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NFL’s revised OT rule has a treacherous flip side

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / March 24, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Have an opinion on the NFL’s new postseason overtime format?

You’ll have to wait almost 10 months to find out whether your thoughts hold water. Or maybe it’ll be 22 months. Or, in the doomsday “no football in 2011’’ scenario, it could even be 34 months.

For all the hoopla surrounding the announcement that a modified overtime system will be implemented next season, there’s an almost even chance that we won’t see it in practice in 2010.

And that should illustrate everything that’s wrong with what happened yesterday at the NFL’s annual meeting in the shadow of Disney World, with a decision that feels at least a little Mickey Mouse.

The vote came down as the NFL coaches were holding their annual golf tournament at the course perched behind the opulent Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes, and if that was a coincidence, it was a curious one.

Some coaches worried about the ramifications of making a quick decision on such an important subject. Some assumed the vote would be tabled until the next league meeting, in May in Dallas. Many were surprised that, before they got the golf bags off their shoulders, a rule change was strapped to their backs.

The most serious problem, for now, is that the change is only for the playoffs.

In the end, it’s up to the owners to make the rules. These are their teams, this is their league, and if they want to plant trees on the field, as long as those checks keep clearing, they could have players and coaches raking off the 50-yard line rather than running over it in the autumn. Bottom line is, it’s up to them.

But one of those owners could be caught in a nightmare scenario come January. A playoff game goes into overtime, and there’s no precedent. There has been no trial-and-error. There’s no history. And someone’s season ends with a slip by a player or coach in a new, unknown environment.

If this change was brought about by the Saints-Vikings overtime classic in the NFC Championship game, then isn’t that alternative worse? At the very least, when the Vikings watched New Orleans drive all of 39 yards to set up a 40-yard game-winning field goal, they knew what they were getting themselves into.

The new rules really aren’t that complicated. Each team is entitled to “the opportunity to possess the ball once during the extra period,’’ unless the team receiving the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on that possession.

Basically, that means you can’t simply win the toss, have a nice kickoff return, pick up a couple of first downs, and win the game on a long field goal.

“I don’t know that it’s any different than a situation where you’re driving down at the end of the game and you gotta make a decision on if you kick a field or go for it on fourth and 1, knowing that the other team is going to get the ball back,’’ said Giants owner John Mara. “So yeah, they’re tough decisions. But coaches are used to making tough decisions. It’s just one more they’ll have to make.’’

It’ll make for excitement. A safety ends the game, and an onside kick to start overtime negates the right to possession for the receiving team. If the game is a shootout, as that NFC title game was, the team with the ball first will have to think twice about settling for a field goal, and that means more high-stakes fourth-down shots.

All this works, until you think about the hypocrisy of implementing altered circumstances at such critical junctures by a league that’s railed against the college overtime system on the premise that it’s a bastardized version of football.

That leads you to two solutions. Either leave it the way it is, or go to a system with a shortened overtime period (as in basketball) that is played to the end, allowing the clock to be as much of a part of the game in the most important period as it is in the previous four.

As it is, the system brings all three elements into the game at a frenzied pace, and the biggest advantage (possession) is based on a random factor (the coin flip). If you go to the timed system, you replicate, as close as you possibly can, the way the rest of the game is played, and preserve normal conditions.

What’s going into action is something that instead forces the combatants to play by a different set of rules.

“The Competition Committee’s considered a number of options for a number of years,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “This one seems to have most of the components to satisfy the majority of the owners and the football personnel, and it came together the right way.’’

It’s not hard to understand what went into the decision to go with it. The owners determined that field-goal kickers were getting too good, and field position was starting too prosperously for the receiving team, and those are valid points.

And the fact is, while this is seen as a sea change, it really reverts to sudden death quickly.

“That [first] series is the only one that’s different for coaching decisions,’’ said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips. “And the biggest decision is whether to go for it on fourth down and try to score a touchdown, or kick a field goal. And because of the situations there, there’s a lot of different factors.’’

All of that’s fine. Even if this does produce 10 or 12 or 14 plays of a new brand of football, players and coaches will adapt as they always do, and the NFL will continue to get better.

But if this change doesn’t go in for this regular season or next regular season — Mara and Blank said it’s possible they vote on that in Dallas — then coaches will be making these decisions for the first time in the most important of spots. Players will be performing in unfamiliar environs with seasons on the line.

And being under changing circumstances there could end someone’s season.

Which tells you all you need to know about how this experiment could go horribly wrong.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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