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New NFL overtime rules: Explaining the OT format change proposal

Sporting News — (Tadd Haislop)

Contents:

  1. Will the NFL change its overtime rules?
  2. How does overtime work in the NFL currently?
    1. NFL overtime rules for preseason and regular season
    2. NFL overtime rules for playoff games
  3. Why are NFL overtime rules being changed?
  4. NFL overtime history

Technically, the NFL's discussion about changes to its overtime rules has, well, gone into overtime.

Soon after the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in last season's AFC championship game, which New England won in overtime with a touchdown on its first possession of the extra period, Kansas City submitted a rule-change proposal to the league. Under the NFL overtime rules the Chiefs are suggesting, they would have had a chance to possess the football after the Patriots' score and, in the event of a successful touchdown drive of their own, extend the game. The proposal was supposed to be voted upon in late March, but the NFL team owners who will vote tabled the issue for the meetings in May. Then, the overtime format issue was tabled yet again and pushed back to 2020.

But the reason for the Chiefs' proposal and the controversy that surrounded the AFC title game will not go away, and one simple question will continue to be asked. Is the NFL's current overtime format fair?

MORE: Fixing NFL overtime should be easy

The Chiefs' proposal was simple and, as many would argue, logical. But it was not insignificant. The NFL's sudden-death overtime format, though it has been through some tweaks over the years, has been a problem for more than 60 years. (If you want to call it a problem. SN's Mike DeCourcy certainly does.)

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL's first experiment with overtime came in August of 1955, when the Giants and Rams played a game in Portland. Back then, the idea of sudden-death overtime in the event of a tie at the end of regulation was not about fairness or player safety. According to the Hall of Fame, it was "a publicity stunt to sell tickets."

Ironically, the first overtime game in NFL history ended the same way the latest NFL overtime game did. The Rams drove 70 yards on their first possession of overtime and won the game with a touchdown. The Giants — like the Chiefs last season and like the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 — never got the ball.

From the Hall of Fame: "A newspaper account the next day shared that (Rams coach Sid) Gillman’s opinion of the overtime rule was that it placed too much emphasis on the coin toss. He told a reporter that something needed to be implemented that gave both teams the opportunity to have the ball during sudden death."

And here we are. All these years later, the same issue is at the root of the NFL overtime rule change proposal the Chiefs submitted. Below are more details.

MORE: 11 playoff games that have fueled call for change in OT format

Will the NFL change its overtime rules?

They are still just potential new NFL overtime rules. At the annual spring league meeting, which took place May 20-22 in Key Biscayne, Fla., NFL team owners decided to table and not vote upon the Chiefs' proposal, which originally was to be considered during the league's annual meeting in Phoenix in late March but it was tabled for a May discussion.

Below is the proposal by Kansas City; it would have amended Rule 16 (overtime procedures) in the league's rule book.

  1. Allow both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least one time in overtime, even if the first team to possess the ball in overtime scores a touchdown.
  2. Eliminate overtime for preseason.
  3. Eliminate overtime coin toss so that winner of initial coin toss to begin game may choose whether to kick or receive, or which goal to defend.

In order for any part of the Chiefs' overtime proposal (or any new, amended proposals that come as a result of the discussions among the team owners) to become a rule, at least 24 of the NFL's 32 team owners have to vote yes.

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt suggested to Pro Football Talk that the rule would apply to the playoffs only.

The Cowboys were at least one team that seemed to be in favor of the overtime rule changes alongside the Chiefs.

"I certainly tend to lean toward the new rule," Dallas COO Stephen Jones said prior to the May meeting, per PFT. "I certainly watched every play of that Kansas City-New England game, and you kind of would have liked to have seen what would have happened if Kansas City got another shot at it, and then how the thing would have ended up. It was football, in my mind, the game at its best.

"I certainly don’t have a problem with guaranteeing each team a shot at it."

MORE: 5 new OT formats NFL should consider

How does overtime work in the NFL currently?

The NFL's overtime rules were amended as recently as 2017, when the overtime period was shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in the name of player safety.

The sudden-death NFL overtime format we know today was established in 2010. It gives both teams the chance to possess the ball at least once in overtime unless — and this is key — the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession.

