The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

The Overtime Quandary

The NFL really needs to fix its overtime rules


It might seem churlish, after having been treated to what was almost certainly the most exciting weekend of football (or "Amfoo," as a friend of mine calls it, to distinguish it from that other brand of football) ever, to lodge a complaint, but complain we must.

Though all four games were pretty thrilling—it was the first time that all four divisional championship games had been "walk-offs," decided by a score on the final play—the final game of this weekend's quartet, Buffalo v. Kansas City, was the best of the lot, a truly glorious display by two terrific teams.   (Among other highlights, the teams combined for a truly unbelievable 25 points in the last 1:58 of regulation play).

But the game exposed the fact that the NFL has by far the worst method for resolving games that are tied at the end of regulation of all the major sports—yes, even including soccer's much-derided penalty shootouts.  At the end of regulation, a coin toss decides which team will receive the ensuing kickoff to begin the overtime period. If that team manages to score a touchdown, the game is over; the loser of the coin toss doesn't get its "last licks."

Kansas City won the toss, drove down the field for a touchdown, and that was that—as in nine of the previous ten playoff games that went to an overtime, the team winning the coin toss won the game.

It is, quite simply, unfair and indefensible; any nine-year-old in a playground pick-up game would recognize that. The toss of a coin should not have that kind of impact on the outcome of a game, and Bills fans are justifiably angry about having been cheated out of their chance for a victory.  No other sport ends games by giving one team only the opportunity to score. And it is positively bizarre that the NFL, whose rules allow for endless pauses during the game to allow for microscopic video inspection of whether a receiver's left toe scraped the out-of-bounds line a microsecond before, or after, he gained "complete control" over the ball, or whether a running back's knee touched the ground on the 2-yard line or two inches behind the 2-yard line, all ostensibly in pursuit of "getting it right," would get it so wrong on this basic rule.  It should fix this ASAP.