Here's What I Would Change about the NFL's Rules
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
National Football League (NFL) games are not only my favorite sport to watch, but it’s also my favorite hobby. However, if there’s one thing I absolutely can’t stand about regular season games in the NFL, it would undoubtedly be the possibility of ties! In what’s arguably one of the most physically grueling and demanding sports to play, it’s ludicrous that these players work their tails off all week, and come game day, have that lingering thought that there’s a chance that any one of their 16 games could result in a draw. In the three other major sports leagues, the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB), their regular season games can’t possibly end in ties. So, what should make the NFL any different?
That said, I want to propose the argument that the NFL should modify their overtime rules to abolish the possibility of ties altogether. In part, I want to make this argument because I believe one of the fundamental principles that should always be applied when it comes to sports competition is declaring one side as the winner, and the other as the loser.
To start off, let’s consider how having ties affect teams’ records and the standings. The NFL counts ties both as a half-win and half-loss. I believe this takes some valuable meaning away from a team’s 16-game record. This is because let’s suppose that in a given season, for example, the Baltimore Ravens won 10 games, lost four, and tied in two. Their record would be displayed as 10-4-2; however, those two draws are considered a combined one win and one loss. In this case, the Ravens would essentially be 11-5 this season. However, in reality, their record would be displayed as 10-4-2, which can be very deceiving for those trying to understand how those draws are factored into determining tiebreakers.
On the other hand, let’s consider how fans and sports gamblers can be affected by games ending in ties. If you’re an avid football fan like me, you eagerly await all week for Sunday to arrive, and when it does, there’s the chance that you could be watching an awesome, competitive game for about three hours just to see it finish in a tie. I think it’s a waste of time and a really aggravating experience to watch any sporting event for that long and have nobody win at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, let’s suppose you enjoy placing money line bets on NFL games, and one of those bets relates to a game that results in a draw. According to BetNow’s Sportsbook Rules for football betting, the money line is classified as a three-way line between the underdog, the favorite and a draw, so it’s impossible for one’s wager to be a push (no money won or lost). Therefore, if the game you place a money line bet towards results in a draw, your bet will lose regardless if it was for the favorite or the underdog. Talk about a frustrating and annoying experience with one of the most popular sports in America.
Now, let’s consider the history of NFL’s overtime rule for regular season competition. An NFL overtime rule has been in effect since 1974 in hopes of decreasing the chances of a tie. From then to 2011, the overtime rule entailed the following: a 15-minute extra period where the first team to score any points, whether it’s a safety by the defense, a field goal or a touchdown, would be victorious. If the score remained tied after this session, the game would be registered as a tie. This overtime rule format helps avoid ties since it’s sudden death: first score wins.
This graphic represents how many NFL ties per season occurred in comparison between the original overtime rules (1974 - 2011) and the current overtime rules (2012 - Present).
From 2012 to present, the new overtime rules are similar to the prior ones, but with two clear exceptions. First, the duration is reduced from 15 to 10 minutes, cutting 33% of the time off a normal quarter of football. This five-minute reduction can’t be undermined, since it increases the possibility of ending in a draw. Additionally, rather than enforcing sudden death, these current overtime rules have different scoring procedures. The first team to possess the football must score a touchdown, or a safety could be scored by the defense to end the game. However, if the first drive results in a field goal, punt, or turnover without a touchdown scored by the defense, then from that point forward, the next score by either team would win.
This graphic represents the comparison of how many NFL ties have occurred during the enforcement of the original and current overtime rules.
These modified scoring procedures make it so that the team who kicks off the overtime session may have an opportunity to possess the ball. Nevertheless, the 10-minute quarter drastically reduces the amount of time for the opposing team to respond, especially if first drive of overtime is lengthy. And more importantly, these new overtime rules significantly increase the chances of ties because of the loop hole with the scoring rules and the five-minute deduction.
With these past and present overtime rules acknowledged, let’s analyze what impact they have had in causing ties over the course of regular season games. There have been roughly 8,744 games played between 1974 through 2011, without accounting for the rare occurrence of cancelled games due to inclement weather or player strikes, for instance. With the original overtime rules in effect during this stretch, only 17 of those 8,744 games resulted in ties. To put that in better perspective, that means there was a 99.8% chance that on any given game between 1974-2011, there was going to be a winner and a loser. With that in mind, considering these data account for 37 seasons’ worth of games, it’s safe to say that the original overtime rules did a near-perfect job in preventing ties in the long run.
This graphic represents the proportion comparison between AFC and NFC teams that have participated in NFL ties during the enforcement of the original overtime rules (1974 - 2011).
