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.


12 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2012, 6:52pm

#1 by Theo (not verified) // Jan 02, 2006 - 6:34pm

First one in in 1-and-a-half year: :)

The problem with the current NFL rule, is that there is too much whining about the rule.
"It's a coin flip"
Yeah, but after that, there's football" It's only a few %%. Stop bitching.

I like the idea to solve every problem in the world by sharing pizza.

Points: 0

#2 by Tim (not verified) // Jan 07, 2006 - 8:08pm

Like the above ideas, but how about making a team score 4 points to win "sudden death style" i.e a touchdown or any two other scores. Or if no one scores four treat it like a fifth quarter..team leadin at 0:00 wins.

So if you kick off they get a FG, you know if they get the ball back a FG ends it so you have an incentive to get a TD to end it.

Just a thought.

Points: 0

#3 by Paul G (not verified) // Jan 13, 2006 - 9:23pm

Another proposal: How about the team that gained more total yards in regulation gets the ball first in overtime?

Points: 0

#4 by Zzyzx (not verified) // Mar 22, 2007 - 10:46am

Wouldn't work. Teams would bid an inch away from their own goal line. Kicking from there would make it next to impossible to recover an onside kick or get any result other than a touchback.

Points: 0

#5 by SGT Ben (not verified) // Mar 22, 2007 - 12:31pm

No, the format he stated indicates somewhere between the 30 and the 50 yard line. Also, even if someone chose to go on the inch line...then the other team would choose to kickoff...and try to hit the oppositions player with the ball. If it's recovered by the recieving team...they've got crappy position...if it's not, then the kicking team has great position. The draw back would be to watch for the "return". You'd have to keep two people hanging back (other than your kicker) to prevent it.

Points: 0

#6 by zzyzx (not verified) // Mar 22, 2007 - 10:12pm

Oh wait, I misread the proposal. When I saw the word "auction," I had it stuck in my head that they were bidding for the yard line and best one won. Never mind.

Points: 0

#7 by Justin Zeth (not verified) // Mar 23, 2007 - 2:13pm

This is absolutely the correct solution to the problem. That, of course, ensures that the NFL will never implement it.

And it really isn't that big a problem; the general prevailing attitude is, don't bitch and moan about the coin toss if you lose, you had 60 minutes to win. The only reason there's overtime at all is that fans dislike ties.

Points: 0

#8 by Sid (not verified) // Mar 23, 2007 - 5:58pm

damn it. All the old comments are gone. The comments were extremely instructive here. Arguments back and forth, etc. I think there were around 60 in the weeks after this was posted. I was one of the posters.

Points: 0

#9 by blah (not verified) // Mar 23, 2007 - 10:01pm

You go from the team that wins the coin toss winning, to the team whose kicker can kick farther winning.

Points: 0

#10 by Brandon (not verified) // Oct 20, 2007 - 3:46pm

What about this:

Whoever receives the overtime kick can only win "sudden death" by driving the entire field, scoring a touchdown and converting a two-point conversion.

Anything short of that, the other team gets one opportunity to outscore the 1st team.

So if the 1st team punts, the game is good ol' sudden death.

If the 1st team scores a field goal, the 2nd has to score a TD on their next drive to win.

Team 1 scores TD +1, team 2 must get a TD +2.

This system has three advantages over others:

1).At most, it only adds one more drive (in cases where the first team either scores on an 8 point drive or does not score at all, it does not add any time.

2)The stats remain fairly normal, unlike the college format.

3)The team winning the toss does not get as big of an advantage as under the current NFL system (they do have a slight advantage in that they have the chance to score on an 8 point drive-but that is asking alot more than driving 30 yards and kicking a field goal!)

P.S. My wife thought of this system!!!!!

Points: 0

#11 by BDT (not verified) // Mar 31, 2010 - 7:11pm

I love this idea (just saw it today, a few years late). While it obviously isn't going to happen, I enjoy the debate about its potential. Has there been any follow-up to this idea? For example, has someone run the data on the best yardage mark from which to kick (of course, actual results would vary depending on factors such as the kicker's leg, the team receiving, the team defending, etc)? Or further expanded on the idea?

Points: 0

#12 by pooman (not verified) // Jan 06, 2012 - 6:52pm

I disagree with this idea being a better solution than the current rule... even if the other team kicks from the 50 you are always going to choose receive... the receiving team may (I doubt it though) get the ball inside the 20... but they still have the ball... Marty Morneweig was lambasted for playing field position in OT when he kicked off against the bears in 2002 because he wanted to choose the wind... nobody would choose to kick.

Points: 0

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