NFL's 'modified' playoff OT rule improves nothing

Lost in all of the Tebow mania of Sunday’s thrilling playoff victory by the Broncos over the Steelers was the NFL’s illogical new postseason overtime rule.

Way back in 2010, the NFL adopted a new rule for postseason called “modified sudden death.” Sunday brought the first chance to implement it, and the outcome even left the guy who made the game-winning 80-yard catch-and-run scratching his head.

“What’s going on?” asked former Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas to former Georgia safety Champ Bailey as the Broncos teammates celebrated the latest and most unlikely verse in the Tim Tebow saga. The new “modified” overtime looked an awful lot like the old version. It certainly didn’t take the “sudden” out of the death of the Steelers’ season.

Thomas wasn’t alone in his confusion. Steelers fans must have been feeling a little like Jerry Seinfeld at the rental car counter when his reservation wasn’t held.

“You know how to make the guarantee, you just don’t know how to honor the guarantee. And that’s really the most important part of the guarantee – the honoring.”

(We interrupt this column to acknowledge the existence of a college football game Monday night. It has come to our understanding that Alabama was able to even the season series against LSU by winning the talent contest after earlier losing the swimsuit competition. I didn’t watch, since I don’t normally tune into the Miss America pageant either. But I’d like to congratulate the BCS for exalting a team that neither won its division nor played for its conference title. Somewhere the 2007 Georgia Bulldogs are wondering why not them while relishing the fact that the program that lobbied them right out of the opportunity then finally met its comeuppance. We now resume the column about a real football postseason already in progress.)

Let’s take a minute to explain what NFL referee Ron Winter tried to carefully convey to the players before the overtime coin flip Sunday. These are the actual words the NFL used when it unveiled its new postseason overtime rule two years ago.

“Teams will now have the opportunity to possess the ball AT LEAST once in the extra period UNLESS the team that receives the overtime kickoff scores a touchdown on its first possession. …

“The system GUARANTEES each team a possession or the opportunity to possess, UNLESS the team that receives the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on its initial possession.”

I have no idea what Mensa lawyer wrote this new modified sudden death rule, but the author clearly didn’t understand the meanings of the words and phrases it used. Webster’s defines “guarantee” as “an assurance for the fulfillment of a condition.” The NFL defines it as “maybe” with a massive qualifier that deems all previous assurances null and void.

Despite the commendable mission to diminish the luck factor of the coin toss giving one team an opportunity to move into field goal range and win without the other team ever having a chance, the league just made it more confusing. What would have been the harm in allowing Pittsburgh the possession it was supposedly “guaranteed” to try to match Denver’s touchdown and extend the game to sudden death or perhaps go for two points to win it? Would that do-or-die scenario have diminished the drama of the Broncos’ quick strike by erring on the side of fairness?

If you’re going to promise a team “at least” one possession, shouldn’t they “at least” get that chance. Why have the initial touchdown qualifier at all? Doesn’t that still put weight on a coin flip even if it does ask for a little more effort from the team that wins the toss?

The owners reportedly had a thick stack of alternative options to choose from when they voted on the new “modified” system without any input or argument from coaches, players, linguists or etymologists. So they went from one imperfect system to another with the stroke of a pen.

Thus the Tebow obsession lives on while Pittsburgh’s offense will have to wait for next season to get that possession it was guaranteed. And since it took the NFL 70 years to finally address the flaws of its overtime system, many of us might have to wait a few generations before they fix this fix.

That is if our own sudden deaths don’t intervene first.

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