Splitting the Overtime Pizza
by Michael David Smith
My geometry teacher once asked me how I could divide a pizza between two hungry people to ensure that neither person could complain he didn't get a fair share. I thought the answer had something to do with the radius of the pizza or pi, but the right answer was much simpler: Just have one person cut the pizza into what he thinks are two even pieces, then let the other person choose his piece.
Using the same principle, I've solved the NFL's overtime problem.
Football pundits are always arguing over which is more fair: the NFL's sudden-death overtime system, or the college overtime that gives both teams a possession. But the pundits ask the wrong question. Both types of overtime give a decided advantage to the team that wins the coin toss. Whether that advantage is receiving a kickoff or knowing how many points you need, if you win the toss you are more likely to win the game.
But the NFL could easily fix its overtime, without giving up the sudden-death format.
Why is the team receiving the kickoff in sudden-death overtime at an advantage? Because the NFL kicks off from the 30-yard line. If the league moved overtime kickoffs to the 35-yard line (where all kickoffs were placed only a decade ago), the advantage to the receiving team would be less. If it moved kickoffs to the 50-yard line, many teams (even those not coached by Marty Mornhinweg) would choose to kick, and if we moved the kickoff to the opponent's 30-yard line (obviously a ridiculous proposition), every team would not only choose to kick, but every overtime would start with an onside kick.
Why would teams choose to kick if the kickoff were at the 50-yard line? It's the golden rule of football strategy, often repeated at this website: field position is fluid. A team kicking off from the 50 would be able to have its kicker hang one high and short, like a coffin-corner punt. From the 50, teams would generally be able to pin their opponents inside the 20-yard line, and inside the 20, as Football Outsiders has previously shown, the team on defense is actually more likely to score next than the team on offense.
So there is a point, probably somewhere between the 30-yard line and the 50-yard line, at which the advantage in sudden-death overtime would actually switch from the receiving team to the kicking team. Where is that point? It doesn't really matter. We could simply let the teams decide for themselves.
In my improved overtime format, the team captains would meet at midfield for a coin toss, just as they did on Sunday when the Ravens played the Seahawks. But the captain of the Seahawks wouldn't decide to kick or receive when he won the toss. Instead, he would have to name a yard line where the overtime kickoff would be placed. Then the Ravens' captain would say whether he wanted to kick or receive. So Mike Holmgren might instruct his captain to have the kickoff spotted at the 43-yard line. Brian Billick would tell his captain, "If they put it anywhere inside the 40, we'll receive. Otherwise, we'll kick." Losing the toss really wouldn't be any disadvantage, because both teams can determine what they think is a fair spot for the opening kickoff.
Essentially, this is like an auction. Both teams want to get the ball first, so it will be awarded to the team that is willing to give up more in field position to get it. In this scenario, neither team can have any complaint. The team winning the toss can't claim the field position was unfair because it chose the field position. The team losing the toss can't claim the field position was unfair because it chose whether to take the ball deep in its own territory or try to pin the opponents deep.
Remember, there's nothing inherently advantageous to getting the ball first in sudden-death overtime. This weekend, for example, two of three teams that lost the toss ended up winning the game. But, although the margin is small, there is a definite advantage to winning the toss. Going into this season, there had been 342 overtime games in NFL history. Of those games, 177 times (51.8%) the team that won the toss won the game, 149 times (43.6%) the team that lost the toss won the game, and 16 games (4.7%) ended tied.
But why is winning the toss good? Getting the ball first is advantageous only if you can get the ball in a position where you're likely to score (or at least likely to drive far enough that if you punt, you'll pin your opponents deep on their own side of the field). Under current NFL rules the receiving team is essentially assured of advantageous field position, because in the NFL this year, only seven percent of kickoffs have been touchbacks, and the average return has been 21.7 yards.
Some fans will continue to insist that the college overtime is more exciting or more fun, but there is zero chance that the NFL will adopt that system. College overtime games regularly last more than four hours, and the last thing the league wants is a game starting at 1 p.m. and stretching past 5 p.m. because of overtime. Whether we like it or not, NFL fans are stuck with sudden-death overtime. All we can do now is hope the league adopts a fairer system.