Overtime doesn't need two possessions

The idea of changing the overtime rules so that each team is guaranteed one possession is misguided, writes John Clayton.

Updated: April 5, 2007, 1:20 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Now that instant replay was voted in permanently by NFL owners, overtime has replaced it as the main topic of offseason debate.

The competition committee believes overtime has developed flaws. Teams winning the coin toss are winning overtime games with more regularity. The committee proposed some minor rule adjustments at last week's owners meetings, but owners voted against making any changes. While there won't be any changes this season, it will remain a topic of discussion.

What drives me crazy is all the inane talk of going to a two-possession system in overtime that would guarantee each team gets the ball. Fortunately, only about a dozen teams support the change to two possessions. A couple of years ago, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue tried to garner support for two-possession overtimes. He was shot down.

Colts coach Tony Dungy said it the best when he called overtime a problem that might not have a solution. Every time he hears an alternative it has holes. Each fix creates more problems. It's best to just leave it alone, but that won't happen.

Those who are in favor of going to a two-possession system in overtime don't appreciate the risks. Their cry is that it's silly to have a coin toss determine a game. In my opinion, it's sillier to try to come up with some democratic way of creating a level field in overtime.

The NFL never will go to the college rule of lining up teams at the opponent's 25-yard line and seeing if they can match scores. Such a system would ruin a history of statistics and create havoc for fantasy players. Don't forget the fantasy players because they are an important partner in the growth of the NFL.

Here's the bottom line of the whole overtime argument: The current system reduces ties, so it accomplished its mission. Under the current rules, there have only been three ties in the past 14 seasons. In a league with a 16-game season, a tie is the worst. The late-season fight for the playoff is so close, you don't want to have ties muddling the playoff picture.

And that's what will happen if the league tries to ensure two-possession overtimes. Scoring is tough, but it is becoming pretty apparent teams are getting better at driving for last-minute field goals. Kickers are coming off the greatest season in NFL history. They made 81 percent of their field goal attempts. Next season, the league will be diligent in making sure the new footballs used by kickers -- K balls -- will be worn down by the fourth quarter and possible overtime.

Each game will have an official whose only job is to watch the K balls. He will number them from 1 through 12 and make sure the No. 1 ball stays in play until it's lost. As the ball gets worn down during the game, holders won't have to worry about a ball that is too slippery and kickers won't have to kick a brand new ball that feels like a rock.

If the league goes to a system that ensures two possessions, there is a good chance each team will be able to drive for a field goal. In eating up 10 minutes of the 15-minute overtime with two field goal attempts, the chances of a tie increase. While some people might cry for a second overtime if the first one ends in a tie, the thoughts of a four-hour football game are ridiculous. Too many injuries. And the result still might be a tie.

Plus, I don't like what a two-possession overtime would do to the strategy of the game. Overtime is sudden death. It's one of the most exciting entities in sports. One play can end the game. That's great drama.

Under the two-possession overtime, the team that wins the coin toss probably would kick off to see whether it must score a touchdown or a field goal to win the game. Plus, a two-possession overtime would have a significant impact in the final two minutes of regulation, causing teams to be even more conservative. The NFL wants a game with an offensive mind-set. But with a two-possession overtime, coaches would be playing not to lose instead of playing to win at the end of games.

That's not good for football.

It damages the concept of going for touchdowns to win games in the final two minutes. One of the great aspects of the past two seasons has been the multiple scores in the final two minutes of games. Top quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have become masters of two-minute drives for scores. Why take that excitement away?

The competition committee has a great grasp of the situation. It knows that the numbers say something needs to be changed. There has been a rise in the percentage of teams that win the coin toss winning games. That percentage went from 55.9 during 1994-97 to 64.6 for the next four seasons. And after it dropped to 60 percent for 2002-05, it went up to 63.6 last season.

But going to a two-possession system in overtime isn't the answer. Moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line would help and I'd be in favor of doing that. But mandating a two-possession overtime simply will be wrong and it would hurt the game.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer