With the NFL avoiding its record-setting third tie of the season by about a quarter-inch on Sunday night, there were renewed suggestions in some circles that the league’s "new" overtime rules, now in their fifth season, need to be altered so as to avoid the tie epidemic that seems to be taking over the NFL. (Forget that the league has played 176 games in 2016 and only flirted with a tie three times. There’s never been an NFL debate improved by facts and evidence.)
The beef is with the decree that gives overtime kicking teams a chance to match an opening field goal from the receiving team. The idea, as exhibited in the Broncos-Chiefs game, is that by the time the first team hits its field goal and the second team extends the game by hitting a game-tying one of its own, there’s usually not much time left on the clock for either team to do much of anything. Indeed, after the Broncos opened OT with a field goal and the Chiefs matched, the Broncos didn’t get to start their second overtime possession until there was 4:19 remaining in the game.
Of the five tie games since the new rule went into effect, three wouldn’t have been tied under the old rules (meaning, the return team hit a field goal at the start of overtime and, because of the new rule, the kickoff team was able to match). Of those three games, the third possession of overtime — when both field-goal possessions were over and the game truly turned to sudden death — didn’t start until 3:49 (Vikings/Packers, 2012), 2:19 (Panthers/Bengals, 2014) and 6:42 (Seahawks/Cardinals, 2016) were remaining in overtime. The haters have a point: When you extend the game with field goals, there’s not a whole lot of game left when you’re done.
So what do you do? Last night I tweeted that maybe you add five minutes to the clock once both teams hit field goals in overtime. Maybe you go into a gimmicky, college-like format if the game ends tied, possibly by forcing teams have to go for it on fourth downs once sudden death starts. (Don’t even suggest the regular college overtime rule, which was never exposed as more gimmicky than on Saturday, when in the biggest game of the year with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line, Michigan and Ohio State played the equivalent of a football coin flip. It’s great for October games. Games with something immediate on the line? Not so much.) Or you could always keep playing.
All these ideas miss the key point about the NFL tie: Unlike similar results in soccer, hockey or chess, football ties are exciting. The end result may not be satisfactory for fans, players or coaches, but you can’t deny the inherent excitement that leads to teams deadlocking. Watching incompetence, which is what you’re doing in most ties, is great.
Though the NHL has constantly attempted to get rid of ties by tweaking rules through a half-dozen or so iterations, the league did so because hockey ties were becoming boring and one-note. Teams would play it safe in the final minute or two, opting to take the point that came along with the tie and move on to the next game. The same sort of apathy accompanied a number of innovative changes and the problem was finally solved, for the most part, with the new 3-on-3 OT rules that encourage shots, speed and action.
But what’s good for hockey isn’t necessarily good for football. With 16 games compared to 82, you always have to play for the win (except when you’re kicking a 62-yard field goal with a guy who’s never made one beyond 57 yards and risk giving the ball back to your opponent with 60 seconds remaining and the ball in your own territory). Given that, ties may have the kiss-your-sister feel in the postgame, but they’re thrilling in real time. The three ties (or near-ties) are among the most instantly memorable games of 2016: the 6-6 shank-fest in an otherwise soul-sapping Cardinals-Seahawks tie, Washington’s Dustin Hopkins adding to the party with his own shank from 34 yards out in the Redskins-Bengals game in London and then Sunday night’s 34-yard sneak-in by Cairo Santos. (If that ball had ricocheted at 95 degrees instead of 89, the finish still would have been a thriller talked about for years.) What other tie games in sports can you say that about? I think we’ll all remember where we were when Switzerland and France drew to nil-nil at the 2016 Euro Cup.
There are plenty of complaints to be had with the overtime format, but I don’t think I’ve heard a single person say it’s unfair, the main (and accurate) complaint with the old system. Teams get chances to win. It’s not unfair that the Redskins, Seahawks, Cardinals and Broncos couldn’t hit a field goal this year that would have won them the game. They had their opportunities. When you don’t take advantage, a tie is a reasonable, logical outcome. It’s a kind of penalty, but one that’s earned and isn’t so harsh that it hinders both teams and fundamentally alters their seasons.
Overtime used to be straightforward football with an unfair bent. Now it’s straightforward football with a little more of the chess match fans love to see and a lot more of the intense pressure that makes the game so compelling. If that leads to a couple more tallies in the "T" column, what’s so bad about that?
gallery: What we learned in Week 12 of the NFL season