Kickers at the heart of OT debate

2/13/2009 - NFL
Kickers such as Jason Hanson (left) and Rob Bironas are nice weapons to have in OT. US Presswire/Getty Images

Overtime is the most polarizing argument in the NFL these days.

Traditionalists don't want change. Opponents want a mandatory two-possession overtime. The two sides can't come together. In fact, those pushing for change get downright angry when discussing the subject.

During his state of the league address at the Super Bowl, commissioner Roger Goodell floated an idea that might work, even though it might not completely satisfy the two-possession supporters. His compromise is minimizing the chances of a cheap game-winning field goal on the first drive in overtime.

"What we've seen in our statistics is that historically about 30 percent of the games in overtime are decided with a team who wins the coin toss scoring on the first possession," Goodell said. "The number has risen to about 47 percent, and I think that's significant, and I think it's something our [competition] committee needs to look at."

The competition committee meets next week in Indianapolis at the scouting combine to sort through ideas and come up with agendas for its formal meeting in March.

First, understand that Goodell isn't necessarily a supporter of drastic overtime change. "I would disagree very strongly with your point that the game is determined by a coin flip," he said when asked why the NFL doesn't change its overtime rules. "The point of the game is to win in regulation."

In more than 30 years of covering this sport, I have learned two things usually prompt rules changes: when defenses start to upstage offenses, and when kickers become big factors in games. Scoring is at its highest point since 1965, so there is no problem there. But kickers are coming off their greatest season ever. With that in mind, I sense some changes coming.

Place-kickers made 845 of 1,000 field goals this past season, the highest total in league history. The accuracy rate of kickers has been on a seven-year rise since 2001, when they converted on 76.3 percent of their attempts. When kickers get too good, football people get uncomfortable. Fans want hitting, not soccer.

If you're wondering how valuable kickers are nowadays, consider this: The Falcons probably will franchise punter Michael Koenen, who doubles as a kickoff specialist and is one of the best in that category. Jason Hanson of the Lions, Shayne Graham of the Bengals and Rob Bironas of the Titans might also get franchised if they don't get long-term deals.

When kickers become franchise players, changes usually occur.

"Field goal kickers are much more accurate than they have been in the past, and that is a danger," Goodell said. "We have talked about different concepts. Should we move the kickoffs so that the drive would start further back? If they drive down and they kick a long field goal, they deserve to win."

Another idea would be to eliminate the field goal during each team's first possession, forcing teams to score touchdowns. That one doesn't have much of a chance, because scoring a touchdown in overtime is difficult. If half the 15-minute overtime period is eaten up with two possessions and no points, the chances of a tie increase. Overtime was put in to stop ties, and the system has worked beautifully for decades.

From what Goodell was saying at the Super Bowl, the idea of making it more difficult to convert a field goal has a chance. Teams are tired after four quarters of football, and the league is growing tired of seeing the overtime kickoff returned to the 45-yard line, followed by two quick first downs and a 45-yard field goal.

One of the reasons the competition committee worries about changing overtime rules is the threat of injuries.

As a trade-off, why not have the winner of the coin toss start the opening overtime drive at the 20- or 25-yard line and eliminate the overtime kickoff? More players get hurt on kickoffs than do on punts. A drive starting from the 20 or 25 makes a team earn the victory. It could take as many as four first downs to get into winning field goal range.

If it's unable to sustain a long drive, the winner of the overtime coin toss would be forced to punt. The two-possession concept would go into effect the natural way. Those who detest any overtime changes might argue that the loser of the coin toss gains an inherent advantage. If the opening drive doesn't net a first down, the the coin-toss loser could get the ball near midfield, setting up an easy field goal drive.

If you haven't guessed, I'm a traditionalist who detests ties, so I'm not for much change. As a way to quiet the folks who want two possessions, I'd compromise and offer this idea: Give the coin-toss winner the ball at the 25 without the kickoff.

This idea has a chance.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.