Monday, January 25, 2010

NFL Overtime - The Rebuttal

Part of the appeal of a multi-person blog is the opportunity for contrasting viewpoints and light-hearted debate, despite how much the three of us have in common. KG posted some intriguing thoughts on overtime in the NFL below, so go read that before reading this.

OK welcome back. The best aspect of KG's post was that he managed to inject new ideas into a seemingly tired debate. However, I still feel obligated to look at the "pro" side of NFL overtime in its current, sudden-death format, and offer only a slight tweak that could placate many of the arguments that the coin toss ends up being way too much of a deciding factor.

First, the conundrum for a defense under the current overtime format is this: after 60 minutes of defending one goal line, they essentially now have two goal lines to defend - both the actual goal line and the yard line that marks the entry of the opposing kicker's range, usually between the 35 and 30 yard lines. This leaves defenses with something of a catch-22, since the deep halves/thirds/quarters (depending on the coverage scheme) must still be respected while at the same time not leaving soft spots in the zone where offenses can get those 10-15 yard chunks that just bleed you to death when only a field goal is needed.

Without getting statistical, we can point to the following factors, among others, that further work against the defense in an overtime setting: the collective improvement of NFL kickers in the past decade and a half (this postseason notwithstanding), the prevalence of FieldTurf and retractable roofs that provide optimal planting and kicking conditions, the increasing amount of quality pass-catching tight ends in recent years (to find those 8-10 yard soft spots in zones), and the onslaught of rules that facilitate success of the passing game (watch a replay from a game 15 years ago or older and look at how receivers could get mugged without penalty before the ball was released).

I totally see where anyone is coming from when they make the "change overtime!" argument. But let us also not forget that it's not as if a defense has no chance to make a stop or even create a turnover to win the game. Just take the Green Bay/Arizona Wild Card game from a few weeks ago. How many people thought Green Bay had that shootout won as soon as they won the toss, only for this to happen? Other memorable instances of the defense making a play to win an overtime game can be seen here, here, and here. So while the fans of the team who loses the coin toss may groan, it's not exactly like the 11 defenders about to go back onto the field are slumping their shoulders in automatic defeat.

I believe that to break a tie in a football game, you just need to play more football, exactly the way it had just been played for 60 minutes. You lose the coin toss and have to kick off? Ok, say it's returned out to the 25. It's easy, just don't give up 40-50 yards to the offense and then your own offense will get its shot. In yesterday's NFC Championship, New Orleans netted 219 yards of offense in 14 possessions during regulation. Take out the two ditched series at the end of each half and the Saints gained 214 yards on 12 possessions - about 17.83 yards per possession. Had Minnesota's defense maintained that level of performance for one overtime series (and not spotted the Saints 17 yards' worth of penalties), the Vikings offense would likely have gotten its chance with the ball.

I don't hate college overtime, but I just think it belongs in college. It cheapens the regulation part of the game and inflates everyone's statistics, which, in the pros, equate to money. Players make big contracts based on their stats and can you imagine the grappling between owners and agents over a running back who scored 15 touchdowns in his contract year but 7 of them took place in a college overtime setting? Plus, with all the Collective Bargaining Agreement problems that are going on as it is, such a radical change to overtime will not be approved by both sides anytime soon, so it's best left out of the conversation. Most of those collateral elements don't exist or don't matter as much in college as they do in the pros.

The prospect of playing an additional full 15-minute quarter without sudden death is too much; it's like making two heavyweights go another 3 rounds to solve a split decision. The game is brutal enough for the players as it is, and extending it any more than necessary will just create more long-term health problems (another post eventually coming about this). I used to like the idea of a 6-point threshold to end a game (where the first team to score six points in overtime wins, not just the first to score, period), but then I thought of situations where a team would take an intentional safety just to buy itself field position (i.e., backed up against its goal line and already down 3 points, so that the 2 points don't matter anyway), and that does not sit well.

KG mentioned how he liked extra innings, and I agree with that. Extra innings in baseball captures the best of both worlds - the game is not altered and both teams get their chance at bat. Shootouts in soccer and hockey are entertaining, but they're just as much a measure of "let's get this thing over with because it may never end" as they are to decide which is the better team. So, if I were to make any change to overtime in the NFL, I would allow each team to have possession once, and if the score is still tied after each team's possession (which would be like the first "inning"), it then goes to sudden death. That way, the gameplay is manipulated as little as possible, and we can all stop claiming that a game can hinge on a coin toss - although we have no problem with it hinging on an ambiguous side-view spot of a ball surrounded by a pile of 15 or more gigantic men, or a subjective definition of what constitutes "pass interference," but I digress.

1 comment:

  1. Good post and I can agree with the one possesion for each team. People like to bitch about things that aren't perfect in general including myself. It's hard to craft a perfect overtime that satisfies all. It's unfortunate when it has to happen at all.