EXCLUSIVE: Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh on new 'Spot and Choose' overtime rule
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
If John Harbaugh has his way and the Baltimore Ravens are able to push through their blueprint for revolutionizing NFL overtime, we’ll soon see pro football games adopt a procedure that began life by the name of "cut the cake."
"Yeah, that wasn’t going to fly," Harbaugh told me this week during an entertaining telephone call. "We were going to have to call it something else."
Instead, the Ravens coach is presenting "spot and choose," a formula he believes can and should make overtime fairer, more exciting and less dependent on the cruel vagaries of the coin toss.
Baltimore has pushed two versions of the concept for inspection by the NFL’s rules committee and needs the backing of 23 other organizations during the annual meetings March 30-31 if the idea cooked up by Harbaugh and his analytics department is to become a reality.
Here’s how it works. When overtime commences, there is no longer a kickoff. Instead, one team selects where on the field play will resume. The other gets to pick whether they will start on offense or defense.
Harbaugh loves it, even if, by its very nature, "spot and choose" will add stress, scrutiny — and potentially another way to get fired — to the plates of head coaches.
"I just want to be on the right side of history, at least talking about these good solutions," Harbaugh said. "Let’s be the ones to put them out there early on."
Harbaugh imagines the thrill of seeing, say, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid both striding out to midfield ahead of an OT period and making their choices. For a league that knows how to monetize to the maximum, you have to imagine it wouldn’t be long before such a showdown became a sponsorable element.
Harbaugh and his staff have been talking about this for a long time, taking an interest as far back as 2012, when the old version of sudden death was finally scrapped (it was changed for playoff games two years earlier) and replaced with the current system, in which a field goal allows for a right of reply, but a touchdown wins the game.
One member of the Ravens staff suggested an extra element of theatrical flavor for "spot and choose," namely having coaches walk the ball down to the chosen spot on the field themselves, with the crowd screaming along — begging for more or less yardage. Regardless, all the Baltimore thinkers agreed the spot choice must be made by the coach, as it would confer an unfair weight of responsibility to the captains.
Walking to the spot probably won’t happen, but if this rule change is indeed adopted, the coach’s selection itself will naturally be debated, discussed and sometimes ridiculed, and it will provide an irresistible boost to the sort of controversy and chatter upon which football thrives.
Let’s get pretense of impartiality out of the way swiftly. I loved the idea before speaking to Harbaugh and heard nothing to dent my enthusiasm.
The current overtime protocol had the best of intentions but contains too many inequalities. The stats bear that out. Since 2017, when overtime was shortened to 10 minutes, the team receiving the ball has gone 28-20-4, a 15% advantage. In the playoffs, with better offensive play, the receiving team enjoys a far more lopsided edge of 9-1.
Harbaugh thought the old rules of sudden death had a certain simplicity and "elegance" but asserts that the present method is cumbersome, and he is prepared to defend his stance.
"I enjoy a good intellectual argument," he said. "We always say if you have a better idea, bring it up, make your case. It's an open mic. I'd encourage you to talk about your good idea, but be aware everybody has the chance to say if it's a bad idea. It gets everybody going back and forth."
The Ravens have given two options for the plan: straight sudden death or a timed "half-quarter" of 7 minutes, 30 seconds, after which the team with the most points wins. Harbaugh marginally prefers the former. Baltimore also put forward a separate idea for an eighth official – a booth umpire situated in the press box and able to view all television angles.
The development of the proposals relied heavily on the Baltimore analytics group and started with Matt Weiss, who is now QBs coach at Michigan. Daniel Stern, a 27-year-old Yale behavioral economics graduate, took up the project more recently. Knowing that getting big changes past the rules committee is no easy task, Stern went through endless renditions of the document, editing line by line with a view to making it as simple to understand as possible.
The Ravens group knew their idea had little chance of passing unless it was squarely rooted in fairness. Trying to squeeze an advantage with this comes with the risk of having it all flipped on you.
While early indications are that a spot around the 13-yard line would be a common selection point, and though the statisticians will arm coaches with plentiful information in advance, gut instinct is going to play a massive role.
Preconceived ideas of a certain spot might shift if a QB just got drilled into the turf and got up limping, if a star wide receiver is out of form or if a marauding defensive lineman looks physically spent.
"There's injuries, the wind, field conditions, how your offense is playing," Harbaugh said. "The human brain will still account for more things than a computer can.
"We joke the only downside is that it puts more pressure on the coaches. I have just separated myself from how I feel about it as a head coach – it is just a better message. I do see the fun of it, the fairness of it, but it could come back to bite us easily."
Speaking of bites, let’s get back to "cutting the cake." That name came from a line of thinking that is a heavy part of game theory studies in analytics. What is the fairest way to divide a cake among children? Have one kid cut it, and let the other choose which half they want.
Sounds fair, right? So does this, and it’s essentially the same thing.
Harbaugh cares about the idea for a simple reason: He thinks it would make for a better game. Call it what you like, but the Ravens are on to something here. Hopefully we’ll soon see it in action.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.