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Eisenberg: OT Proposal Isn't Enough


The NFL owners are meeting this week, and the issue garnering headlines is a potential change to the overtime rules. I'm all for it. As things stand now, there's too much riding on the coin flip, which has nothing to do with blocking and tackling.

When the league instituted overtime 36 years ago, it had no way of knowing how field goal kicking would improve. Back then, three of every five attempts went through the uprights. In 2009, more than four of every five attempts were good. That has led to many games being decided by a team winning the coin flip, picking up a couple of first downs, booting the winning kick and celebrating before the other team's offense ever gets on the field. Not the fairest way to decide things.

For the first two decades of overtime, teams losing the flip ended up winning just as often as teams that won the flip. There was no fairness problem. But since 1994, with the quality of kicking soaring, flip-winners have taken 59.8 of the games. The heads-or-tails call has become decisive.

Oddly, the league doesn't seem to have a problem with that in general. The proposed change that the owners will vote on Wednesday – a modification the competition committee approved – will only affect overtime in the postseason. Why?

Actually, I know why. The one scenario the league really wants to avoid is having a flip decide a Super Bowl. It didn't literally happen last season, but it did indirectly. When the Saints and Vikings went to overtime in the NFC title game, the Saints won the flip, picked up a couple of first downs and booted a kick that sent them to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Colts. The Vikings' offense, led by Brett Favre, never got on the field in overtime.

If the owners vote in the proposed change Wednesday, the other team – the one that loses the flip -- would now get a possession, but only if the first series ends with a field goal. If it ends with a touchdown, the game is over.

It is a change that probably would, in fact, lessen the impact on the flip. But I still have problems with it.

First of all, it doesn't go far enough. The possibility of a single-possession overtime would still exist, and if the goal is complete fairness, both teams should get the ball at least once. If I'm drawing up the rules, I would go with that – give each team the ball at least once in overtime. Yes, that would spell the end of dramatic sudden death, but fairness is the goal.

Another problem I have with the proposal is that it's just for the postseason. Sorry, but if having a Super Bowl basically decided by a flip is bad, then having regular season games decided by a flip also is bad. One set of rules should govern the game. Cramming in a playoffs-only alteration feels forced.

I understand there are other considerations, such as keeping average games from running too long, bumping into "60 Minutes," and affecting ad rates. But the inherent fairness and balance of the NFL is what makes it such popular television, and the league should always strive to protect those elements.

Of course, the proposed change would go into effect only if 24 of the league's 32 owners vote for it Wednesday, and that is hardly assured. The owners have previously turned down several proposed changes to overtime. They seem to like the status quo. "I can't say that I have any sense for the votes," Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee, told

I'm wondering if it might fail because it feels forced, and also because regular season overtime clearly needs to be addressed. . .and isn't.

Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, a member of the competition committee, told USA Today he was for maintaining the status quo until he looked at the overwhelming statistical evidence. Almost 85 percent of regular season overtimes were decided by field goals last season. It is "obvious" that "some adjustment" is needed, Polian said.

The adjustment being proposed is a step in that direction. But more steps are needed.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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