April 2, 2007

Is Overtime Fair in the NFL?

The NFL owners' meetings at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona just wrapped up, and again the sudden-death overtime situation in the NFL has not been remedied. Don't get me wrong, I'm actually not a fan of an NCAA-style overtime in the NFL.

Without rehashing the billions of words that have been written in favor of a two-plus-possession overtime in the NFL, I'm against it because it will dilute every record in the NFL. While the NFL is not as stats-dependent as baseball, it still derives much of its popularity from standards. The TD scoring stats, which already have been diluted recently, would be especially damaged by games that last two or more scoring drives.

So I am strongly opposed to any overtime system that could inflate stats. However, I'm not at all opposed to an overtime system that only stands to dilute special teams stats. Name a special teams record. If you came up with anything that doesn't include Devin Hester, you're either a liar, a Googler, or a very sick man.

This year's proposal involved moving OT kickoffs from the 30 to the 35. The obvious result, ignoring the impact of the NFL's 1994 rule change that moved the kickoff for regulation kicks to the 30 to reduce touchbacks, which very well might have put "evolutionary pressure" on more accurate, though less powerful, kickers, is more touchbacks and fewer opportunities for a KR to score, or otherwise get the coin toss-winning team into a great scoring position. [Yeah, that was one sentence and I'm not re-wording it.] The proposal was shot down, with owners arguing with a straight face that it "would essentially negate special-teams play in overtime".

Let me go off on a tangent briefly by pointing out that NFL owners are obscenely rich. I'd like to think that means they are obscenely smart. The following demonstrates that is not the case.

According to Ivars Peterson's 2004 study, 33% of the games from 1994-2004 were won by the team that elected to receive the OT kickoff. Prior to the 1994 rule change, 25% of OT games were won by the team that elected to receive the extra-time kickoff. What does that mean in terms of special teams involvement?

Well, in 100% of NFL OT games special teams play a role. There is a kickoff, which can be run back unless it goes through the back of the end zone. With the 30-yard-line kickoff, the KR has an opportunity to return x% percent of kicks. With the 35-yard-line kickoff the kicker takes a return opportunity away y% of the time. How does this cheapen special teams? Any benefit gained by one aspect of special teams is at the detriment of another aspect of special teams. If you truly wanted to limit special teams, you'd adopt the NCAA system where only the FG kicking crew matters.

If anything, the proposed 30-yard-line to 35-yard-line change BENEFITS special teams. It makes a power kicker more valuable, which may make more teams willing to carry a place kicker and a KOS. The additional touchbacks make it significantly less likely that the kickoff-receiving team wins on the first possession (33% of the time v. 25% of the time). If the kickoff-receiving team does not win on the first possession, it either punts, misses a field goal, has a field goal blocked, botches a snap (which often overlaps with blocked FGs), suffers a safety, turns the ball over on downs, or commits a turnover. Most of those outcomes involve special teams, both in terms of number of variables and actual occurrences. The other half are no less likely because the kickoff moved. If anything, missed field goals are made more likely by the five-yard move while turnovers on downs are made less likely since the offense is, on average, farther from scoring range and thus less likely to press their luck.

It is inexcusable that a statistically significant percentage of teams win on the first drive of overtime, when the possession in said drive is decided arbitrarily. There is no harm, to any aspect of the game, in moving the kickoff back five yards for the initial kickoff of a sudden death OT.

I wish the owners would come out and say what they really think. West coast owners fear that any potential extension in the duration of OT would potentially cut into the beginning of later games. If we estimate, liberally, that moving the kickoff five yards in overtime extends the session by 5-10 real minutes, that's 5-10 minutes that many advertisers lose, whether they be west coast specific TV advertisers, stadium advertisers, or uniform designers. If the average NFL game runs about 180 minutes, 5-10 minutes is 2.7 to 5.5% of the game. No west coast owner is accepting that competitive disadvantage.

So we're screwed. Get over it. I am surprised Peter King and Gregg Easterbrook have blindly fought as long as they have for an NCAA-style overtime.

Special thanks to Ivars Peterson's MathTrek article on this subject, which justified what I thought I already knew.

9 Responses:

Brien said...

OK, I'll bite. I think changing the kickoff location for overtime is just the sort of small-ball incremental change that the NFL would discuss for 3-4 years and then finally get around to implementing. The resulting change would be minimal, except that we'd see every NFL columnist around the country talk about it nonstop during the offseason.

