The NFL overtime rules need to be overhauled

Written By Rachel Ross, Co-Opinions Editor

I’ve never really been much of a sports person. I mean, I loved a good game of badminton or kickball in high school gym class, but that’s about it. However, out of loyalty to my hometown of Buffalo, New York, I try to do what I can to support the Bills, like owning a singular shirt with their logo on it, looking up from my Nintendo Switch every once in a while when my dad is watching a game on TV and rooting for the only two people I know by name.

But Sunday, Jan. 23, my already intense devotion was taken to new heights when my parents called to tell me that, with 13 seconds left, the Bills had essentially won their playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat them last year and stopped them from advancing further towards the Super Bowl.

Yeah well…they didn’t end up winning. The game went into overtime, so they did the coin toss, which Kansas City won, allowing them to score a touchdown and win the game. As softcore of a fan as I may be, I did find the situation to be upsetting, and somewhat unfair. This sentiment was matched by a myriad of not only Bills fans, but others as well, which has started a conversation about this coin flip rule, and whether or not it’s actually a fair practice. So I figured why not throw in my two cents? Yes, I was going for a coin pun.

For those who are unaware of what the “Coin Toss Rule” is, allow me to explain. The game goes into overtime when the fourth quarter ends in a tie. This was the situation with the Bills and the Chiefs, with the two teams tying at 36 points. The way that it’s decided which team gets the ball to start overtime is by flipping a coin. One of the teams, usually the visitor, gets the opportunity to call a side, heads or tails. If they picked correctly, they get the ball. If they didn’t, the other team does. If the team that gets the ball scores a touchdown first, they win the whole game. If they don’t, it goes into sudden death from there. That’s the extent of it.

As an outsider looking in, my initial reaction is that this rule is unjust. It’s a little absurd to think that this multi-million dollar empire, this hugely self inflating organization, lets their tie games be decided by a quarter essentially, and a 50-50 decision from some sweaty guy who just spent hours getting knocked into by other sweaty guys on which side it’ll happen to land on. It gives a team an advantage based on nothing—not skill or prowess, but rather their ability to randomly choose if the little copper circle is going to land on heads or tails. It undermines all of the effort and expertise that has gone into the game thus far. When so much skill and strategy is involved, it’s insulting, to say the least, to screw someone over like that.

I don’t see how anyone could deny it provides an unfair advantage. According to Sports Illustrated, 10 out of the 11 overtime playoff games since the rule’s introduction in 2010 have been won by the team that won the coin toss. At that point, don’t even bother doing anything after the toss—just make that the deciding factor. It’s almost more insulting to let a team think they still have a chance after the toss, when it’s been proven 10 out of 11 times that they don’t.

That’s the even more absurd part. This rule was introduced as an alteration in 2010 because the previous rule was deemed unfair. It used to be that they did the coin flip, and if the team that won the ball scored a field goal first, they won. The alterations were made to make it more difficult, but now of course they’re proving to be an issue as well.

With the nature and rules of football being what they are, there’s no denying that there needs to be some way to establish who gets the ball to start. And that’s fine. The problem here is that too much is being put on the coin toss; the outcome of the game is riding on it too heavily, when really it’s just supposed to determine which team to give the ball to. I don’t think it’s fair at all that one team randomly gets the opportunity to win the whole game with one play when they didn’t do anything to truly earn it. At that point, it’s not a win based on skill, it’s a win based on luck, and it shouldn’t be like that.

The coin toss itself isn’t necessarily the problem to me; it’s the fact that the current rules make it so that it plays a bigger role than it really should. That’s what I find absurd about it; a quarter is pretty much determining the fate of the players, when all it should be determining is who gets the ball to start. I mean, it works fine for deciding who gets the ball at the start of the game.

For those who don’t know, a coin toss is also used to determine which team will receive the ball to start the first quarter. This toss doesn’t have as much riding on it as the other one. The teams still have the whole game ahead of them at this point; they have ample opportunity to make up for it. It doesn’t set up a detrimental disadvantage like the other toss does. The rules of the overtime coin toss make it so that there’s very little opportunity for a team to recover should they choose the wrong side. For this reason, I think a change definitely needs to be made. Things can’t just continue on this way; stop making slight changes to the same base rule that clearly isn’t working for anyone. But of course actually settling on something else is an entirely different issue in itself.

The situation with Sunday night’s game has resulted in an outpouring of suggestions from fans and officials alike, with each offering a unique take on how the rules should be changed. I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to really pick apart or critique any suggestions, with my somewhat limited understanding of the game.

Therefore, I’ll say I think that they need to make it less about chance and more about skill. The toss should not have as much power as it does. I don’t think it takes knowing every in and out of the game to determine that. If it’s skill based, the end result is indisputable. It would give the players the opportunity to finish out by the same means that they used to get to that point, being, you know, playing football, which just seems like common sense to me, but what do I know? The rest of the game is about skill, so why shouldn’t the thing determining the winner be the same?

The rules as they are currently don’t allow for a fair fight to the finish. The Baltimore Ravens presented a solution called, “Spot and Choose,” which would still include a coin toss, but with a different prize. The winner would get to choose one half of a decision: either on which line to place the ball, or if they would like to play offense or defense. The other team is able to decide on whichever thing the winning team didn’t pick. I’m not saying this is the ultimate solution, but it sounds more fair than what’s going on now.

At least it involves some strategy and the opportunity for the other team to actually do something, instead of just sitting back and watching the rest of the game play out in someone else’s favor. It allows for the losing team to strategize how to fairly counter the winning team’s choice, so that they actually still have a chance of winning. The fact that the Ravens suggested this a while ago further demonstrates how a change needs to be made; it’s been on the backburner for too long.

A part of me questions if there needs to be special rules surrounding overtime at all. Although of course they’re different sports, things like hockey and basketball more or less conduct their overtimes as they would any other normal period, with some slight alterations. In hockey, they just throw the puck down and let the teams, or a select number of players from each team, go at it in sudden death. In basketball, they keep playing overtime periods like normal periods until one team ends with more points than the other. Why couldn’t the NFL just do something like that? Is it about time constraints? Because to that I ask, is it really worth it to have the game end slightly earlier in exchange for receiving significant backlash from fans that feel slighted or cheated?

At the end of the day, a coin should not be determining which team is going to win a game, and right now it essentially is. The rules of the toss need to be changed in a way that allows both teams to have a fair chance to win the game and do so by using the skills and strategies that have gotten them to that point. I don’t understand why any organization would keep a rule around that has been proven time and time again to provide an unfair advantage to one side. The rules can’t remain as they are. Let the football players win a football game using an actual football, not random chance.