Originally created 01/25/03

Overtime the next big issue for NFL



SAN DIEGO -- The Super Bowl could be decided by a coin flip.

That possibility, so out of place in a sport that rewards skill, planning and hard work, is at the core of the NFL's uproar about overtime.

The sudden-death system in place for the last 29 seasons has skewed heavily in favor of the winner of the coin toss this season. After a record number of OT games during the regular season, calls for change are in the air.

At his annual state-of-the-league news conference Friday, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said change was very likely before next season.

"That advantage of receiving first is becoming unbalanced," Tagliabue said. "How we fine-tune the rule, I don't know."

At first glance, sudden death may seem like the fairest way to do things. But with the kickoff moving back over the years - from the 40 to the 35 and, now, to the 30 - and with offenses getting better and kickers able to make longer kicks more consistently, the team that receives first has slowly gained a greater advantage.

This season, a record 25 games went to overtime and 10 of those (40 percent) were won in the first possession by the team that won the toss. In the 29 years since overtime began, the game was won on the first possession only 28 percent of the time. Over the last nine years, since the kickoff was moved to the 30, the coin-toss winner has won 38 percent of games on its first possession.

"It only stands to reason that if you get into overtime, you should have a fair chance to win," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association.

While Tagliabue and Upshaw are convinced change is needed, there is no consensus on what kind of change it might be.

This year, one playoff game went to overtime and Tennessee defeated Pittsburgh 34-31 after winning the coin toss and driving for the winning field goal.

"I feel it's time to look at it," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "It should be some system where the other team gets a chance to have the ball."

The next owners' meeting is in March, and 24 of 32 owners would have to approve a change. Regardless of what they decide, there's no fixing the rule for this year's biggest game, which hasn't had overtime in its 36-year history.

"Overtime seems to be on everybody's mind right now," said Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, a member of the NFL competition committee. "It has served the league very well. But things have changed and we need to find out why. Is it a one- or two-year aberration, or is it something more drastic than that?"

Since 1996, the NCAA has used a system in which each team gets the ball from the 25-yard line and keeps it until it either scores, loses the ball or gives it up on downs.

It's fair in that both teams get a chance to score. But it's flawed in several senses - most notably, because if teams keep matching each other score for score, games can go six or seven overtimes. Arkansas has been involved in two games of six OTs or longer in the past two years.

Despite its flaws, many college players and coaches like the system because it separates their sport from the pro game and it assures a winner.

"These kids are not getting paid," said Larry Johnson of Penn State. "I think you stick to the way it is. It seems like equal opportunity to see what both teams can do and the NFL is more cutthroat."

The NFL created overtime in 1974 in part because, while common in sports like soccer, tie games have never been accepted in American mainstream sports.

They clutter up the standings, leave players and fans with a sense of unfinished business and put coaches in awkward, sometimes untenable, situations.

Lou Saban essentially got run out of Denver with his famous statement "Half a loaf is better than none," which was the way he explained playing for a 10-10 tie against Miami in 1971. Two weeks later, fans showered Saban with half loaves of bread and by the end of the year, he was out as coach.

Harkening back to the classic 1958 NFL title game, Baltimore's sudden-death 23-17 win over the New York Giants, the NFL adopted the rule for the regular season with the caveat that if games went a full extra quarter without a score, it would still end in a tie.

Oddly enough, the first regular-season overtime game ended in a 34-34 tie between Denver and Pittsburgh.

The system has been far from foolproof since.

In 1998, referee Phil Luckett botched the coin flip of all things, hearing "heads" when Jerome Bettis called "tails" in a Thanksgiving Day overtime game between the Steelers and Lions. Detroit got the ball and scored on its first possession for the victory.

This year, Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg chose to take the wind, not the ball, after winning the toss in overtime. The Lions lost to Chicago and Mornhinweg looked foolish.