Next week at the NFL spring meetings, owners are expected to approve the biggest change to overtime in NFL history -- shortening the extra session from a full 15 minutes to 10. Ostensibly the reasoning is player safety, as if playing 70 minutes instead of 75 is going to provide a major benefit for the players involved in the four or five NFL games per season that ever get past 10 minutes in OT. (If player safety is the aim, get rid of two preseason games: 120 minutes > 5 minutes.)
Though reaction has largely been negative to the expected rule change, I'm less skeptical. It sounds like a worthy plan.
Still, the truth is, until the change is implemented and the first OTs are played, nobody has any idea how it's going to go. We think we know, but conventional wisdom doesn't always hold to form when NFL coaches are involved. Moving the extra-point back didn't lead to a surge of two-point conversion attempts. The kickoff and touchback changes were supposed to encourage fewer returns. Instead, the opposite happened. Remember when the NFL changed the rule that said defenders couldn't push receivers out of bounds while they were in midair? People thought it'd lead to a new era of secondary play (sit back, wait and then bum-rush the WR in midair to force him out). It didn't. Quarterbacks are still getting hurt despite the NFL doing everything but putting a red jersey on them. Teams adapt differently than rules committees believe.
Overall, though, I'm on board with this move, though not without some healthy concerns.
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It might lead to more aggressive OT play
Overtime tends to be an anticlimactic affair, the most conservative quarter in a conservative game. Could a shorter OT change that? Right now, teams tend to play overtime like the second quarter. They obviously want to score and they want to defend, but there's not as much urgency as there should be. Fourth quarters seem to have more of that than overtime, where one slip-up ends the game. Teams play to win in the fourth; teams play not to lose in OT. As a result, the pace of play can be glacial. But with the specter of a tie looming larger than ever, coaches might try to play more aggressive, knowing that a tie can be often be as devastating as a loss. The ideal would be having NFL overtime resembling the NHL's frenetic 3-on-3 OT.
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Or teams could play it even safer
The counterpoint to this is that rather than play for a win, there could be a certain moment in OT where the odds switch and a team could choose to play to avoid the loss. We know the value and harm of a win and loss, respectively, but a tie can go either way. Last year, the tie by the 8-7-1 Redskins was virtually the same as a defeat because Washington would have been in the driver's seat for all of December with the additional win. (In the end, the tie didn't matter though -- the 'Skins would have lost a 9-7 tiebreak to the Lions.) For the 10-5-1 Seahawks, their deadlock ended up being like a win because it gave them the No. 3 seed over the 10-6 Packers, who would have won a tiebreak had Seattle finished with the same record.
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Ties are great
Don't let the awfulness of 0-0 soccer ties affect your opinion of NFL deadlocks. Why does a game in a 16-week schedule need to have a winner? When you have an 82-game slate like in the NHL and NBA, it's fan service to have a decisive conclusion to a game. But in the short NFL season (where, as mentioned before, ties can either benefit or hurt a team's playoff hopes), a tie is a very reasonable outcome after 70 minutes and close to three-and-a-half hours of football. Ties enliven the NFL playoff picture - few things are worse than three teams finishing 9-7 and one making it into the playoffs based on a tiebreaker that has nothing to do with head-to-head record. We accept those results without stopping to ever ask if there's a better way.
Consider last year: The Lions had what we consider a successful playoff season with a 9-7 record while the Bucs were left disappointed with the same exact 9-7 mark that wasn't good enough for a spot in the postseason. It especially hurt because Tampa had great wins over Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle while Detroit beat zero playoff teams, only going to the postseason based on the arcane tiebreaker of winning percentage in common games. So why exactly are we upholding wins as the only virtuous result in the NFL? Throwing some ties in there could help fans watch Weeks 16 and 17 without a slide rule to determine who's in, who's out and whether the Browns or Jags will get the No. 1 draft pick.
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And these ties would be more exciting ties
Almost invariably, modern NFL ties are the result of gross ineptitude, mainly on the part of kickers. In the two ties last year, there were a total of three missed field goals (from 24, 38 and 34 yards) in the final 3:30 of each game. There's really no such thing as a well-played tie. With 10-minute overtimes, however, you can envision a situation in which a team moves the ball, the defense makes a stop, the offense kicks a field goal and then it happens again, with a game-tying field goal in the final seconds. That's far better than watching Chandler Catanzaro shank kicks on Sunday Night Football.
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Or maybe it's a disaster
Who knows? But there's nothing so great about the current 15-minute overtime that makes it sacrosanct and untouchable. Give 10 minutes a try and see what happens.