Bad Overtime Logic and Good Kickers

One thing about the web is that you can tell what topics fans are genuinely interested in. This week there were many hits on the OT coin flip from people searching Google on the subject, and my article on the topic from September was bounced around fan message boards all over the country.

What Is Fair?

In my original article I point to the fact that in about 1 in 3 OT games, the coin flip winner scores before their opponent has a chance to go on offense. In total the coin flip winner wins 60% of all overtimes. At FO this week, they wrote “…only 60%...” as if that’s just a small edge.

I couldn’t disagree more. You could think, "50% is the optimally fair rate, and 60 is only 10 'more percent' than 50. Hey, 10% isn’t very much, so the coin flip is close enough to being fair. What’s the big deal?" But this is a flawed way of looking at it. Percent and percentage points are not the same thing.

Would you say that 3:2 odds represents a significant advantage? I sure would. That means that one team’s chances of winning are half again larger than the other’s. Well, that’s exactly what a 60% win-rate is—a 60/40 or 3:2 advantage. That can’t be ignored.

If you still don’t feel that a 3:2 advantage is unacceptable, what would be the odds at which you would say something needs to be fixed? 2:1? That would be a 67/33 split…and we’re “only 7%” away from that.

"They Had a Chance to Make a Stop"

One argument I frequently hear in defense of the status quo is "the defense had a chance to make a stop." True, even though one out of three OT games ends without one team ever touching the ball, the losing defense did have an opportunity to force a punt or turnover. On average they have a 2 in 3 chance of stopping the coin flip-winner from scoring. The problem with this argument is that the coin flip-winning defense would have a 100% chance of making a stop. The opposing offense will never take the field.

Even if the defense does manage to stop the coin flip-winning team from scoring, the advantage persists and cascades throughout the OT period. However the flow of the game shakes out, the best the coin flip-loser can do is break even in terms of possessions, and the worst the coin flip-winner can do is break even. In other words, if both teams are stopped from scoring on their first drives, the problem starts all over again.

Field Goals

Another point I made in my article was that a big part of the reason for the advantage was the movement of the kickoff spot from the 35 back to the 30 yard line. This had the unintended consequence of increasing the advantage of the receiving team in OT. Touchbacks became far less common and starting field position improved for offenses. But this is only part of the story.

The reason the NFL moved the kick off line back was because kickers had improved so much over the years, both in distance and accuracy. In 1974, the league FG% was 60.6%. This year, it was 84.5%. And that even masks how much kickers have truly improved. In 1974, 36% of all FG attempts were from 40 yards or beyond. In 2008, the figure was 41%.

These days, teams aren’t looking to get inside the 25 for a field goal attempt, they’re just hoping to get inside the 40. Getting a quick score in overtime has become a far easier proposition.

Field goals have gradually warped NFL football. In 1974, there were 3.0 FG attempts each game compared to 3.9 in 2008, a 30% increase. Kickers have become so accurate and kick such long distances that the sport has changed before our eyes. Overtime might be where the effect is magnified and most apparent, but the entire game is different.

Is it time to narrow the field goal posts?

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22 Responses to “Bad Overtime Logic and Good Kickers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of field position, check out Bill Simmons' Page 2 article today, where he wrote:

    The John Madden Award for "Performance that most resembled a 'Madden' video game opponent if you're playing the computer and it decides there's no effing way you're winning the game"
    To Chargers punter Mike Scifres, who stuck five punts inside the 10-yard line, including the biggest punt of wild-card weekend -- the one with less than three minutes remaining that bounced inside Indy's 2, kicked straight up like one of Tiger's approach shots on 16 at Augusta, then spun sideways out of bounds. When he jogged off the field with an "I'm in the zone, what do you want me to say?" look on his face, I kept waiting for him to shrug sheepishly at Marv Albert, Mike Fratello and Magic Johnson at courtside. Has there been a greater punting performance in playoff history? And considering Pittsburgh's troubles in the same department, for the first time in my gambling life, I actually factored in the Manute-Muggsy level disparity in punters with my Chargers-Steelers pick below. How much is 10-15 yards of field position (either way) worth 10-12 times in a 60-minute game? Ten points? Fourteen? How do we calculate this?

  2. Brian says:

    I've heard this talked about all week. Brian, I like your idea to move the kickoff back to the 35 in overtime. But I also heard another one that I like. The first team to score 6 points wins the game. I like this for a few reasons:

    1) Teams can no longer play for the cheap field goal. In order for a team to win on one possession they have to score a touchdown.

    2) If the team that receives first kicks a field goal, the other team will have a chance to go on offense AND win the game.

    3)I think this presents all new kinds of overtime strategy that will really test a coach's ability to weigh risk and reward. Compare that to the current strategy which is get to the 35 yard line and kick a field goal.

