I used to think that I, and I alone, knew the perfect solution to the question of how overtime games should be decided. Nine years ago this week, I wrote about my proposal to reduce the importance of the coin toss in the NFL’s system of sudden-death overtime. I called it splitting the overtime pizza, and I was sure that I had come up with the original and perfect solution for overtime, by letting one team choose the yard line for the overtime kickoff, and then letting the other team choose whether to kick or receive.
There were a couple of problems with my original and perfect idea: One was that it wasn’t original, as I later learned that others had proposed similar overtime solutions. The other is that it must not have been perfect, because no matter how hard I tried to explain that my system was the fairest method of resolving a game that’s tied at the end of regulation, I usually just got confused looks when I talked about it.
Still, I soldiered on, and as the NFL adjusted its system of overtime, tweaking the pure sudden-death format and eliminating the ability to win on a field goal on the first possession, I would stubbornly insist to anyone who would listen (a diminishing number of people) that my way of overtime was the better way.
And then I sat there watching the three overtime games going on simultaneously at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, thinking to myself that I couldn’t remember the last time I enjoyed an afternoon of football so much, and I realized I had been hoist with my own petard.
Yes, the NFL’s overtime system is wonderful.
The new rule, which largely keeps the sudden death format but adds the provision that a team can’t win with a field goal on the opening possession, really is the best of both worlds. It has the excitement of knowing that the game can end on any play, which was always the best part of sudden death, but it gets rid of the games when the team that receives the overtime kickoff just picks up a few first downs and plays it safe as soon as it gets into field goal range, which was always the worst part of sudden death. That change to sudden death overtime, which the NFL implemented for the playoffs two years ago and expanded to include the regular season this year, adds a strategic element and just generally makes overtime more fun.
It was a lot of fun on Sunday, when three of the eight early afternoon games went into overtime and we got to see three different ways that an overtime game can end:
1. The Texans became the first team in NFL history to score twice in overtime: Houston received the overtime kickoff and marched down the field on a 14-play, 73-yard drive that culminated with a field goal, which under the old rules would have ended the game — and the old rules would have deprived us of a great overtime period after that. The Jaguars received the ensuing kickoff and went on an 11-play, 53-yard drive that culminated in a field goal of their own. That tied the game, and from there the next score would win. We then saw a wild sequence in which Texans quarterback Matt Schaub threw an interception, which was followed by the Jaguars getting stopped for no gain on four straight plays and turning the ball over on downs, which was followed by Schaub hitting Andre Johnson for a game-winning 48-yard touchdown pass.
2. The Buccaneers received the overtime kickoff and were forced by the new rules to try to score a touchdown, rather than settling for a field goal. The Buccaneers were in field goal range after four plays, but they didn’t settle for a field goal right then and there, instead running four more plays and winning the game on the opening possession with a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to Dallas Clark.
3. The Cowboys and Browns traded punts on their opening drives, but the Cowboys had won the field position battle by driving 39 yards on their opening possession and then punting deep into Cleveland territory and holding the Browns’ offense to three-and-out. Once each team had possessed the ball, it was sudden death from there, and on the third drive of overtime, the Cowboys needed to go just 28 yards to set up Dan Bailey’s 38-yard game-winning field goal.
When I watched all three of those thrilling overtime endings back-to-back-to-back, it was impossible not to love the way the NFL does overtime. Sunday afternoons don’t get much better than that.
The three simultaneous overtimes were my favorite part of Sunday’s NFL action. Here are my other thoughts:
Give Rex Ryan credit. After a week in which the NFL media wrote the Jets off for dead, called their locker room a circus and generally acted like they were the biggest joke in the NFL, Rex Ryan had his team playing very hard in a 27-13 win at St. Louis. This Jets team has all kinds of problems on offense, but Ryan has always done two things very well as a coach: Design defensive game plans, and get his team to play hard when their backs are against the wall. The 4-6 Jets probably aren’t going to make a playoff run — losing Darrelle Revis for the season was devastating to the defense, and the talent on offense just isn’t there — but Ryan isn’t driving a clown car. He’s running a football team and doing a pretty good job of it.
Ken Whisenhunt’s failure to figure out the quarterback position will be his undoing. It’s surprising that Whisenhunt, who was known as a smart offensive schemer during his time as an assistant coach, has so thoroughly botched the quarterback position during his tenure as a head coach. Early in his tenure as the Cardinals’ head coach, Whisenhunt failed to see what should have been obvious, which is that Kurt Warner is a much better quarterback than Matt Leinart. Eventually Whisenhunt realized Warner was the man for the job, and Warner got the Cardinals to a Super Bowl. But after Warner retired, Whisenhunt again failed to find a quarterback, playing musical chairs among Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall, before the Cardinals made the disastrous decision to trade for Kevin Kolb. Whisenhunt’s latest decision at quarterback was to bench Skelton on Sunday in favor of Ryan Lindley, who proceeded to throw away an early lead, completing nine of 20 passes for 64 yards and losing a fumble that was run back for an Atlanta touchdown. After the defense carried the Cardinals to a 4-0 start, the Cardinals have now lost six in a row, and Whisenhunt is in jeopardy of losing his job because he couldn’t find anyone to play quarterback.
The Eagles have given up on the season. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is a great talent, but the Eagles’ defense made him look like Joe Montana as he completed 14 of 15 passes for 200 yards and four touchdowns. Philadelphia coach Andy Reid is about to get fired, and the Eagles have a whole lot of guys who look like they don’t care.
What was Belichick thinking? Deep in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 59-24 win over the Colts, coach Bill Belichick kept many of the Patriots’ most important players on the field, even though the game was out of reach. I’m baffled that Belichick would expose key players like Tom Brady (who was throwing passes with a 28-point lead late in the fourth quarter) and Rob Gronkowski (who broke his arm on the Patriots’ last extra point) to injury at a time when the Patriots already had the game locked up. Brady emerged from the game unscathed, but Gronkowski’s injury is a major blow to the offense. With the Patriots having a quick turnaround before playing the Jets on Thanksgiving, Belichick should be resting his players, not working them overtime. Leave the overtime to the teams that have to play overtime, coach.