I think there are two solutions that don't dilute statistics and are better than the one you proposed, but neither will be adopted because the NFL is terrified of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

1. NCAA style overtime, but don't count the stats. Do shootout goals count for individual statistics in the NHL or MLS? Why should stats count in NCAA style overtime? And the whole special teams argument against it is the same argument hockey and soccer purists use against shootouts. Everyone knows a shootout is the most exciting part of a hockey or soccer game, and OT is the most exciting part of an NCAA game. Except for the last 2 minutes of regulation. Which brings me to...

2. 5-minute overtime period, no sudden death. This works in basketball, why not in football? We'd see more 2-minute drills (exciting) and have the potential for double OT (more exciting). Sure, it would extend the games, but if you're extending the games for an exciting overtime format, who cares? I haven't heard this option discussed very much, except in the form of a 15-minute overtime, which is far too long. Sure, it's a more radical change than moving the kickoff, but it would also make overtime more fair and more exciting.

J-Red said...

The first option seems fine. So few touchdowns are scored in OT that it's very unlikely to cost someone a legitimate run at a record. The only problem I could see is if you end up with a four- or five-OT game that basically pre-empts the whole first half of the next game.

The second option is too short, and it encourages field goals. How many five-minute periods would you allow before calling the game a tie? Does a team lose possession at the end of the first five-minute period, like at halftime, or does it carry over?

I think the best aspect of the five-yard move on kickoffs is that it feels natural. The NCAA overtime rules feel completely concocted. The sport is complicated, which isn't a problem for us, but I think the NFL is scared of tinkering with any part of the game when they're trying to market it to Asia and Europe. The five-yard shift would be as imperceptible as the different play clock and game clock rules for different parts of the game.

Brien said...

Too short? It's 2 posessions almost always. Think about how the game feels if there's 5 minutes left in regulation. That's a lot of time, and you get to play out all the scenarios where teams try to avoid scoring too early. I think there would be a lot more strategy involved, which makes the games much more fun because there is so much separation between the good coaches and the bad coaches in the NFL. Everyone knows how to coach sudden death OT, but can you imagine Art Shell trying to out-maneuver Bill Belichek in a 5-minute overtime? The unintentional comedy potential of the clock management alone would be off the charts.

And I'd flip a coin to start each OT. That way teams are less likely to kneel out the clock if the game is still tied close to the end of an OT period.

J-Red said...

You might be selling me on the five-minute OT idea. I think you might end up with more ties, which is a dealbreaker for the NFL, even if you go two five-minute OTs.

Brien said...

Basketball doesn't have ties, why should football? Keep adding OT periods until someone wins. A 4OT game would make the players exhausted, but fans would love it.

J-Red said...

Nah, you've lost me there. If a Redskins-Cardinals game at 1p goes four or five OTs because they and their opponent are too incompetent to score, and it eats into the game of the week at 4p, I would not be a happy man.

michael said...

I disagree with Brien's second idea. Games already last a long time and cut into the second games. And as a west coast viewer, they LEAVE THE EARLY game to show us the kickoff of the late game. Yes, they will leave a tie game in overtime to show us the kickoff of the Chargers/Raiders game. Given that, I am vehemently opposed to anything that has the potential to go on forever. And a comment to what J-Red said about the college system feeling concocted...of course it did, because previous to this, there was NO system. Thereby, anything new would, by default, be concocted.

I may be one of the few who has no problem with the NFL's OT system the way it is. If the first team to get the ball puts together a good drive, they win. But if they go 3-and-out, they give the other team good field position for them to have the chance to win. I would not be opposed to moving the kickoffs to the 35 to lower the chance of a kickoff return TD, but any other change I think would be superfluous and unnecessary. Its a great game as it is. If it aint broke, dont fix it. The only thing the NFL should worry about is off-field behavior and making sure guys like Pacman Jones and everyone the Bengals draft shouldnt be in the league.

Brien said...

The whole problem with leaving the early game to start the late game has to do with the insane NFL TV rules (from the people who brought you the Directv monopoly, doubleheaders on only one station per week, unreadable local market rules, and other fine inventions). After the scheduled game ends, a station can show "bonus coverage" of another game. The station can stick with the bonus game for 30 (or 15, I can't remember) minutes over its schedule end time. So on the East Coast, if a 1:00 game is running long, the station can stick with it until 4:30, but then it has to either sign off or switch to the late game. Overtime doesn't qualify for bonus coverage at all. So if you're watching a bonus coverage game at 4:10 and it goes into OT, the station can't show it to you. How that makes sense, I'm not really sure.

J-Red said...

I remembered that there is some weird rule about them being allowed to show us the last two minutes in bonus coverage but not OT. There really isn't anything we can do about the weird TV rules. Supposedly they are entirely designed to protect local affiliates.

And yeah, I know the NCAA OT is completely "concocted". I guess what I meant is that it feels especially concocted when compared directly to the NFL's current simple system.

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