How to fix American football overtime

In American football, a neutral position is not really possible. There is no equivalent of a “jump ball” or a “face off”. One team, and not the other, must have possession of the ball, giving that team an advantage.

This results in the overtime coin flip problem. I’ll assume that overtime is “sudden death”: The first team to score, in any way, wins the game. The first possession is determined by a coin flip, and the team that wins the coin flip has a significantly better than even chance to score first, winning the game. The coin flip has more importance than it should.

Here’s my proposal. Instead of a coin flip:

Give the advantage to the team that was most recently in the lead.

Seems simple enough to me. You virtually never want to be behind on the scoreboard, so there’s not much possibility of a conflict of interest.

It makes the rules only slightly more complicated:

  • Whenever the score is tied in regulation, we now have to keep track of which team was most recently in the lead. It’s now part of the “game state”, whereas it used to be irrelevant.
  • There needs to be a contingency rule in case the score at the end of regulation is 0–0.

A possible objection is that it makes it a little harder for a team to that’s behind to come back and win the game. But it doesn’t affect whether the winner is still in doubt, which is all the sports overlords usually care about. (Got to keep people watching.)

On the plus side, a team that’s behind near the end of regulation has slightly more incentive to “go for it” and try to win the game in regulation, instead of in overtime.

If the score is tied near the end of regulation, one team has a greater incentive, compared to the coin flip rule, to try to win in regulation (which is good). But the other team has a greater incentive to put the game into overtime (which is bad). These effects don’t necessarily cancel out exactly, but on the whole I don’t think my rule would have much effect on how many such games go into overtime.

In the NFL, since around 2012, overtime has not exactly been sudden death. To mitigate the coin flip problem, they changed the rules so that if the team with the first possession scores a field goal on that possession, the game doesn’t end until after the other team’s first possession ends (if the score is tied at that point, the game continues). This obviously reduces the advantage of having the first possession. Unless it overcompensates and gives the team with the first possession a big disadvantage, it must make overtime fairer than it was. But it makes the game more complicated and quirky. The definition of “a possession” is now really important, and there is now a new way for the game to end (a team loses possession of the ball in an overtime situation in which it had to score).

In college football, overtime is considerably different, but it fails to fix the coin flip problem. The team with the second possession probably has the advantage, because they know exactly how many points they must score. My rule could be applied to college football’s overtime system just as well.

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