The full section of the NFL rule book on overtime, which explains all the procedures in full, can be found here.

NFL overtime rules for preseason and regular season

  • At the end of regulation, the referee will toss a coin to determine which team will possess the ball first in overtime. The visiting team captain will call the toss.
  • No more than one 10-minute period will follow a three-minute intermission. Each team must possess, or have the opportunity to possess, the ball. The exception: if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on the opening possession.
  • Sudden death play — where the game ends on any score (safety, field goal or touchdown) — continues until a winner is determined.
  • Each team gets two timeouts.
  • The point after try is not attempted if the game ends on a touchdown.
  • If the score is still tied at the end of the overtime period, the result of the game will be recorded as a tie.
  • There are no instant replay coach’s challenges; all reviews will be initiated by the replay official.

NFL overtime rules for playoff games

  • If the score is still tied at the end of an overtime period — or if the second team’s initial possession has not ended — the teams will play another overtime period. Play will continue regardless of how many overtime periods are needed for a winner to be determined.
  • There will be a two-minute intermission between each overtime period. There will not be a halftime intermission after the second period.
  • The captain who lost the first overtime coin toss will either choose to possess the ball or select which goal his team will defend, unless the team that won the coin toss deferred that choice.
  • Each team gets three timeouts during a half.
  • The same timing rules that apply at the end of the second and fourth regulation periods also apply at the end of a second or fourth overtime period.
  • If there is still no winner at the end of a fourth overtime period, there will be another coin toss, and play will continue until a winner is declared.

Why are NFL overtime rules being changed?

SN's Mike DeCourcy deserves credit for the analogy. He brought it up when he ripped the NFL for its overtime format after the Patriots' win over the Chiefs in January.

The Chiefs-Patriots game was the tipping point, apparently, and it makes sense that Kansas City became the team to officially propose changes. But SN and many NFL observers criticized the league's overtime rules back in 2017, too, when the Patriots beat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 the same way they beat the Chiefs last year — one overtime drive for a touchdown; game over.

The Patriots pulled off an epic comeback in that Super Bowl, yet the overtime controversy was the subject of discussion immediately after the game.

"The first Super Bowl overtime game in NFL history also needs be the last that ends so abruptly," SN's Vinnie Iyer wrote from Houston, the site of what we think was the greatest Super Bowl of all time. "The only thing that could have made it a greater Super Bowl ... was more Super Bowl. The league should amend its regular-season overtime rules when its championship is at stake."

Some, especially a handful in New England, argue that the NFL's overtime rules would not be in question had it been any team other than the Patriots on the winning end of the aforementioned big-game controversies. Which is an interesting point, albeit a conspiratorial one, in a football world suffering from Patriots fatigue. New England advanced to its fourth Super Bowl in five years when it beat Kansas City; it's fair to wonder whether the same outrage would have come from, say, the Saints beating the Rams in overtime of the NFC title game hours before the AFC game.

The Rams won that game with a field goal after the Saints failed to score on their first possession of overtime. Had New Orleans, not New England, scored a touchdown and advanced to the Super Bowl without allowing its opponent a chance to touch the ball, would Los Angeles have submitted the rule-change proposal?

NFL overtime history

The first NFL game ever to use overtime as a way to decide a game that had ended regulation in a tie was referenced above. On Aug. 28, 1955, the Rams beat the Giants thanks to a sudden-death overtime format that was the brain child of Harry Glickman, the promotor of the game in Portland. That game, not the 1958 NFL championship between the Colts and Giants, was the first NFL overtime game.

It wasn't until 1974, though, that the NFL officially added a sudden-death overtime period to be played in the event a game ended in regulation time with a tie. It was simple: First team to score wins; field goal included.

After 35 years of games using that overtime format, in 2010, it was amended for playoff games. A field goal on the first drive of overtime no longer was enough for a team to win in sudden death; instead, a touchdown was required. That format — "both teams the opportunity to possess the ball at least once in overtime unless the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession" — was expanded in 2012 to be used in preseason games and regular-season games, too.

In 2017, the length of the overtime period in preseason games and regular-season games was shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes in the name of player safety.