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The First Two Data Points Say “…mmm, I’m Not Sure Yet”

2012 January 23
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by Liam Lenten

The new NFL overtime rule, see page 111 (introduced last season for playoff games only) finally became binding in the current playoff series two weeks ago, and then for a second time yesterday. Of most interest to economists about the rule change is its potential for teams to alter their overtime strategies in response to the element of the rule that both teams are now guaranteed a direct opportunity to score.

While it’s far too early to make firm inferences about this, it’s worth recounting that the primary intention of the rule was for the result of the coin toss determining which team gets to receive the kick-off (and consequently first possession) to have less power in determining the match winner (previously almost 60% of the nearly 500 overtime games since 1974). At the margin, we might also expect touchdowns to be the winning method of scoring slightly more often than previously, since it is now the only way that the team with first possession can effectively kill the game without the opposition getting the chance to equalize.

On the basis of these first two observations, it is interesting to note that the qualitative outcomes were very different - while winning the toss allowed Denver and Tim Tebow to end the contest on the first play via a touchdown, both NY Giants and San Fransisco each failed to score on their first possession, triggering reversion to sudden death as previously, which was won eventually by the former. [Disclaimer: I have only recently followed the sport, so feel free to critique this via comments.]

While this (admittedly premature) anecdotal evidence suggests that the coin toss is more influential than before, the reality is about as mixed as could have been expected. Someday – perhaps in a few decades or even within the decade should the rule be extended to the regular season, one of our esteemed TSE colleagues will no doubt crunch the numbers on this rule change when there is a sufficient (presuming due restraint exercised) sample size.

7 Responses
  1. Josh permalink
    January 24, 2012

    I would like to know what percentage of overtime games end on a first possession field goal rather than how often the team receiving the ball first wins. In a sudden death situation, the coin toss winner will receive an extra possession should neither team score, but the new rule does not mitigate that. Also, this season, kickoffs are five yards shorter than they had been previously, so teams receiving the opening kick on average have worse field position, making them less likely to score.

    A better solution might have been to change the rules from sudden death to “first to score four points”. That way, a lone field goal could not decide the game, but personally, I would rather see a full fifteen minute overtime period played with fourth quarter rules. If still tied, then the game would become an untimed sudden death period.

  2. January 24, 2012

    Liam,

    I am a huge proponent of the new overtime rule and I believe it should be immediately implemented into the regular season. It most definitely makes the coin toss less valuable, because now the team who wins the coin toss cannot simply drive the ball 40 yards and kick a field goal to win the game, they must earn the win with a more valuable touchdown. The coin toss obviously becomes less valuable because it is now more difficult to win on the first possession. Therefore, the strategy to make the coin toss less-determinant of the winner was inherently successful based on the fact that it is more difficult to score a touch down than a field-goal.

  3. Pete permalink
    January 25, 2012

    Still hard for me to understand why the NFL overtime (even the modified playoff version) is better than the NCAA overtime.

    College rules give each team the same chance and the results are much more fun to watch. What’s not to like?

  4. Harmy G permalink
    January 25, 2012

    @Pete: NCAA overtime possessions start too close to the end zone, in many people’s opinion. Also, you’d be hard-pressed to find instances where the NFL follows college rules; they tend to be stubborn about these things.

  5. Josh permalink
    January 25, 2012

    It’s not better than college rules, but I imagine NFL games with NCAA overtime rules would generally go on longer as the teams are more evenly matched and field goal kickers are more accurate. My problem with NCAA rules are that it changes the game from typical football to basically a red zone scoring contest. Vertical passing, punting, kicking, the return game, field position strategy, etc. are all lost.

  6. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    January 25, 2012

    The NFL could adopt the more exciting NHL overtime rule. Begin with only 7 aside teams and if a tie still exists at the end of the overtime quarter, have a field goal shootout. The Ravens would have still lost anyway.

  7. Richard permalink
    January 27, 2012

    How ’bout a safety shootout instead? Have each team start on its own 1 foot line and let the defense try to stuff the running back?

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