The Eternal Life of NFL Sudden Death

Steve Chapman

11/29/2007 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

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.

Since this method was adopted, coin-toss winners have come out on top about 55 percent of the time. But in the last six years, according to a study by scholars Peter A. Rosen of the University of Evansville and Rick L. Wilson of Oklahoma State University, coin-toss winners have won only 49 percent of the games.

The NCAA has found an option that is as close to perfectly fair as you could want with just as much drama as the NFL version. And you'd have to look hard to find any college fan who would trade it for sudden death.

So why does the NFL stick to its system? Every so often, it agrees to consider a change, but nothing ever happens, because the league and the owners think the status quo is just wonderful.

Reaching that conclusion requires some weird mental gymnastics. In 2004, Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay said, "One play can end the game, and that's unique to our league." Actually, one play can end the game in college overtime, too. In fact, one play -- the last one -- does exactly that every time.

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome came up with an even odder rationalization. "The system that we have in place right now is, to me, very competitive," he insisted. "Look, if you lose the coin toss, you just go out and play good defense and you get the football. Simple as that." If playing good defense is so important, why not guarantee both teams a chance to do it?

The NFL is exceptionally popular partly because it offers the best football players in a league where success demands excellence week in and week out. But when it comes to settling tie games, the NFL has embraced inferiority.