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Working Overtime: How to Fix the NFL's Persistent Problem

Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills in AFC Divisional Playoff game vs. Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 23, 2022

Despite going toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on their home field, Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills offense didn't even get a possession in overtime of their unforgettable AFC Divisional Round playoff game this past season because of the rules.

For 60 minutes in the AFC divisional playoff game, Josh Allen was nearly flawless. The Buffalo Bills quarterback threw for 329 yards and four touchdowns, and he ran for 68 yards, too. He led the Bills to 36 points, including 15 in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, going toe-to-toe with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs every step of the way.

But he made one critical mistake at the worst possible time — the mistake that doomed the Bills and their Super Bowl hopes the moment he made it. Allen called "tails."

In a game that involved nearly 1,000 yards of offense, 78 points, a record three lead changes in the final two minutes and a wild, 44-yard game-tying scoring drive by the Chiefs in the final 13 seconds, it just seemed wrong to everyone that the game hinged on a coin flip before overtime. But that's the way the rules were written. When the coin landed on "heads," Mahomes and the Chiefs got the ball with a chance to end the game with a touchdown on the opening drive.

That, of course, is exactly what they did.

When the Chiefs marched 75 yards in four minutes and 10 seconds to secure the incredible 42-36 win and eliminate the Bills from the playoffs, they did what seven previous teams had done in 12 overtime playoff games over the last decade — score a game-winning touchdown on the opening possession. In fact, since those rules were changed in 2010, the team that won the coin toss at the start of overtime in the playoffs had gone an astounding 10-2.

In other words, the odds were against Allen even touching the ball again. All he could do was sit on the cold sidelines at Arrowhead Stadium and watch.

"It's a hard thing," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said the next morning. "It was great for us, but is it great for the game, which is the most important thing we should all be looking out for?"

The overwhelming consensus seemed to be that no, it was not great for the game. That's why in March, NFL owners took a step toward making sure something like that never happens again.

On March 29, at the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., the owners voted to amend the overtime rule so it guarantees each team will get at least one offensive possession — but, notably, only for the playoffs. Previously, a game would end if a team scored a TD on its first possession (or the defensive team scored a safety) — which will still remain the rule in the regular season. At least it's an upgrade over the original rule, when overtime simply ended with the first points.

The new rule, which was proposed by the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles, wasn't exactly greeted with unanimous acclaim. In the weeks before the vote, some NFL owners weren't sure it would get the required 24 votes from the 32 owners to pass. Some preferred a proposal from the Tennessee Titans, which offered a smaller tweak where an overtime could end if the team with the ball first scores a touchdown AND converts a two-point conversion.

In the end, though, the guaranteed two-possession rule passed by a vote of 29-3. The owners of the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings voted no.

"It's a very good step to try and allow each of these offenses — especially these quarterbacks that we are seeing — allow them to have an impact on the football game," said Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, a member of the NFL's Competition Committee. "I was, unfortunately like a lot of other teams, watching that Buffalo-Kansas City game as a fan and saw the ending. I felt like maybe our fans would have wanted to see Josh Allen have an opportunity."

"We all saw the Buffalo-Kansas City game, and it's just a damn shame," Colts owner Jim Irsay added. "It just shouldn't go down that way. We work so hard and have such a commitment, hundreds of millions of dollars just to get to that flash point of greatness in a big game like that and a coin flip determines that?

"I don't see how anyone could see that as being right."

Few did, which is why the owners were forced to make a change that has been decades in the making. The league didn't even have overtime until 1974, preferring to let games stand as ties if they ended that way after 60 minutes. The first overtime rule was simply sudden death. Teams played an extra period of no more than 15 minutes, and the first team to score any points won.

That became an increasing issue as kickers became more accurate and the overtime coin toss became a stronger indicator of who would win. So starting with the 2010 playoffs (and then the 2012 regular season), the NFL adopted the updated rule where both teams would get the ball unless the team that got the ball first scored a touchdown on its first drive.

But the NFL was entering a high-offense era, and the elite play of quarterbacks made it increasingly likely that teams could score a touchdown on their opening drive. Even if they didn't, a field goal was becoming nearly automatic, which set them up for an easy win if they got the ball back again.

