The Flip of a Coin No Longer Results in Sudden Death

With just a few seconds left on the clock, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Tennessee Titans hit Michael Preston for an improbable game tying touchdown pass against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.  This capped off the Titans scoring 17 unanswered points in the last 3:12 of the fourth quarter, with regulation ending with the score all knotted at 34-34.  All momentum favored the home team Titans and it appeared that the Cardinals may be watching their playoff hopes slip away.  Matters got worse when team captains met at midfield for the overtime (previously known as “Sudden Death”) coin toss. Carson Palmer called “tails” but the coin came up “heads.”  The Titans elected to receive the opening overtime kick-off.

If this had happened anytime from 1974 through 2011, there would have been good reason for television viewers to give up on the Cardinals and switch channels to watch the Cowboys implode against Green Bay.  But this is 2013, the second season into the current overtime rules.  While hope for the Cardinals was waning, it was not yet lost.

The history of overtime rules bears review.  Until 1974, there was no regular season overtime in the NFL.  All regular season games in which the score was tied at the end of regulation ended as a tie.  Under the pre-overtime rule, 258 games over a period of 54 seasons ended in a tie, an average of almost 5 tied games every season.  In 1974, the NFL owned up to the dissatisfying nature of this result and implemented a regular season overtime rule.  It dramatically reduced the number of tied games, totaling only 19 in the 39 seasons since 1974, an average of one game ending in a tie every other season (the most recent of which was this season on November 24 when the Vikings-Packers game ended in a tie).

From 1974 through 2011, the NFL utilized a “sudden death” format, where the first team to score in overtime was declared the winner, even if the opposing team never had possession of the ball.  This rule weighed heavily in favor of the team that won the coin flip.  The first team to possess the ball had the benefit of a shortened field, needing only to get to the opposing team’s 35 yard line for a legitimate chance at a game-winning field goal.  In fact, the team winning the coin flip and possessing the ball first won almost 60% of all regular season overtime games over this 38 year period, regardless of whether the team was playing at home or on the road.

Recognizing the flip-of-the coin unfairness of this method to reduce the number of games ending in a tie, the NFL made a rule change in 2012.  A number of options were available to them, including the  score and statistic-churning system utilized by the NCAA where a defensive battle for four quarters in regulation gets turned into an offensive slugfest with bloated statistics following numerous overtime periods.  The NFL opted for a system where both teams are guaranteed at least one offensive possession unless the first team possessing the ball scores a touchdown (rather than kicking a field goal on the opening possession) or the defensive team secures a safety or scores a touchdown against the first-possessing offensive team.

Through Week 15 of the 2013 season, there have been 13 overtime games played under this new overtime system.  Of those, the team winning the overtime coin flip has won only five of those games, losing seven and tying in one game, reducing the victory rate from the coin flip from the previous 60% to 38.4%.  The real advantage no longer comes from the coin flip but from home field advantage.  Separate from the coin flip, the home team in overtime games have compiled a record of 9-3-1 in the 13 overtime games.  The fact that only a few thousand Titan fans stuck around to see the last second heroics may have negated some of that overtime home field advantage on Sunday.  In any event, the Cardinals overcame the blown lead, the shift in momentum, the loss of the coin flip and the statistical overtime advantage of the home team when former Arizona Wildcat Antoine Cason grabbed his second interception of the game and Jay Feely followed with a 41 yard game-winning field goal.

Winning teams have a knack for pulling games out, even when their own actions come close to snaring defeat from the jaws of victory.  At times, they win games because of their on-field performance and, at times, they win in spite of their on-field performance.  Whatever the case may be, I am becoming convinced that the Bruce Arians led Cardinals are winners, and will be for years to come.  No longer will the Cardinals’ playoff hopes each year be seen to be subject to sudden death as soon the season begins.