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3 years too late, the NFL changes overtime rules

Here is evidence that In the NFL, change is often slow to occur.

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Three years after the Kansas City Chiefs lost the AFC Championship game to the New England Patriots after being unable to touch the ball in overtime, the NFL has changed overtime rules — but only in the postseason.

On Tuesday, league owners voted to adopt a rule change put forth by the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles. Both teams would have the opportunity to possess the ball during an overtime game.

Under the previously existing version of Rule 16, the first team to receive a kickoff in overtime (determined by a coin flip) could end the game simply by scoring a touchdown — or by being scored upon during that possession.

As the Chiefs and Patriots demonstrated in the 2018 AFC Championship (and the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills showed in the 2021 postseason), the existing rule made it possible for a playoff game (even a Super Bowl) to be decided by an overtime period in which one team never touched the ball.

Now, a playoff game will never again end that way. The newest modification to Rule 16 will allow both teams to receive a kickoff before a postseason game can be decided; once both teams have completed a possession, the game is over whenever the tie is broken.

The change proposed by the Colts and Eagles was intended to apply to all overtime games. But the owners decided to leave Rule 16 unchanged for regular-season games; the new modification will apply only to postseason matchups.

According to Falcons president Rich McKay — who chairs the league’s 10-member Competition Committee — that adjustment was driven by data. Under the most recent version of Rule 16, 12 postseason games have been decided in overtime. The teams winning the coin toss went 10-2. Seven of those 10 victories came on overtime’s first possession.

But in regular-season games, just 52.8% of games are won by the winners of the coin toss. To McKay, that is a decisive difference.

“That data was compelling to us and to the league,” said McKay, per Pro Football Talk. “Each one of those ends somebody’s season, and so, to us, this is something we thought needed to be changed.”

Left unsaid were mentions of other consequences from regular-season overtime games: their negative effect on television schedules and player safety. For all its faults, the unmodified Rule 16 has one advantage: it brings overtime games to an end as quickly as possible. The owners have apparently decided that if a team’s season isn’t on the line, that’s what’s most important.

But McKay did say that Kansas City’s win against Buffalo in the most-recent postseason also played a role in the change being made.

“In the Buffalo game this year, it was the greatest 20, 30 minutes of football that I’ve ever seen. Ever. Just watching a game,” McKay marveled. “To think that it ended that way definitely brought up the idea of, ‘Hey, is that equitable? Does that work for everybody?’ I have no question that started the discussion. What typically happens in these is they tend to lose momentum as you get further away from the game — and that did not happen in this instance.”

McKay was likely referring to the situation following Kansas City’s loss to the Patriots following the 2018 season. As you’ll recall, the Chiefs proposed a similar change to Rule 16 after that defeat. But at that time, the owners passed on the opportunity to change overtime rules.

And why not? Without the offsides call against Dee Ford, that Kansas City-New England game would have ended up as just another playoff contest where the losing team’s desperate attempt to take the lead during the closing minutes was blunted by an interception. It was probably a lot easier for NFL owners to remember the end of the Chiefs-Bills game, in which quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen went blow-for-blow, exchanging the lead four times during the last two minutes.

As Pete Sweeney noted in these pages a month ago, it’s understandable for those who live and breathe Chiefs football to be irked that the league has made this change now — instead of three years ago.

“The last time it helped a team, it was Brady — so of course, the rules didn’t change,” one could reasonably say.

But for what it’s worth, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is on board — even in the afterglow of Kansas City’s most recent victory.

“I’m glad we didn’t change them as of [Sunday night],” he joked after the overtime win over Buffalo. “I had a chance to talk to [Bills head coach] Sean [McDermott] afterwards, and that’s (I’m sure) something they’re going to look at again, too — and I wouldn’t be opposed to it.

“That’s a hard thing. It was great for us last night, but is it great for the game — which is the most important thing that we should all be looking out for? To make things equal, it probably needs to be able to hit both offenses and both defenses.”

And now — at least in the postseason — it will.

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