When Is the Last Time the NFL Changed Its Overtime Rules?

For the second time in consecutive seasons, a crucial playoff game ended largely on an arbitrary decision. Last year, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs seemed ready for the Super Bowl. Instead, the NFL overtime rules put them in a situation where Mahomes sat on the bench, watching his team lose.

This year, the New Orleans Saints — a team seemingly cursed to suffer by officiating and NFL rule changes — ended their season on a similar note. These aren’t mishaps. These are NFL overtime rules playing out exactly as intended. Here’s why.

What are the current NFL playoff overtime rules?

The NFL overtime rules are simple: They provide referees with exacting guidelines to end the game. They’re also inherently unfair and arbitrary. This is not a matter of opinion.

If regulation ends in a tie, a 10-minute frame follows. Whichever team scores a touchdown first wins immediately. Because of this, the team with the opening drive has a massive advantage. And the team that gets the ball first receives it on the whim of a 50/50 coin toss.

The NFL’s additional rules specific to playoff games mostly facilitate the avoidance of a tie. One team must win, so overtime rounds continue until that finally happens. Every four periods of overtime trigger a new coin toss.

If the opening drive doesn’t immediately result in a score, it can lead to exciting situations. But when the winner of the coin toss immediately scores, it leads to an awkward situation. A tie game was just decided under circumstances where the opposing offense never sets foot on the field.

Why Drew Brees had no say in his team’s overtime loss

Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints gestures
Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 2019 Saints went 13-3 in the regular season. Their playoff run began with a wild-card throwdown against the Minnesota Vikings. It was an exciting game during regulation time. The Saints entered the fourth quarter down, which they answered by putting up 10 unanswered points.

This was enough to end the game with a tie, triggering playoff overtime rules. A coin flip. Vikings win the toss. Kirk Cousins drops a beautiful 43-yard throw on Adam Thielen. A four-yarder to Kyle Rudolph sealed it. Vikings take the whole thing, and the Saints must watch the rest of the playoffs from home.

Granted, the Saints defense couldn’t hold down Cousins and the Vikings. But Brees, a fan-favorite QB nearing the twilight of his career, had zero impact on this crucial moment. It’s hard to imagine this as a fair result of an even contest. Half of the team had no impact on a crucial portion of the game that decided the winner.

How NFL’s rules got to this point — and what needs to change

The NFL had no overtime rules until 1940. Previously, games ended in a tie. The rules were critically tweaked in 1974, with a sudden-death style. Only one additional 15-minute period took place, with the game ending definitively after this.

In 2017, the NFL reduced the period to 10 minutes. The score must occur on a touchdown, so simply getting into field goal position is no longer the best shot the coin-toss-winning team has to take the game. The playoff version of the rules allows these periods to stack up as long as needed for a winner.

But the core issue remains: the coin toss winner has a huge, arbitrary advantage. There are many proposed solutions. Most, at their core, involve making sure overtime works more like regulation play, and each team gets a chance to field their offense.

Broadcasting issues could emerge. But, considering U.S. television regularly airs long overtime periods for MLB and NBA games, is this really the problem the NFL thinks it is? Chiefs and Saints fans, at least, put up a definitive “no” as their answer to this conundrum.

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