Several ways to fix that issue were floated over the years — some of them wild — but everyone seemed to realize that there was no quick and equitable solution. Football is not like hockey or basketball, where the ball/puck is just up for grabs from the start, or baseball, where each team gets an equal number of outs and opportunities. The nature of football is such that the winner of the coin toss is always going to have something of an advantage. But the image of Allen sitting on the sidelines watching Mahomes, never even getting a shot after such a brilliant performance, really turned out to be too much for many to bear.

"You never want it to be a knee-jerk reaction," says Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott. "I don't believe in that, and I don't think this was. There's always got to be one last example, I guess, of why it needs to change, and unfortunately it happened to us."

Actually, the Bills were far from the first, and it happened in higher-profile games, too. The New England Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game when they won the coin toss and scored a touchdown on the first series of overtime. Two years earlier, in Super Bowl LI, a game better known for the Patriots' stirring comeback from a 28-3 deficit, they won in overtime with a touchdown on the first series, with the Atlanta Falcons never getting a chance to touch the ball.

There were cries for change after both those games, but the NFL resisted. The Bills-Chiefs game, though, was just so good, so exciting, so electric, that the disappointing ending turned out to be the final straw.

"I think we thought about it before when it came up when Kansas City lost to New England that year," says Bills GM Brandon Beane. "I was watching that game going, 'Man, you got a young Mahomes vs. a veteran in (Tom) Brady and you never got to see Mahomes get his chance.' Brady just took them right down the field.

"Sometimes you wonder what would've happened if the other team would've got the ball."

Fans wondered too, and that, according to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, was the genesis for the change. "We always listen to the fans," he insists. "That's an important thing." And it was clear the fans — like many coaches, players and league insiders — want to see the best players play in the biggest moment.

No one outside of Kansas City was satisfied watching that game and not getting to see Allen and the Bills one more time. "We should never let a football game be determined from a coin," Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said after that game. "You can fight your entire fight the whole game, and then the game comes down to a 50-50 chance of a coin toss. Like, this ain't Vegas. We're not at the casino table.

"It's just crazy that that was the outcome."

It won't be that way anymore, at least in the playoffs, and that marks an important step forward. The strategy could become fascinating and will ramp up the drama of the moment. The team that plays defense first is almost like the home team in baseball, knowing exactly how many points it needs to win — although if that team ties the game on its possession, the other team can win with a score, incentivizing a two-point try. But with the knowledge that the second team to possess the ball will likely go for two, does that make the first team more likely to go for two as well? It's hard to know at this point whether going first (if you score on the third possession, you win) or going second (you can know how many points you need to win) is more advantageous.

Hey, it's progress. And there could be more changes to overtime in the future.

Worth a Try?

There likely is no perfect solution to the NFL's overtime dilemma, but there sure have been some interesting ideas over the years. Here are a few of the more intriguing ones:

  • Two Points for the Win: This "tweak" was proposed by the Titans this year. Each team would get a possession unless the team that got the ball first scored a touchdown AND a two-point conversion on their opening drive. It would've given the coach of the team that won the coin toss an intriguing (and dangerous) choice.
  • College Rules: A gimmicky solution, but one that's exciting and popular. Teams alternate possessions from their opponent's 25-yard line, trying to score a touchdown or field goal. If they reach a second overtime, they must go for two after a touchdown. If there's no winner after that, they alternate two-point conversion tries until there is a winner.
  • The Shootout: Under this format, styled after the NHL shootout, teams would alternate plays from their opponent's 5-yard line for five rounds. Each "touchdown" would be worth one point. The team with the most points after five rounds wins. If there's no winner, "extra" rounds could be added.
  • Spot and Choose: A really wild idea that could give NFL coaches nightmares and was proposed by the Ravens in 2021. The team that wins the coin flip would choose any spot on the field for the first drive to start. The other team would then choose whether to play offense or defense. Then they'd play sudden death with regular rules. For example, the first team could place the ball on the offense's 15-yard line. The second team would then choose whether to take the ball in that risky spot or play defense knowing they might never get the ball.
  • 7 on 7 (or less): Similar to the NHL, where one player is removed from each team in regular season overtimes, this idea from the Fan Controlled Football League would have teams alternating red zone possessions playing 7 on 7. No linemen, just a quarterback and six skill players on offense and seven linebackers and defensive backs on defense.

– Written by Ralph Vacchiano (@RalphVacchiano) for Athlon Sports' 2022 Pro Football magazine.