The Chicago Bears won a football game Sunday in a way that is possible only in the National Football League. Tied with the Broncos at the end of regulation, they won the coin toss for overtime, elected to receive, took the kickoff, proceeded down the field and kicked a field goal, leaving Denver without so much as a single touch of the football. For those of us who live in Chicago, it was great fun -- but ridiculously unfair.
Imagine an extra-inning baseball game decided by this sudden-death approach: The visiting team bats in the top of the 10th inning, gets a run and everyone goes home. Imagine an NBA game in which one team is given the ball at the start of overtime and immediately hits a shot to end the game. Fans would be sputtering with rage and incomprehension.
Other sports think it's not enough to decide a winner -- you have to do it equitably. And whatever else you can say for sudden death, equity has nothing to do with it.
The NFL glories in its unique approach, but in this case unique means "so obviously wrong no one would dream of following suit." College and high school football have rejected sudden death in favor of overtimes in which each team is guaranteed the same number of possessions. So has the Canadian Football League.
The reason is simple: Sudden death doesn't give each team a sporting chance on the field. It's fair only in the sense that each side has an equal chance of winning the coin toss. After that, one team is playing on a steep uphill incline.
Failing at the critical football skill of choosing heads or tails usually is fatal. In regular-season games from 1974 through 2006, the NFL reports, the winner of the toss has won 53 percent of the games, the loser has won 43 percent, and 4 percent have ended in ties. Fully 29 percent of the games have ended on the first possession.
Last season, of 11 overtime games, the team winning the coin toss won seven, or 64 percent. In five games -- 45 percent -- the coin-toss champ won on its first possession. The team losing the coin toss had only a little better than an even chance of getting the ball.
The college game offers much better odds. In the NCAA, the winner of the coin toss merely gets to choose to have the ball first or second in the initial overtime (with each team starting on the opponent's 25-yard line). That would seem to provide a small advantage, since the team taking the ball second knows what it has to do to win or tie.
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