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A-OK with new postseason OT format

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 24, 2010 10:15 AM

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Change is good. Especially when it means the kind that resembles what you drop into the Starbucks tip jar will no longer unduly influence the outcome of the NFL's most crucial games, including the Super Bowl. That's why the league's decision to overhaul its postseason overtime format is right on the money.

It's about time the league freed itself from its numismatic dependency in the extra period, and the upshot is a more equitable OT that increases the likelihood both teams will get a shot with the football.

Since 1994, when the kickoff was moved back from the 35-yard line to the 30, 59.8 percent of overtime games have been won by the team that won the opening coin toss. That doesn't mean they won on the first possession -- that happened 34.4 percent of the time -- but it was clearly influencing the outcome, along with the markedly improved accuracy of field goal kickers over the years.

Full disclosure, my support for this format is unconditional because it's one the league borrowed from a certain sportswriter. That bit of self-aggrandizement aside, the NFL deserves plaudits for altering OT even if the process was a bit clandestine.

There had to be a better way, and now there is, even if it has an elongated name -- "modified sudden-death overtime" -- and isn't easy to explain.

Basically, instead of a team winning the coin toss, getting the ball, and marching down the field for a field goal in traditional sudden death overtime (think the Saints win in last season's NFC title game or the Patriots' win in the Snow Bowl) that team would now need a touchdown to end it on the inaugural possession of the extra period. If they kick a field goal, then the other team gets an opportunity to possess the ball, and if that team scores a TD they win. If they kick a field goal to tie, then the format reverts to the familiar regular-season sudden-death format of first to score.

Just like in the traditional format, a kickoff return for a touchdown ends the game. So, does a defensive touchdown like the one Arizona, which lost the overtime coin toss, got on Green Bay's first possession in the teams' wild 51-45 NFC Wild Card game in January.

If you're kicking off to start OT there is reason to consider going Sean Payton because if you recover an on-side kick then you only need a field goal to win because the other team has had an "opportunity to possess," the key catchphrase of the revised rule.

The new format definitely adds a layer of strategy and gamesmanship for coaches. That's why some coaches are less than overjoyed by the overhaul of postseason overtime; the new format opens yet another Pandora's box of second-guessed decisions.

Should they defer or receive the kickoff? Should they kick the field goal on the first possession and send out the defense or go for the touchdown? Should they try to catch the opponent napping on an on-side kick?

But coaches are already Monday morning quarterbacked to death.

"You can be second-guessed on what you wear on the sideline in this league," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, this morning. "I think any time you get in a critical situation, whether the overtime rule had changed or stayed the same, you're going to be second-guessed for what you're doing. That's fine. We have people that care about the game and are passionate about it."

Brad Childress, coach of the Vikings, one of the four teams who voted against the new OT, said making hard decisions is part of the job description.

"That's what we get paid to do," said Childress. "As long as they put the rules forth and tell us what they are. That works. ...You're always going to be able to go back through all the snaps and say 'if-then, if-then, if-then.' "

As commissioner Roger Goodell said, the league shouldn't let better get in the way of perfect. There is no perfect overtime format. The college format where both teams get the ball at the opponents 20-yard line is a farce that inflates stats and removes a key element -- special teams -- from the game altogether.

The NFL's traditional sudden death format had devolved into an anticlimactic field goal kicking contest.

NFL field goal kickers made 81.3 percent of their kicks last season, down from a Super Bowl-era record of 84.5 percent in 2008.

From 1978 to 1993, NFL field goal kickers made 70.3 percent of their attempts and connected on 56.2 percent of their attempts from 40 to 49 yards. From 1994 to 2009 that jumped to 79.7 percent of attempts were makes and 68.3 percent from 40 to 49 yards.  

Plus, let's face it this whole raging debate over overtime is a great misdirection play by the NFL at these meetings to take the focus off the stalled labor negotiations, with the cloud of collective bargaining uncertainty threatening to damper the excitement around the 2010 season.

However, it is a little ridiculous that the new OT is postseason only. It's possible we won't even get to see it play out, which is a shame. There have only been 27 playoff games to go into overtime since 1958.

There is a push in the league to adopt the new overtime format for the regular season as well now that it's been shepherded through for the playoffs.

That would be good.

Then we could leave coin flips to more trivial NFL matters like whether the Jets or Giants get to host the first game in the new Meadowlands.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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