game ends in a tie if it is a regular season game. For playoff games, sets of possessions continue until one ends with a leader, and therefore a winner.