Dumbest Rules in Sports: The NFL Overtime System

Bryan Olive on Nov. 4, 2018

When you introduce a new feature called “The Dumbest Rules in Sports,” it makes sense to kick it off with a look at the NFL, whose rules committee comes from a magical realm of non-Euclidean maps. After only five decades of overtime games, the NFL noticed that it had a problem: an unbalanced overtime system that lets a coin toss directly influence the outcome of a game. Rejecting proven solutions, the rules committee thought and thought, until one of them shouted: “I’ve got it! Let’s replace it with an arbitrary, bureaucratic tangle that still lets a coin toss directly influence the outcome of a game!”

How did it come to this? Let’s take a look.

A Little History

Once upon a time, the National Football League was a pretty uncomplicated organization. Wide receivers had day jobs, helmets were made of leather, and zone coverage was what your jockstrap did. And when the clock expired, the game was over.

This worked for everything but the postseason, because the concept of championships originates in the Highlander universe, where There Can Be Only One. The advent of championships required an emergency plan in case of a tie at the end of “regulation time” (a term used only by advanced theorists). In fact the “postseason” itself didn’t even exist until 1933, when a radical innovation called the “NFL championship game” was introduced. Before that, if two different teams shared the best record at the end of the “regular season” (another advanced theoretical notion), champion status was sorted out within the office of the league’s executive committee. Seriously.

Once the postseason became a thing, rule makers became anxious about the possibility of a tie, so they again consulted the Highlanders, who predictably recommended something they called “sudden death overtime.” The NFL accepted this suggestion, though their rejection of beheadings remains controversial to some. The sudden death rule was: you flip a coin to decide possession of the football, and then the first team to score any points is the winner.

This was too radical a notion to just leap into; it had to be tested, and the first NFL overtime game was won, Manhattan Project style, by the Rams in the 1955 preseason. Then, after the radiation cleared, the first postseason overtime, known as “the greatest game ever played,” was won in 1958 by the Baltimore Colts.

Things Get Weird

But from the very start, after that inaugural 1955 preseason overtime game, there was dissatisfaction -- from the winners, no less! -- with the importance of the coin toss. The winner of the toss was winning 60% of the games, which was too lopsided to be fair.

So the rules committee sat down and brainstormed ways to make the NFL overtime less lopsided and arbitrary, and hit upon the remarkable idea -- the kind only a committee of professionals can come up with -- of making the asymmetry much more arbitrary and obvious. Now, through a complicated system, it’s possible for both teams to possess the ball in overtime, provided they all remember to bring enough eye of newt.

We’re making that up about the newts, probably. Please don’t blind any newts. But if you read the official overtime rules -- go ahead, it’s only 1113 words, we’ll wait -- you’ll know that coin flip plus touchdown still equals winning without the other side ever possessing the football.

The way forward

This is all true despite college football proving that a symmetrical overtime system not only works fairly, but is ridiculously exciting to watch. Yet purists -- possibly the same people who used to wear those leather helmets -- object to the college system by saying “defense is part of the game!”

We considered this objection seriously and carefully, and sent our researchers out to investigate, and they came back to us with a stunning discovery: Not only is the defensive side permitted on the field during college overtimes, they are even permitted to try their hardest to thwart the offensive side! Defenses even affect the outcome of college overtime games!

Once we heard this amazing news, we were convinced that the current NFL overtime rules are among the dumbest rules in sports history, and we favor a college-style system.

Now please excuse us while we go and adjust our zone coverage.

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