Ties in the NFL and what to do about them

Yesterday to open their 2018 seasons the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers tied at 21-21.

Ties in the NFL have always been one of the most boring, anticlimactic events in all of sports. The highest, most competitive level of football in the land has overtime rules that skew heavily towards whoever wins a post game coin toss.

Because Wikipedia has an article for everything we can look back on the history of ties in the NFL.

The First 53 Seasons:

In the NFLs first 53 years (1920-1973) there was no overtime. If the game was deadlocked when the final whistle was blown that was it. The game ended in a tie.

This resulted in the first NFL season having an astounding 17 ties.

The 1922 NFL season had 9 ties. With 70% of all games being complete shutouts, and 5 of those ties were 0-0 scorelines. Basically this meant the early days of football were terribly boring and low scoring. For more on this check out Chart Party – Every NFL Score Ever.

Getting into some real math. The NFL averaged 4.7 tied games a season in its first 53 years with a total of 256 tied games. For frame of reference, today there are 256 games in the entire NFL regular season split between 32 teams.

That’s right! In the first 53 years of the NFL the equivalent of one modern season was made up entirely of tie games. At that time there were only 14-28 teams so ties occurred at an even greater frequency than they would if the rules remained the same to this day.

Overtime Is Added In 1974:

Then in 1974 everything changed… Not really.

The NFL added overtime to games. You could still end up with a tied game, but one 15 minute quarter of sudden death was played and the first team to score was the winner. It did not matter how they scored, just as long as they scored first. This was the rule set until the end of the 2011 season.

In the time from 1974 to 2011 477 regular season games entered overtime and only 3.6% ended in ties.

In this 37 year period you actually had more games end regulation in a tie than ever before. Those 477 games would have previously ended in ties. Which is a significant uptick from the 256 tied games in the prior 53 years.

Worth noting, by the point the number of teams had expanded and was continuing to grow. The AFL (merged in 1970) was absorbed into the NFL. You’ve got a larger sample size, more end of regulation ties are bound to happen.

What’s the good news here?

Less ties. Of those games the entered overtime only 3.6% ended in a tie even knowing more games went into overtime.

At this rate one game every other season was resulting in a tie which is a good thing. We get some finality to more games.

What’s the bad news here?

Winning these games became fairly lucky. In a sudden death system were a coin toss decides who get’s the ball first all the possessing team had to do was drive into field goal range and they’d often emerge victorious. Since 1974 the accuracy of field goals has only climbed on the whole. With the low end of completions being 58.3% made in 1977 and 84.5% being made in 2008.

2012 Overtime Rule Corrections:

To correct some of this first possession luck the NFL changed the overtime rules in 2012 where they only became convoluted.

To summarize:

  • If the first team to posses the ball scored through a field goal the other team would get the opportunity to posses the ball.
    • If the other team failed to score the first team to posses wins the game.
    • If the second team to posses scored a field goal the game turned into true sudden death where the next score would win.
    • If the second team scored a touchdown the game was over with them as the victors.
  • If the first team to posses failed to score a field goal the game became a true sudden death match.
  • If the first team to posses scores a touchdown the game is over.

This change eliminated the possibility of one team getting the ball, doing enough to march into field goal range, and kicking themselves the football equivalent of a walk off home run on the first overtime possession.

In the 4 year period this was the active overtime rule set 83 games went into overtime with 6% of games resulting in a tie.

This rule change had to opposite of the desired effect. It made overtime more complicated to understand and increased the number of overtime games that resulted in a tie.

Current Overtime Rules:

Which brings us to the present day.

In 2017 the NFL made yet another rule change to how overtime is handled. The overtime period was shortened to just 10 minutes in order to avoid player fatigue and injury. No other rules were changed. The 2017 season went swimmingly with no games resulting in a tie. However this brings us to yesterday.

The fateful day in which the 0-16 in 2017 Cleveland Browns tied the last season playoff contender Pittsburgh Steelers 21-21.

What does all this rambling mean?

The NFL overtime rules are awful.

At first there was no overtime.

Then there was overtime, and it wasn’t super good. This is because the first team to get the ball was likely to win the game because field goals have always been at worst more than likely to be made, and at best almost automatic. With kickers only getting better over time.

The NFL then tried to mitigate this by giving the second possessing team a chance if the first team to posses the ball only scored a field goal. In the end we are still left with these somewhat lame instances where a field goal can instantly win a game under more circumstances than not.

To make it worse the time you have to win the game has been shortened in recent years from 15 minutes to 10. A positive move for player safety but a negative move in providing an interesting and competitive overtime.

Finally adding insult to injury; whoever gets the ball first is at a major advantage in overtime to get the win. The first possession is decided by a game of totally random chance in that they simply flip a coin.

Please Just Adopt College OT Rules:

The distaste for the current overtime rules has only been growing in recent years. Which is why we’ve seen so much discussion surrounding how the NFL handles overtime. Instead of making all of these incremental changes they really just need to bite the bullet and move to the college football inning based overtime rules.

Each team is given an opportunity to posses the ball. The second team can get a walk off win if they prevent the first team from scoring, and then score in the “bottom half” of the inning. Much like a walk off win in baseball which isn’t all bad. Walk offs can be fun if everyone is at least given a chance to score, and has to play on both sides of the ball.

You make the rules more restrictive the longer overtime goes on which helps wrap things up quickly. Since starting in the third inning teams must “go for two” if a touchdown is scored.

The biggest benefit of this system is that ties can no longer exist. Someone has to go home a winner each game. It’s always tough to take a loss but in the end you’re left with a concrete final result that can’t have a wishy washy, hand wavy effect on the overall standings once it gets down to the playoff race.

The college football overtime rules are more fair than the current NFL rules, it takes equal or less time to play overtime, and the NFL could modify them as they see fit for their league. It’s time for a change.

Last updated by: Jack on September 11th, 2018