As great as the NFL may be, it lacks something that every other major team sport has: a reason to hope for the game to last longer. Baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, and college football occasionally reward us with extra periods of play that are exciting, reasonable, and perfectly fair (though soccer's penalty kick system certainly has its opponents).
Generally speaking, though, wishing for an NFL game to last longer is something we just don't do. Our idea of a great game is one that doesn't bleed into an extra period. This is the most popular sports league in North America, but thanks to the league's unbalanced overtime format, we don't want more. We hope things will be settled in regulation, because overtime, which serves as a thrilling bonus chapter in every other league, is a fundamentally wonky epilogue in ours.
No one has presented a compelling argument for the preservation of the sudden-death system. In fact, the NFL hasn't really bothered to present an argument at all. This isn't a huge surprise, because this is how massive corporations tend to roll sometimes, but on this issue, the NFL is Louis CK's four-year-old kid.
The other day I'm like, "put your shoes on, we're trying to leave, put your shoes on, put your shoes on." How many times can you say that to someone before you just want to kick them right in the ****in' face?
Seriously. If you're with a group of people that are trying to go somewhere, and you can't go -- you can't go -- because a member of your party just refuses to put their shoes on? That person is a ****in' asshole, okay?
A 2008 study found that 44 percent of NFL overtimes ended before the other team could even receive possession. The story is different this season: in seven of the eight overtimes in 2011, both offenses hit the field. By no means, of course, does this make the system fair -- if the team that lost the coin flip won, it was only because it was available to overcome its disadvantage.
Whatever the sticking point is, it is certainly not for want of alternate, logically sound overtime formats:
The Kansas playoff
So named because of its origins in Kansas high school football, this is the overtime format used by the NCAA. Team A receives possession at its opponent's 25-yard line, and can attempt either a field goal or touchdown. After this possession, Team B has the same opportunity. If the teams remain tied after this, additional overtimes are instituted.
Benefits: Both teams are offered nearly equal opportunity, and it's fun to watch.
Drawbacks: The team to receive possession second actually holds a slight, but meaningful, advantage, because it has the benefit of information -- if Team A is stopped from scoring altogether, Team B knows it can just boot a field goal.
The prospect of an overtime lasting an indefinite period of time could be worrisome to the league's show-runners, who, for one reason or another, may not want 1 p.m. games to spill too far into the 4 p.m. programming block.
Overtime statistics are added to the general statistical record, and given the spot of the ball, this can result in a minor inflation of the stats. To most, this probably isn't much of a concern.
The Kansas playoff, XFL variant
During its one season of existence, the XFL instituted a modified version of the Kansas Playoff. Each team received possession on its opponent's 20-yard line, and was incentivized to score quickly, as Team B would only be afforded the number of downs Team A needed to score. For example, if Team A scored on only its second down, Team B would then have only two downs in which to score.
Benefit: The down-matching format, if nothing else, is interesting, and would give fans one more thing to speculate about. Which is usually a good thing.
Drawbacks: On the other hand, I'm not sure it's necessary to re-emphasize a sense of urgency that overtime already emphasizes to begin with. Also, given the talent level of kickers in the NFL, it would seem more interesting to place the line of scrimmage at the 30-yard line, or even the 35. Placement at the 20 or 25 would put NFL teams in very make-able field goal range even if they didn't advance a single yard.
Extra time (World Football League)
This is the most straightforward of the alternative formats: if two teams are tied at the end of regulation, an extra 15-minute period is tacked on at the end. This isn't a sudden-death format, since the entire period is played regardless of the number of scores. Presumably, extra periods would be instituted if necessary to break a tie.
Benefit: We would see at least 15 minutes of extra football.
Drawbacks: The first possession would still be settled by a coin toss, and one of our goals here is to eliminate arbitrary advantages. Ideally, it would also be nice to be able to mix up the style and pace of play, which, unlike other overtime formats, this does not do.
The auction system
This format was devised by electrical engineer, and Packers fan, Chris Quanbeck. A coin is flipped. First, the loser of the coin toss decides how deep in a team's own territory it will receive the ball. Then, the winner of the coin toss decides which team will take possession. This is a sudden-death format.
Benefits: In theory, this is far more balanced, and intriguing, than the NFL's present format. What I find most interesting is how bluntly it presents the possession dilemma -- it really hammers home the point that having possession of the ball is not always as important as field position. Most teams would rather have their opponent backed up to their end zone than take the ball themselves at their own one-yard line.
Interesting is good. This would offer a whole new dimension of gamesmanship.
Drawbacks: No major sporting league has adopted this system, so in practice, unforeseen consequences could arise. And as the Slate article notes, this system isn't absolutely 100 percent fair: the loser of the coin toss must show his hand by setting the line of scrimmage, and the winner of the toss can make his decision with a little more information.
The silent auction system
This is another variant proposed by Quanbeck. (It has also been proposed as the Berk-Hendershott mechanism.) There is no coin toss. Both coaches write down a yard-line at which they would be willing to receive possession, then present them in sealed envelopes to the officials. The team that offers to take possession with the least-advantageous field position takes the ball first.
Benefits: This eliminates the slight fairness imbalance of the above auction system. This could also conceivably result in some sillier, and therefore more interesting, field positions: yes, the Dolphins take possession, but they overpaid for the ball, so they start at their own three-yard line.
Drawbacks: With less information available, it would probably take a while for coaches around the NFL to settle into a status quo, bid-wise. But Both sides are making their decisions blind to one another, and given the stubbornly conservative decisions coaches tend to make in certain respects, I could see this system falling into a rut of predictability, however fair it may be.
The Silky Solution
This format is proposed by our own Chris Mottram. There is a field goal kick-off before the start of overtime. Team A's kicker sets up from the 35-yard line (only the holder and the kicker are on the field, so this is a "free kick" of sorts.) Then Team B's kicker attempts the same. The kicker who makes it receives possession of the ball, and a 10-minute (non-sudden death) overtime is played.
If both kickers make the field goal, they set up five yards deeper and try again. If both miss, they try again from five yards closer.
Benefits: This would allow for an exciting game-within-a-game. While many of us lament the fact that so many games are capped with a field goal attempt, I think we can agree that they're still fun to watch. And without an opposing defense to worry about, we could be in for some epic 60-yard kick-offs.
Drawback: To some who are interested in watching nothing but actual, full-scale football, this could seem like an anticlimactic delay. And, to be honest, some folks just don't like kickers.
Of the above alternative formats, I'm most in favor of the Kansas playoff and the auction system, but any of them would be significant improvements over the current system.
How long will it take for the NFL to change up their overtime format? Well, they did recently add a clause that disallowed teams from winning on a first-drive field goal in playoff games, which I perceive as an acknowledgement on their part that the format is far from optimal.
On the other hand, they probably haven't made a change because they haven't been especially compelled to do so. Over the last five seasons, only about six percent of regular-season games have reached overtime. If, say, 30 percent of games were governed by arbitrary imbalance, the NFL would be pushed into action. Six, though? It doesn't seem as though the league can be bothered.
The NFL's decision-makers are too smart for a format like this. The problem seems to be that they are too indifferent. So we may as well do what we can, which is to whine about it, no matter whether seven million people have already whined about the exact same thing.