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Why College Football Gets Overtime Wrong, And The NFL (Almost) Gets It Right

After Super Bowl LI, some have argued that the NFL should adopt college football's supposedly fairer overtime format. Those people are wrong.
Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's current overtime format—like most Roger Goodell-era protocol changes—is an under-considered, over-complicated compromise knee-jerked together in response to one specific PR disaster.

It doesn't solve the problem it's supposed to solve, it incentivizes what it's supposed to discourage, and after six seasons, we still have to be reminded of its permutations with broadcaster explanations and on-screen placards.


Still, it's way better than college overtime.

Read More: Why College Football Gets Overtime Right, And The NFL Gets It Wrong

Super Bowl LI proved the point: It was the first Super Bowl to go into overtime and ended as the consensus Best. Super Bowl. Ever. Yet days afterward, the Internet ripples with complaints that the Atlanta Falcons—who blew a 28-3 lead by surrendering 31 straight points—were somehow robbed.

"Outside of blatant partisanship," Michael Weinreb wrote for VICE Sports on Thursday, "there is no valid argument to make that the Atlanta Falcons did not deserve a possession in overtime of a Super Bowl—to have a chance to tie the game after the New England Patriots scored what was the game-winning touchdown. Not only was it anti-climactic, it was fundamentally unfair."

I had no partisan skin in the Big Game; the team I cheer for has never even been to a Super Bowl. Yet I am fully prepared to make a valid argument. The Falcons got four possessions with which to answer any one of the Patriots' 25 unanswered points. They scored zero points.

That's it. That's the argument. If the Falcons get one point out of any of their last four possessions, they win and Super Bowl LI ends after 60 minutes like it's supposed to. Instead, the Falcons failed, failed, failed, and failed; in overtime, their already-exhausted defense put up zero resistance to Tom Brady and friends.

How can one with a straight face claim the Falcons deserved another possession?


Proponents of the college OT system fundamentally misunderstand football overtime's purpose: to decide a winner as quickly as possible. Baseball is 49 percent sitting around and 49 percent standing around; you can play a whole extra game at the end of the game. Exhausted soccer is just slow, boring soccer. Exhausted basketball is just slow, boring basketball.

But exhausted blocking and tackling? That will increase the odds of football players getting seriously injured.

When the NFL's overtime rule is cool and good. Photo by Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Those obsessed with on-paper equity ignore the fact that 300-plus-pound men accustomed to playing 40-70 snaps per game can't play 100 or more. The Patriots had a whopping 93 offensive snaps in Super Bowl LI, and it was about 20 more than the Falcons were able to defend. What was going to happen if two of 2016's three highest-scoring offenses traded touchdowns for two hours?

This is the other problem with college overtime: It features neither the exciting artifice of hockey shootouts, nor the boring purity of watching two teams that just played to a draw slog along until a winner is determined.

College overtime eliminates the heart of football: the field-position trench war fought over the line of scrimmage. Yet all the resulting stats still count, inflating scores and re-writing record books. This 31-31 tie between Texas Tech and TCU went into the books as a 56-53 video game; TCU quarterback Seth Doege's seven-touchdown fever dream garnered him hilariously undeserved Heisman Trophy buzz.


Weinreb tried to frame this as a matter of "morality and ethics," but in an era where we're increasingly certain that playing too much football destroys brains and lives and families and communities, it's unconscionable to insist games should be even longer.

If anything, NFL overtime isn't short enough. The modified sudden death actually encourages teams to play an entire fifth period. Notoriously risk-averse football coaches will take the opening-drive field goal if the touchdown doesn't come easily, and then answer with a field goal rather than risk losing. As a result, the NFL had ties on back-to-back weeks this season for the first time since 1997.

How did the league come up with this worst-of-all-worlds solution? Oh, yes: The tear-jerkingly unfair sight of Brett Favre watching helplessly from the sidelines as a long kickoff return, two automatic-first-down defensive penalties and one actual first down set up the field goal that ended the beloved Ol' Gunslinger's last, best chance at a second Super Bowl ring.

Except, of course, the only reason Favre and the Minnesota Vikings were even in overtime was Favre ending what would have been a game-winning drive with a brutal interception:

Incredibly, the changes haven't even fixed this supposed problem: Per ESPN's Brian Burke (at his old personal site), the coin-flip winner has 56/44 probability of winning, down slightly from 60/40.

Maybe pure sudden death offends Victorian sensibilities of gentlemanly play—that just isn't cricket, by Jove!—but football isn't cricket. Teams are never promised an equal number of opportunities to score, and matches can't last for three days. If you want to win, do it in the sixty minutes allotted. After that, you take your chances.

Speaking of which, yes, the coin toss is dumb. But Burke has suggested a simple fix: Give one pre-determined team—maybe the home team, or the team that scored last—the ball on the 15-yard line. That sets the nominal win probability for pure sudden death at an equal 50/50, eliminates the randomness and ridiculousness, and ends the game as quickly as possible.

The only problem with that idea? It makes way too much sense for Goodell and the NFL to consider.

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