A Completely Fair NFL Overtime Rule

Every year there’s a bit of controversy over NFL overtime rules, controversy that intensifies if there are any overtime games in the playoffs. The rules keep changing, but it’s not clear they meet the basic standards of fairness. If teams really care about who wins the coin flip, it’s probably not perfectly fair.

But there is a perfectly fair solution, one that’s been around for as long as I’ve been alive, and that is intuitively fair to any 8 year old. It’s called: “I cut and you choose.”

That phrase is probably enough for most people to see how this works. But in case you didn’t grow up with it, as I did, or can’t see how it would be adapted to football, here’s a primer. It’s based on a fair system for two children dividing a treat, say a piece of cake. If one child cuts the cake in two and the other gets to choose their piece, then neither child can complain about the outcome. The cutter is extremely motivated to cut as evenly as possible, because the chooser will always choose the larger piece, if there is one.

It could be equally simple for football. The home team picks a yard marker on the field, where the football will be placed. The away team decides who gets possession of the ball. And then they just play football until someone scores.

There are lots of ways to tweak it. Maybe flip a coin, with the winner deciding who’s the cutter and who’s the chooser. Or if you still feel the need for special rules about what happens after the first snap (e.g., that both teams must get a possession), you can have those. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the unfairness of the coin flip is cancelled out by the fact that the teams arrived at the starting point for the overtime collectively.

There are some weaknesses to this system, but I think they’re negligible. If both teams are so proficient on offense that even placing the ball on the 1-yard line, facing against the wind, both teams would still prefer the ball, then the system’s failed. But I doubt that will ever be the case. If the probability of scoring as a function of the yard marker is different between the two teams, then it becomes tricky. But in a tie game, the teams are often playing approximately as well as each other on that day. And when they’re not, I think it’s okay to be “unfair” in favor of the better team.

Would it work? Losers will complain no matter what, and no system will fix that. But they’ll have to complain about something else, or they’ll look ridiculous. True fans (and any 8-year-old) will appreciate the basic fairness of this system.

And even better, it would be interesting. Coaches would make up charts, because that’s what coaches do. But it would still require a lot of touch, depending on weather conditions, how your quarterback’s arm is feeling, which units have been on the field too much, whose kicker has the stronger leg, the relative strengths of offenses and defenses, etc. It wouldn’t be as simple as a rote decision. And it would be much more fun, on a Monday morning, to argue about two two critical coaching decisions than to argue about whether or not someone made the right decision on a coin flip.