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Press Pass

Published January 07. 2011 05:00PM

Why mess with a good thing?

The NFL rules our national sports landscape. It's been that way for at least 30 years and it probably won't change for another 30, maybe longer.

Other leagues in other sports have made runs. The NBA nearly rivaled pro football in popularity back in the Jordan years. NASCAR made a run around the turn of the century.

Neither of them ever became a part of the public consciousness like football has. Those two organizations, and many other sport leagues, are still tinkering with their products just trying to maintain the popularity they once had. Yet the NFL remains the undisputed king of all sports leagues.

One would think other sports would mimic the NFL as much as possible. And, in the same vein, it would seem logical that those who run our beloved pro football league would leave well enough alone. Yet they keep trying to tinker.

It's one thing when they make rules trying to protect their players from long-term and life-altering injuries. Or when they change rules to help offenses or to shorten games. But it's a whole different thing when they make rules changes that can directly affect the outcome of a game.

The newest rule change, which will be instituted for the first time in this year's playoffs, tweaks the long-standing sudden-death overtime format.

Sudden death was put in place in 1974 to reduce the number of tie games. Since then, as we all know, games ending in ties have gone to an extra period. A coin toss determines which team can choose to kick off or receive the ball to start overtime.

Teams nearly always choose to receive so they can score and end the game.

Statistics show that since 1994, when kick offs were moved back to the 30-yard line, the team that received an overtime kick off won the game almost 60 percent of the time. In nearly 35 percent of overtime games, the team that received the kick off scored on its first possession.

Those statistics drove the NFL's competition committee to recommend the change that goes into effect for this year's playoffs.

To prevent the coin toss from determining the winner, this year the team that receives the opening kick off of overtime will need to score a touchdown to earn a victory on that first drive.

If the receiving team kicks a field goal, the other team will have one possession to try to match it or win the game with a touchdown.

If the team that received the overtime kick off does not score, it is sudden death from there, just like it's been since '74.

If the team that received the opening kick off scores a touchdown, it wins the game.

It seems fair, but also a bit drastic.

The obvious problem with the old system is that it favors the team that wins the coin toss and receives the opening kick off in overtime.

Wouldn't a better solution be to simply play one quarter in overtime instead of sudden death. Give each team two time outs and stop the clock at the two-minute mark just like the second and fourth quarters of regulation. That should ensure that each team gets the ball at least once, possibly twice.

Another easy solution would be to predetermine which team gets the ball first in overtime. Maybe the pregame coin toss determines who gets the ball if the game should go to overtime. Or maybe the home (or away) team always get it. It doesn't matter how you figure it out, as long as both teams know beforehand. Then keep it sudden death no matter what happens on the first drive of the extra period.

If both teams know who gets the ball in overtime, then they can play out the endgame knowing where the stand in the event of regulation ending in a tie.

Another solution would be to start overtime with one team getting ball on the 20-yard line instead of receiving a kick off.

One reason the team that receives an overtime kick off has an advantage is because it usually starts somewhere around the 35-yarde line. That means they only have to move the ball about 40 yards to be in field goal. Even a 30-yard drive would get them to the other 35-yard line where they could attempt a 52-yard field goal.

If the team with the ball started overtime on the 20, it would have to go at least 50 yards and then it's still looking at a 47-yard field goal attempt.

The new rule change was meant to keep the sudden death aspect in place as much as possible, so two of the three alternate scenarios above would keep the suspense that comes with sudden death overtime.

The NFL sometimes likes to test its new rules in preseason before implementing them in the regular season. This change would have been difficult to put in for preseason because so few games go to overtime. It could have been years before the scenario would have played out in a way that would have tested the new rule.

But why not test it in the regular season for a few years before putting it in place for the postseason when so much is on the line?

If a game goes to overtime this week, a coach might be forced to make a decision to kick a field goal or go for a touchdown with his team's season riding on the line. In other words a coach could win or lose the game based on one flawed decision instead of a coin toss impacting the outcome.

If that happens it would be hard to blame a coach who had never faced that situation before no matter which way he decides to play it.

No matter what, it probably would have been better had the NFL just left well enough along.

Why mess with a good thing?

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