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Why College Football Gets Overtime Right, and the NFL Gets It Wrong

New England's anticlimactic Super Bowl victory was more evidence that the NFL should adopt the fairer, better college football overtime system invented by a high school basketball coach named Brice Durbin.

by Michael Weinreb
Feb 9 2017, 3:19pm

Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

Some 47 winters before a Super Bowl finally ended under the auspices of a fundamentally inequitable NFL overtime system, a man named Brice Durbin took a three-hour drive to Topeka, Kansas. Durbin had made his reputation largely as a basketball coach, but as head of the Kansas High School Activities Association, he also had presided over a state championship semifinal game involving Shawnee Mission North High School that ended in a tie.

In order to determine the winner, Durbin and his colleagues had used a complex system involving calculation of first downs, yardage gained, and the total number of penetrations inside the five-, ten-, and 20-yard lines. Through those convoluted numbers, Shawnee Mission North was declared the winner. It was pedantic and ridiculous, and Durbin knew it, which is why he was still mulling it over months later, in early 1970, during that drive to Topeka for a basketball rules meeting. And this is where inspiration struck, eventually altering the very nature of football as we know it.

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Durbin is now almost 90 years old, and is no longer capable of speaking first-hand about his monumental road-trip brainstorm. A few years back, however, he spoke to Jeremy Holaday, currently the assistant executive director of the Kansas High School Athletic Association. He told Holaday that it had taken roughly 20 minutes to calculate that Shawnee Mission North had won that playoff game, which was contested soon after Kansas implemented a high-school playoff system. He recalled the fans waiting around and clamoring for a result, and he recalled the fact that neither college football nor the NFL had overtime systems at that point—though the NFL had adopted sudden-death for playoff games in the 1950s—and neither appeared likely to implement them anytime soon. (Shawnee Mission North went on to win the state championship that year, which I imagine doesn't provide Atlanta Falcons fans with much solace.)

"Durbin was like, 'Why are we using this system?'" Holaday told VICE Sports. "The system that was in place didn't make sense, and they needed to come up with something that did."

What Durbin came up with was originally known as the Kansas Plan. Each team would get the ball at the opponents' ten-yard line, with four plays to score. It accounted for fatigue and for player safety; it was not perfect, but it was better than anything anyone else had derived to that point. And it still is, which is why Kansas began playing under those rules in 1971, and the National Federation of High Schools eventually adapted Durbin's plan as a suggestion in its rule book in 1974, and why college football (with the consultation of Durbin and then-KHSAA assistant executive director Nelson Hartman) eventually adopted the plan in 1996, moving the ball back to the 25-yard line to allow for more able kickers at the college level.

Soon after the Kansas Plan was implemented, the NFL realized it needed to do something about ties. It could not justify holding out for another 20 years under the auspices of amateurism, as college football did; it was a zero-sum game that required a zero-sum result. Instead of adopting Durbin's idea, however, the NFL proved once again that it would go its own stubborn way: it would allow a sudden-death overtime period for all games starting in 1974, thereby condemning itself to a generation of games decided by the luck of a single coin toss.

Even now, after tweaks to the system in 2012, the NFL is still clinging to a system that makes no logical sense. Which is how the biggest football game of 2017 wound up being decided by a method nearly as ridiculous as the one Durbin refused to accept in Kansas all those years ago.

When the overtime method doesn't make sense. Photo by Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of blatant partisanship, 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. And while we've come to expect the NFL to bury its head in the sand on more expansive matters of morality and ethics, the league does seem to value equity and parity in the games themselves.

That's why it boggles the mind that the NFL still refuses to adapt some version of Durbin's system. That the league efforted, in football parlance, to tweak its rules and still clung to an inequitable solution inferior to Durbin's feels like pure hubris. It's of a piece, I imagine, with the notion that leads NFL coaches and player personnel people to presume that the lower levels of football should adapt to their whims rather than the other way around; it's based, I imagine, on the notion that every idea in professional football is somehow morally superior to college football by dint of its sheer popularity, that the college football overtime rule is somehow too quaint and not serious enough to resolve something as big as a Super Bowl.

I understand there are legitimate criticisms of the college overtime rule. It's not perfect. The Ringer's Rodger Sherman pointed out earlier this week that data on the college overtime system essentially reveals that the advantage to the team that plays defense first—and thereby knows how many points it has to score to tie or win—is roughly the same as the chances of the team winning the coin toss under the NFL's new overtime rules. That's a fair point to make, but it also ignores the fundamental fact that under the college rules, both teams actually get a chance to score. And how is that not better, fairer, and, frankly, more fun?

I imagine Brice Durbin would admit that his invention should be subject to scrutiny and tweaks, but its fundamental basis—that overtime should be as fair and equitable as possible—is one that Rams coach Sid Gillman recognized back in 1955, when his team won a preseason game over the Giants that utilized the sudden-death overtime rules. The rule placed too much emphasis on the coin-toss, Gillman told a reporter; a better way would allow both teams to possess the ball. The system in place didn't make sense.

And all these years later, the NFL still refuses to accept this simple truth.

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