As for the current overtime rules enforced between 2012 and 2019, there have been 1,792 regular season contests played (again, while excluding possibility of a few cancelled games). Of these roughly 1,800 games, there were eight total ties, including one in each of the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, two in 2016 and 2018, and just one in 2019. Half of these ties had both teams score a field goal in each of their first possessions, while the other four resulted in zero points produced in the overtime session. With these data in mind, this means there was a 99.5% chance that a game during this time frame didn’t result in a draw. Although the results are very similar, it’s worth noting that there’s a sample size difference of approximately 6,952 games between the implementation of the original and current overtime rules.
This graphic represents the proportion comparison between AFC and NFC teams that have participated in NFL ties during the enforcement of the current overtime rules (2012 - Present).
So, now that we grasp a solid understanding of the general players’, fans’ and gamblers’ perspective on NFL ties, the impact they have on the standings, the history of the NFL’s overtime rules, and the games that have resulted in ties with both sets of overtime rules, I’d like to propose three different modifications to these overtime rules in effort to completely avoid ties. After all, I think it’s fair to say that all parties (maybe except the NFL itself) would agree to altering this section of the rulebook to something that eliminates draws. These are just three solutions, but I’m definitely open-minded to consider others:
First, we could simply revert to implementing postseason overtime rules, where the first score of any type wins the game. More importantly, the game doesn’t end until either team registers some type of score. Second, we could maintain the current overtime rules, but with one exception: The game can’t end in a draw. In other words, we play a second, third, fourth, etc. overtime period until a winner is decided. The key difference between the first and second proposal is the scoring procedures that would be enforced.
Before I describe my third proposal, let’s acknowledge why NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and league executives enforce the current overtime rules: player safety purposes. The NFL has made it clear that one of the its best interest is the players’ safety. In this context, they’re trying to limit the number significant injuries sustained due to these lengthy games. While that’s completely understandable from their vantage point, I have a solution that addresses this concern and still ensures we can always have a winning and losing team at the end of each game.
Third, we could enforce the current overtime rules as they stand. And if no winner can be determined after such, conduct some type of special teams competition. That way, only your kickers or punters are involved, while your offensive and defensive players are not exposed to injury risks after this overtime period. I think there are two directions you can take the special teams competition in.
On the one hand, we could have a kicking competition with the team’s field goal kicker and holder. Starting with a 20-yard attempt, alternate each team’s kickers to make field goals, while backing up five yards each round. The competition continues until eventually, one team’s kicker makes a field goal, and the other team’s misses a kick from that same distance. In the event both kickers miss an attempt from the same distance, from that point forward, the next kicker to make a field goal from that same distance would win the game for their respective team. No defensive pressure is allowed to block any kick in order to preserve the health of linemen.
On the other hand, we could have a punting competition with each team’s punter. Without long snappers or defensive pressure, alternate each team’s punter three times and have them punt the football as far as possible within the end zone. All punts must land in the field of play. Otherwise, it’s counted as a disqualified punt (zero yards). Have the officials enforce the following rules: the punt is kicked at or before the goal line, the punter’s run-up remains between the back of the end zone and the goal line, mark the spot the ball lands, and tally the total distance each punt travels. Then, calculate the combined distance from all three punts from each team. Whichever team’s punter accumulates the greater number of yards, wins the game for their squad. If the total quantity of yards is tied after three punts, alternate each punter one round at a time, and whichever punt travels farther after one round will win the game.
In either special teams competition idea, it’s worth considering that both are very similar to an NHL shootout or soccer penalty kicks. I say this because in soccer’s FIFA World Cup, for example, you play 90 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of extra time, and ultimately, the game’s outcome may be determined by the result of the penalty kicks. And in the NHL, you play 60 minutes of regulation, five minutes of 3-on-3 overtime, and then a shootout, with again, the shootout’s results potentially being used as the game's deciding factor.
I can already foreshadow a common response from players, coaches and fans who don’t prefer professional football games to be possibly decided in this fashion after playing 70 minutes. Despite that disapproval from others, Goodell and the NFL executives make the rules and have the final say. That said, I believe that specifically addressing their player safety concern while guaranteeing no ties in all 256 regular season games is the best compromise or happy medium that can be agreed upon.
With all aspects and parties taken into consideration, I whole heartedly think that ties need to be removed in NFL regular season competition. One of the key traits of sports is that at the end of the day, one team goes home happy, and the other doesn’t, and I don’t believe the NFL should oppose that standard. In conclusion, as the great NFL head coach Herm Edwards once said in a postgame press conference, “Hello, you play to win the game! You don’t play to just play it.”