Commentary

NFL outsmarts itself with new OT ruling

The league had the right idea with the new rule, but executed it poorly

Originally Published: March 23, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

If it were a punt, the NFL owners just shanked the overtime rules off the side of their foot.

The problem isn't the new sudden-death rule. The new rule is better than the old rule. Rock, paper, scissors was better than the old rule.

At least now a team won't be at the total mercy of something as silly and arbitrary as a coin flip. Under the just-passed OT rule -- hey, health care and NFL overtime reform all in the same week! -- you no longer can win the toss and then win the game on a field goal. The other team now gets a possession to match your field goal or beat you with a touchdown.

So far, so fair.

But for reasons that don't entirely hold up under interrogation, the NFL owners approved the new OT rules for the postseason, but not for the regular season. This is like serving dog food for dinner and beluga caviar for dessert.

The official explanation was player safety: The possibility of extended overtime could lead to more injuries.

Fine. I get it.

But what about the possibility of injuries during those near-worthless preseason games? If NFL owners are so concerned about player safety, then deep-six half of those exhibition games. But they won't because those games are financial rainmakers.

Anyway, you can't have it both ways. You can't say you're protecting your players in the regular season, but then not protect them in the preseason. And you can't have one set of overtime rules in the postseason and another set in the regular season.

For a league that prides itself on cutting-edge thinking and policy, the NFL outsmarted itself on this one.

Right intent, wrong execution.

The new rule still has acne, but not as much as the rule it replaced. The formerly Dumbest OT System Of All Time consisted of a coin toss, followed by the team that won the coin toss also winning the game nearly 60 percent of the time (since 1994).

Major college football doesn't have an actual playoff, but at least it has an overtime that gives each team a chance to score. So does the NBA, the NCAA tournament, the PGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the NHL, etc. So it was nice of the NFL owners to ditch the prehistoric OT policy and trade it in for something more logical.

Now the coin-toss-winning team has choices. And the other team has the possibility of chances. In the old days (pre-yesterday), you could win the toss, take the kickoff, drive 40 or so yards, kick a field goal and win the game. You can still do most of that, except that now the other team gets the ball back if you kick a field goal. If you score a touchdown on that first drive, the game is immediately over -- just like the old days.

If it were up to me, I'd still give each team a chance to score. But NFL commish Roger Goodell and the league's competition committee didn't ask for my input. But I'll give Goodell, the committee and the owners credit for doing something. The old system, by virtue of the coin-toss figures and the increasing accuracy of field goal kickers, was unfair.

But where the owners screwed up was by confining the new system to the postseason. And while there will be discussion to adopt the changes for the regular season at their next meeting, in May in Dallas, what's the point of buying a new car if you can't take it for a spin around the whole block? The NFL is keeping its car in the garage until the playoffs.

The owners and the committee will tell you it's because of the injury risks, that they were sensitive to the players' concerns. If so, that's a pleasant change.

But what about the risks to the integrity of the game and the playoff process? By limiting the new OT rules to the postseason, a team could be eliminated from the playoff chase by a coin toss and ensuing field goal -- the very scenario that prompted such league power brokers as Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian to switch sides and push for the rules change.

So NFL owners are essentially admitting the old rule was flawed, and the new rule is better; yet they're still keeping the old rule even though it could affect which teams can play under the new rule? How can so many smart owners make such a basic mistake?

If you can take a step forward and backward at the same time, the NFL just did it. It improved the postseason, but cheated the regular season. It created the likelihood of more controversy and established two sets of rules when one would have worked just fine.

It blew it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

ALSO SEE