    I've heard this in a few places so I don't know who to give the credit to, but I think this solves all the overtime problems.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I like that "win by 6" idea. But does it reflect poorly on me that I immediately considered what impact it would have on point spreads?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Interesting idea Brian, I would modify it to win by more than 4. A field goal and a safety should be enough.

    I would also eliminate OT for the regular season entirely. Having ties in the regular season reduces the need for fabricated tie breakers at year end.

  5. Brian Burke says:

    Hey Eddy- It looks like this guy ripped you off pretty bad, and maybe me too. The article and headline don't match. "Extra points and overtime need to be revamped by NFL, blogger says." But the article doesn't name or even acknowledge this mystery blogger. The author even goes out of his way to pretend he got his idea while perusing the extra point statistics in the paper. You know, just like everyone does on a Monday morning. The article robs all of the overtime ideas from the comments to my Sep post on the subject.

    I wrote him an email asking him to explain.

  6. Anonymous says:

    the problem is not "fairness"...each team has a theoretical 50% chance of winning before the coin toss. the problem is the impact on winning of the coin toss itself.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Instead of a coin flip and then kickoff, I always liked the idea of each coach putting a bid for a yard line, and whichever team bids closer to their own end zone starts with the ball. Or, Solomon-esqly, one team picks a distance from an end zone, and the other team picks offense or defense.

    I do like the 4/6 point rule, because a team kicking a field goal on third down is as boring as it gets.

  8. Tarr says:

    BB, narrowing the goal posts may be a good idea, but of course, like you say, it has impacts well beyond OT. This goes back to our discussions on the banality of the extra point.

    I like fortension's cake-cutting suggestion, but that's the sort of thing we'll never see.

    My pseudo-realistic OT solutions, from favorite to least favorite:

    1) Treat 4th quarter-to-OT the same as first-to-second or third-to-fourth. Switch sides, down and distance are unchanged. People whine about the loss of drama at the end of games, but it's only the tie games that lose some drama, as oppose to most comeback attempts. Besides, you still have to actually score.

    2) Team with the ball at the end of regulation (or team that was scored on/kicked against if the last play of regulation was a field goal attempt or score) automatically "wins the toss" and may elect to receive. This is really a slight variant on the one above, although it does introduce a tricky situation for a team with the ball facing a long FG attempt at the end of a tie game.

    3) Some agreed-upon convention for the toss. For instance, home team automatically wins the opening toss, visiting team automatically wins the toss in OT. Or vice versa, whatever (I prefer giving it to the visiting team to slightly mitigate home field advantage). The point is, everyone knows in advance and can plan accordingly.

    4) Move up the OT kickoff to the distance where touchbacks become common. Mitigates the problem on a statistical level, although it still seems unfair in individual cases.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the pointer Brian. It does look suspicious.

  10. Anonymous says:

    60% is a huge advantage. That's about your odds, pre-flop, with AK suited against a random hand and a random set of community cards. That's big time.

    The point you made about field goals needs to be screamed from the tops of the world.

    Not only that, but here's another point that I think is SORELY missing from this discussion: the NFL goes out of their way to change the rules virtually every off-season to encourage more scoring, shifting the rules to a more offensive-friendly game. Defensive backs can't touch a receiver after five yards, the kickoffs have been moved back to the thirty yard line, the threshold for roughing the passer is much lower, etc. To give a team the ball first in this environment is highly advantageous.

    I suppose the losing team could try an onside kick but that would just award the receiving team with outstanding field position if it failed, which it does more often than not.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Allow ties in the regular season and give the first possession in the post season to the lower seeded team on the basis that the higher seed has already had the advantage of a home field.

    For the Superbowl,lets have a replay :-).

  12. Anonymous says:

    I'm not going to make any suggestions, as that territory is well covered, but thank you for bringing up those common arguments (only 60%, defense could have made a stop) and revealing their absurdity. I'd add that the way I've been explaining it is as follows: imagine that instead of choosing to receive a kickoff, the winner of the coin flip simply got the ball at the opposition's 2-yard line. Now the winner of the coin flip wins the game, oh I don't know, 99.5% of the time. Is that too much? Is it fair? If 60% is okay and 99.5% isn't, what's the point at which it becomes a problem? And hey, the defense had the chance to block the FG attempt from the 2, right? So why is anyone complaining?

    It's odd that because the advantage isn't an overwhelming advantage, people claim that it isn't there. It's an advantage whether it's overwhelming or not, and it's indisputably unfair, not to mention easily preventable. Bizarre.

  13. KiranR says:

    Here's a thought: In 2008, 99.5% of all extra point attempts were good (only 6 missed out of 1,176). The extra point doesn't add any value to the game, since there is almost no uncertainty. Make the extra-point attempt a true test, putting it somewhere around the 20-yard line, say. This dow two things. Not all extra points will be "good", reducing the likelihood of a regular-time tie, and increases the likelihood that teams will go for 2 points (as the trade-off will appear more attractive), creating even more uncertainty in outcome. I believe, Pete Palmer and his colleagues introduced the idea of moving the extra-point back several yards 20 years ago. Back then the 2-point conversion wasn't applicable in the NFL.

