The NFL’s change to its overtime rule in the postseason was based on statistics. Under the format adopted in 2010, the NFL played 12 overtime postseason games. The team that won the coin toss went 10-2, and seven of those games were decided on the first possession.
“That data was compelling to us and to the league,” Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the 10-member Competition Committee, said. “Each one of those ends somebody’s season, and so, to us, this is something we thought needed to be changed.”
The Chiefs-Bills game in the divisional round in the most recent postseason was the tipping point. Kansas City won 42-36 in overtime by scoring a first-possession touchdown after winning the coin toss.
“In the Buffalo game this year, it was the greatest 20, 30 minutes of football that I’ve ever seen. Ever. Just watching a game,” McKay said. “To think that it ended that way definitely brought up the idea of, ‘Hey, is that equitable? Does that work for everybody?’ I have no question that started the discussion. What typically happens in these is they tend to lose momentum as you get further away from the game, and that did not happen in this instance.”
After the Saints had a first-drive, walk-off field goal to beat the Vikings in overtime in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, when true sudden death was the overtime format, owners tweaked the postseason overtime rule. A team with the first possession in overtime could end the game only with a touchdown. A field goal guaranteed the other team a possession.
“In 2010 what happened to us is there was a number of us for a number of years who were concerned about the overtime statistics and the way they were trending, and it was all based on the field goal kickers,” McKay said. “They were getting better. They were making longer kicks with a much higher percentage, and they were impacting overtime. . . . So the theory was, what was concerning to us, was OK, we’re going to have a postseason game where somebody is going to have nice kickoff return to the 35 and there going to throw a pass and kick a field goal and the game’s going to be over. That just didn’t feel equitable, so that drove us toward that change.
“What’s changed in the interim is No. 1 the game has changed. Teams are throwing the ball for more yards. They’re throwing the ball for more yards per play. We’re seeing the trend of the game. That’s No. 1. No. 2, we changed the touchback rule in 2016, moving the touchback from the 20 to the 25. I was on the committee then and just really never thought that was going to impact overtime, and it did a little bit. So that’s what has driven us to these numbers were at now.”
The Colts and Eagles’ proposal called for guaranteeing a possession for each team in overtime in the regular season and the postseason. But not enough teams wanted to change the sudden-death overtime format for the regular season, so the proposal was amended for the postseason only. It received more than the required 24 votes, though McKay would not reveal how many owners voted against the measure.
The new format is expected to change teams’ thinking when they get to overtime in the postseason. The team that wins the coin toss could choose to kickoff, and a team that matches a first possession touchdown by its opponent potentially could choose to win on a two-point conversion rather than having to kick off again and go sudden death.