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Figuring out how to deal with overtime in football has plagued rule-makers for decades. Due to the violent nature of the sport, playing a long and drawn out extra period in which both teams get multiple possessions isn’t optimal for player safety. But on the other hand, sudden death rules that make it so that one team’s offense may never see the field can come off as unfair. The NFL and college football handle overtime very differently; here are their systems.

Current rules for overtime in the NFL

Tom Brady has a 12-4 career record in NFL overtimes
Tom Brady has a 12-4 career record in NFL overtimes | Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

In 1974, the NFL implemented sudden-death overtime. If two teams were tied at the end of regulation, they would play a 15-minute overtime period that would end when a team scored. A coin toss decided who got the ball first; the winner of the coin toss could elect to receive the ball via a standard kickoff, and play would continue until one team scored or time ran out and the game was ruled a tie.

Overtime rules continued like this until 2010, when rules were changed for the postseason and have remained in effect for regular season play as well ever since. Under the new rules, the first team to receive the football could only end the game with a touchdown. If the first team to have possession in overtime kicked a field goal, the opposing team would receive a kickoff and have the opportunity to tie or win the game. If the second team kicked a field goal to tie the game, the rest of the overtime period would be played out by sudden-death rules.

This rule change was put into place to help overcome the unfair advantage that winning the coin toss provided, as before the new rule went into effect, the first team to receive the ball only needed a field goal to win. But a touchdown would still end the game without the opposing team’s offense ever getting a chance to respond, as the New England Patriots did in their Super Bowl LI victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

In 2017, the overtime period was cut down from 15 minutes to 10 minutes to help reduce the potential number of snaps both teams would have to play. The rule in which a field goal on the first possession no longer ends the game still applies.

Current rules for overtime in college football

In college football, both teams are guaranteed a chance on offense. There are no kickoffs; instead, overtime begins with one team on offense at the opposing team’s 25-yard-line. The team on offense starts at 1st-and-10 and plays through their un-timed possession. Next, the other team gets a chance to start on offense at the opposing team’s 25-yard-line as well.

If the second team is unable to match the first team’s score, the first team wins. If the second team surpasses the first team’s score (for example, scoring a touchdown when the team who had the ball first scored a field goal), they win. If both teams produce the same result on their possessions, another overtime period is played with both teams getting another possession. The team that went second in the first overtime period goes first in the second overtime.

Before 2019, there would be as many overtime periods played as necessary to determine a winner. The LSU Tigers and the Texas A&M Aggies played in a remarkable seven-overtime game last season that finished with the Aggies on top with a final score of 74-72. The longevity of this game played a role in a rule change that would help to limit the number of snaps future teams would be forced to play in overtime.

As of the 2019 season, overtime rules continue as they used to for up to four overtimes (with both teams getting a possession in each overtime). If the game is still tied, both teams will alternate two-point conversion attempts until one succeeds and the other fails, giving the team that succeeded the victory.

Which overtime style is better?

Vince McMahon and the XFL have their own idea on how overtime should work
Vince McMahon and the XFL have their own idea on how overtime should work | Photo by Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images

Both of these overtime styles have their pros and cons. One of the reasons that the college football format works so well at that level is that field goal kicking is much less consistent than it is at the NFL level. This leads to some chaotic missed field goals in overtime that probably wouldn’t be as prevalent in the pros.

The newly-formed XFL is planning to do something completely different from both the NFL and college football, having a soccer-style shootout with each team’s offense running five alternating plays against the other team’s defense until one team scores enough touchdowns to prevail.

The debate on which format works best is likely to rage on for some time. For now, overtime rules will be one of the elements of the game that gives each level of football a different feel.