The NFL’s Slippery Slope

By Ira Kaufman
Updated: March 22, 2010

TAMPA — The NFL Competition Committee is thinking too hard.

When owners meet in Orlando this week, they will be asked to vote on a proposal to modify the league’s sudden-death overtime rules for the postseason.

Due to various factors, the coin flip has become too significant a factor in determining the outcome of overtime.

Kickers are more accurate, offenses are too efficient and, under the current system, there is a better than 1-in-3 chance (34.4 percent) that overtime will end with the first possession.

That’s what happened in the NFC title game at New Orleans two months ago, when the Saints used a 40-yard kickoff return to set up a winning field goal while Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson stewed helplessly on the Minnesota bench.

Yes, overtime needs fixing, but let’s be careful to avoid ill-advised solutions.

Everything changed in 1994, after the league moved the kickoff spot from the 35-yard line back to the 30. Teams that called the coin flip correctly from 1974 to 1993 won overtime games at the same 46.8 percent clip as the coin-flip losers.

But since the kickoff spot was changed, coin-flip winners have emerged victorious in overtime at a 59.8 percent rate. Quite a difference. So why not just move the kickoff up to the 35 and generate more touchbacks?

“We proposed that a few years ago, but it did not prevail,” said Rich McKay, the former Bucs general manager who serves as co-chairman of the Competition Committee.

“The reasoning about that was, No. 1, I don’t think that would move the statistics as dramatically as you might think because of the improved field-goal accuracy that’s occurred over the years.

“No.

2, there are those that will take the position if they built their football team to have a kickoff specialist, and then in overtime you decided that kickoff specialist was less valuable, you’ve messed with the way they’ve built their team. The same applies to the team that says they have a returner that they think is special.”

The committee is leaning toward an overtime system that would ensure at least one possession for each team — unless the receiving club scores an immediate touchdown.

Sounds good on paper, but that proposal would give a significant strategic advantage to the team that kicks off in overtime.

The kicking club would know how that first possession ended. If the receiving team went ahead with a field goal, the club down by three points would, in essence, be given a fourth down on the ensuing possession to keep a drive going and move into field-goal range.

Instead of this awkward new modification, the committee needs to convince at least 24 owners that returning the kickoff to the 35 represents the simple, sensible approach.

More touchbacks, more strategy, more drama.