    I also suggest (similar to one of ideas in an earlier comment), that the team winning the toss, can either take the ball at their own 15-yard line, or have the other team start at their 15. I believe David Romer's study indicated that to be the "zero-point" line (i.e. no advantage to either team). The reason there is a bias today, is that, on average, the receiving team starts much further out than the 15 (and, each 10 yards out is worth about a point, and in an overtime game, that is a significant advantage).


  14. Anonymous says:

    I like the win by 4 idea. The only real flaw is that alot of coaches play for the tie instead trying to win.

  15. Anonymous says:


    ...alot of coaches would pay for the tie..

  16. Anonymous says:



  17. Unknown says:

    How about instead of a magic number that a team has to win by you make it so field goals don't end the game. That is get rid of the sudden death for field goals. The first team to take the lead via either a TD, a PAT, 2pt Conversion, or Safety would win. If no one gets one of those for the lead then the leader after the 15:00 OT wins. If team A gets 3 field goals and then Team B gets a TD if B doesn't score before the end of OT then A wins. If A scores 2 fg and then B scores a td with a PAT, B wins right there.

  18. Brian Burke says:

    Good point about "fair." A coin flip is, after all fair. Even if we simply determined the winner entirely with nothing more than a coin flip, that would technically be fair.

    I guess the right word is "non-arbitrary."

  19. Anonymous says:

    There should be no overtime in regular season.
    A tie is a tie, You have a chance to win the game in regulation. As far as the playoffs leave it the same. Its a game and thats one of the rules, luck of the flip. One team gets lucky get over it. I like luck playing a factor in overtime. It adds to the mystique of the game.

  20. Doctorjorts says:

    In my opinion, the overtime rules for the regular season could be tweaked by keeping sudden death, but changing the setup in ways that have been discussed above. One of the big issues is keeping the game time to a reasonable length, what with almost all of the NFL action occurring in a single day. Fantasy geeks are also not big fans of overtime because it arbitrarily gives a player an extra quarter to pad their stats.

    However, changing overtime in the postseason is much more a priority in my opinion. When a team's entire season is on the line, the stakes are much, much too high for the scales to tip dramatically based on a coin flip. Imagine if Kevin Dyson's final catch in the 1999 season Super Bowl had gotten that final yard. Who wouldn't want to see a prolonged college-style overtime to finish out one of the greatest Super Bowls in history???

    I wonder if it'll take a one-drive overtime in the Super Bowl to change everyone's minds about this. The inertia may be too great otherwise.

  21. Brett says:

    If the NFL changes the overtime rules, they will almost certainly adhere to the following criteria:

    1) Regular season games must be decided in the same way as playoff games. In other words -- there must be an overtime period if the game is tied at the end of regulation. Also, any change to overtime rules should not significantly increase the chances of a tie at the end of OT.

    2) The game must be played the same way in overtime as it is played in regulation; all aspects of special teams (kickoff, punt, FG, XP) must remain intact. This rules out bidding for field position and continuing the 4th quarter.

    3) Overtime must be sudden death. The games are already too long as it is, so any change that eliminates sudden death or significantly increases the duration of overtime, such as the "win by 6" idea, is probably out of the question.

    The only suggestion I've seen that fits the above criteria and brings the odds closer to 1:1 is kicking off from somewhere between the 35- and 40-yard line in OT. I believe the 35 still favors the receiving team too much and the 40 might favor the kicking team too much. There must be an equilibrium point at which coaches elect to kick off 50% of the time.

    In order to find this equilibrium point, the kickoff spot should change by 1 yard every year depending on the results of previous overtime games. For example, let's say they move the kickoff spot to the 35 and the receiving team wins 57% of the time in year 1. In year 2, OT kickoffs will be from the 36. Year 3 is then adjusted according to the 2-year total. The spot should not change if the result is between let's say 49-51%. This would also account for changes in style of play and FG accuracy if it continues to improve.

  22. Anonymous says:

    First, anyone that thinks that we should not have overtime in the regular season must also like the BCS. Go back to sitting around the campire singing kumbayah and let the adults find a solution. In any competition, the goal is to determine a winner. A tie is basically the equivalent of bending over the fans and robbing them afterwards. One of the best things about the NFL is that it has so few ties.

    Second, I happen to like sudden death overtime. The argument that the team that lost the coin toss is at a disadvantage is like arguing that the team that wins the coin toss at the outset of the game has a distinct advantage. Still, I'd be ok with some small changes such as the four point rule. Playing an entire quarter by design should be a last resort as it is now due to time constraints and wear on the players.

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