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NFL overtime isn’t fair, but it’s made some exciting, weird football this season

The NFL’s overtime format doesn’t make much sense, but it does a good job spitting out truly weird football.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

NFL overtime is a pretty dumb system. Sudden death doesn’t make sense in a sport like football because the best players aren’t always on the field. If two teams with great offenses and terrible defenses go to overtime, whoever wins the coin toss can march down the field, score an easy touchdown, and not have to worry about a rebuttal. Like penalty kicks in soccer, it can make what was a competitive game feel cheap and arbitrary.

That was sort of the case Sunday night, when the Cowboys overcame a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime, and then won after getting the ball first and driving for a touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Jason Witten. Carson Wentz, this season’s other spectacular rookie passer, played a good game but was powerless to help his team after regulation.

And yet, that drive featured some quality footballin’ too. Prescott and the Cowboys were methodical. Cole Beasley had a 24-yard gain to put the Cowboys in Eagles territory. Head coach Jason Garrett decided to try to convert on fourth-and-1 from the Eagles’ 28-yard line when he could have attempted a field goal that would have given his team a lead but forced his defense to defend it. Prescott bullied his way for a first down on a keeper instead, and the Cowboys left the field with a two-game lead in the NFC East.

It was somewhat arbitrary, but it was also a good time, all the way through Prescott finding Witten unconscionably wide open in the end zone.

The NFL’s stupid overtimes rules have produced some of the best football in a season that purportedly hasn’t been very fun, making it hard to totally hate on a system that engenders a lot of hate.

Sunday’s game between the Raiders and the Buccaneers also had drama. The Raiders set an NFL record for penalties in a game — they lost 200 yards on seven instances of holding, two illegal formations, twice having too many men on the field, four times committing unnecessary roughness, taunting once, and something called “ineligible downfield kick” — and won because they outgained the Buccaneers by more than 350 yards.

With less than two minutes remaining in overtime, head coach Jack Del Rio decided to try to convert on fourth-and-3 from the Bucs’ 41 rather than punt, and was rewarded with a walk-off touchdown pass from Derek Carr to Seth Roberts.

Del Rio might have made this decision in regulation. He is much more of a maverick than the average NFL head coach, and it would have been the overwhelmingly correct decision even under normal circumstances. But smart coaches still manage to screw up fourth down a lot. If the Raiders failed to convert, the Buccaneers would have needed a short drive to get into range for a game-winning field goal attempt.

Thankfully, these weren’t normal circumstances, and the NFL’s overtime rules helped Del Rio realize he should play to win. If the clock had been running out at the end of the first or second half, the Raiders might have punted thinking they should avoid a mistake before the next period of play. If the Raiders had purposely given the ball back, however, they would have conceded the possibility of a tie, and even the most lizard-brained NFL coach can’t accept that.

Oh, and about ties: They’re awful and fascinating. They are thankfully rare occurrences, which makes each one like a decrepit pearl. We have seen two this season.

First, the Seahawks and Cardinals gave us one of the most absurd final five minutes of football we may ever see, featuring two missed chip-shot field goals within moments of one other. Then Washington and the Bengals played a good, deadlocked four quarters in London that devolved late into another missed short game-winning field goal attempt and a pathetic Hail Mary.

After the game, nobody was happy. Players who had just finished doing irreparable damage to their bodies for more than four hours advocated for even more football to be played — anything to get to feel something instead of emptiness.

For players and coaches, tying another can feel worse than a loss. Outcomes, good or bad, define a team. Ties create an existential crisis. It feels wrong to fight like hell and get nothing out of it, to look your opponent in the eye and have nothing to say except, “I guess that’s it?” The possibility of a tie creates a unique sense of desperation that makes absurdity more likely and more pronounced.

Overtime will never be fair, but it’s not that unfair, either. According to ESPN’s Brian Burke, the team receiving the ball first in overtime should win approximately 53.8 percent of the time. By comparison, a 2007 paper found that in college football’s overtime system — which allows both teams to have possession, and has been argued as a better alternative to what the NFL does — the team that plays defense first wins 54.9 percent of the time.

Hating overtime is reasonable, but maybe there’s joy to extract from one of the few idiosyncrasies the NFL hasn’t stamped out just yet. The league is an entertainment outlet, after all. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to embrace football’s weirdness when the game is meaningful to so many people, but with some distance you might find the NFL’s broke-ass system endearing.

A big reason for the NFL’s efforts to de-fun football have been so it can keep the game’s image within its control. Even if the games aren’t as good, at least (so Roger Goodell seems to think) the games will be played with professionalism and meet baseline product expectations.

NFL overtime is like finding an open back door to an abandoned house in a nice neighborhood. Sure, maybe you poke around and it’s just a boring empty shell, but sometimes you find some old, spooky pictures, or like an attic filled with whatsits from a bygone era.

The current overtime system is one of the last vestiges of dumb football, hearkening back to when the league handled itself with much less forethought and thought it would be OK to give a coin flip a lot of power to determine games. The format may not be ideal, but it also doesn’t feel very “NFL,” and this season has been much more interesting as a result.