Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Let's Decide The Big Game by Flipping a Coin

This is off-topic, no poker or Vegas talk here.  And the title should give you an idea of where I’m headed. We just had the first Super Bowl to go to overtime and the game was decided by a flip of the coin.

Of course, that wasn’t the case.  Not in reality.  I am not going to argue that the game’s outcome would have been any different if Atlanta had won the coin toss before the OT began.  That would be an insane argument to make.  Anyone who saw that game knows that Atlanta had virtually no chance to win the game in OT.  If Atlanta had won the toss, they likely would have had a three-and-out, and after the punt, Tom Brady would have marched the Patriots down the field, just like he did.  Only they may have stopped and tried a winning field goal instead of going for the TD because that’s all they would have needed.  Or, even worse for the Falcons, they would have turned it over deep in their own territory.  Atlanta’s goose was cooked the moment NE tied the game.

But this is actually a good game to use to discuss how bad the NFL overtime rules are, since I am so sure that it wouldn’t have made a difference.  This is not just sour grapes.

If you didn’t know the rule before, you know it now.  If the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on their first possession, game over, they win.  And that’s what happened.  Atlanta’s offense never saw the ball in OT.  If New England had only scored a FG, or hadn’t scored at all on that first drive, then whoever scored first by any means would be the winner.

They “improved” it a few years ago.  Before then, it didn’t matter what kind of score it was, the first score ended the game.  Too many OT games were decided when the first team with the ball would make a couple of first downs and kick a FG without the other team getting a chance.

This is presumably better because now they have to get all the way to the end zone to end it. A harder task. But it could still happen—and obviously it just did.

In Sunday’s game, as soon as they said NE won the toss, I tweeted, “Atlanta will never touch the ball again. Game over.”  I claim no psychic ability with that.  I’m sure that’s what almost everyone who had watched Atlanta’s collapse and NE’s rally was thinking.

On the other hand, late in the 3rd quarter, who would have thought NE had the slightest chance to win the game? I saw tweets from diehard Patriots fans totally giving up all hope.  So you never know.  That’s the beauty of sports.  There’s a reason they actually play the games and not just decide who wins in bar fights.

So maybe, if the rules were different and Atlanta was given a shot to answer NE’s OT TD, they would have tied it up. I mean, however slight, there’s a greater than zero chance of that happening.

But let’s imagine a different game, one where the outcome seemed more in doubt than this game.  Remember a few years ago, in a playoff game, Green Bay and Seattle played a very similar game to the recent Super Bowl?  GB had a huge lead, seemingly had the game sewn up, then Seattle made a miracle comeback to tie it up and send it into OT.  Seattle won the flip, got the ball first, took it all the way down the field and got the touchdown for the win.  Green Bay never touched the ball.  Aaron Rodgers never touched the ball.  Green Bay lost in part, because, for the entire overtime, their best player was stuck watching from the sideline, with no chance to have an impact on the game. 

I complained about that on Twitter at the time, saying it wasn’t fair that GB’s offense never got the ball. In response, somebody (maybe a few people) pointed out that GB had the chance to stop Seattle from scoring and didn’t, so it was indeed fair.

That argument is bullshit.

Football is a unique game.  There are two totally separate units on a team—offense and defense.  Nobody plays both sides of the ball (with a few very occasional exceptions).  Some teams are stronger defensively and some are stronger offensively.  But any individual player only plays half the game and has no chance to influence the game when the unit he plays on is off the field.

In the other major team sports we love, a player can make a difference offensively and defensively.  In baseball, sure, there are great hitters who are bad fielders and vice versa.  But even if the star hitter doesn’t get an at-bat in the extra innings, he can still conceivable make a play in the field that affects the outcome (good or bad).  Even a pitcher can sometimes get a big hit or make a sacrifice bunt.  Or the manager has to make a decision about pinch-hitting or a double switch that could affect the game. At least in the National League.  This is why the Designated Hitter sucks so badly but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

In basketball or hockey, it’s even more obvious that any player in the game could make the big play on the offensive or the defensive end (except for a hockey goalie). 

So when baseball, basketball or hockey go to extra innings or overtime, both the offense and defense for each team are guaranteed to come into play.

Not necessarily so in football with the current rule.  To say that Atlanta (or Green Bay a few years ago) should have just stopped the other team is to ignore the reality of how the game is played.  Both those teams were stronger offensively than defensively and both sides of the ball are supposed to count.  Also, defenses tend to get tired out and worn down faster than the offenses, which would tend to put the team that loses the coin toss a disadvantage.  In Sunday’s game, Atlanta’s defense had been on the field for an eternity, and clearly had nothing left in the tank.  You didn’t need to be Tom Brady to beat them.  I could have done it.

Since I’m admitting that it wouldn’t have mattered Sunday, let’s imagine a slightly different scenario.  Suppose that Atlanta had won the coin toss. And suppose that, against all odds, Atlanta was able to march down the field and get the game winning touchdown in OT.  Now, everyone would be saying that it was terrible that Brady never had a chance to work his magic one more time and see if he could tie the game up.  I mean, the reason nobody is making that big a deal out of the coin flip is that everyone knew that Atlanta was finished by then anyway.  But suppose it was Brady and the Pats who were denied the chance to ever touch the ball in OT?  Would that have caused a fuss?  Imagine NE losing the game in OT when their best player never got into the game in the OT—not because of an injury or a ejection, but because of the current rules regarding OT?  It sounds almost criminal.

Furthermore, the current OT rules are not just unfair to the teams and the sport, they are unfair to the fans.  I said after the Seattle-GB game that the fans would have loved to see Rodgers get a chance to get his team into the end zone.  Wouldn’t everyone other than Seahawk fans love to have seen him try?

Same thing in the alternate-universe scenario I just suggested for the Super Bowl.  If Atlanta had taken the opening drive of OT in for a TD, wouldn’t all the fans have loved to see Brady get the ball back and see if he could do it again?  The current rule screws one of the teams and the fans.

The problem is, of course, it’s really hard to come up with a great solution here.  Sure, you could just say that both teams have to have at least one offensive possession in OT.  Thus, after the TD in OT, the Pats would have kicked to Atlanta, and they would have a chance to tie.

Two problems with that.  First, they would have the advantage of four downs.  There would be no penalty for missing on a fourth down, so they’d have 25% more downs to make a first down, it would be a lot easier for them. Note: This is true now if the first team kicks a FG instead of a TD.  So I guess the NFL isn’t overly concerned with that.  You could do something gimmicky and say that until the team trailing is in “four-down territory” they only get three downs to make a first down.  But where does “four-down territory” began?  Plus you are really changing the rules of football there.

The second problem is…what if the trailing team does score and ties the game…then what?  If the team that scored first got the ball again and scored again, would the other team get the ball back yet again?  If not, and that ended the game, wouldn’t people like me just bitch and say that the team that got the ball first won because they won the coin toss?  Well, I don’t think I would, but others might.

How about using the college rule?  It’s actually also very gimmicky but I personally kind of like it.  The trouble is, that rule actually gives the team that has the ball second an advantage, since they know whether or not they need to get a touchdown or just a field goal to stay even or win.

The best idea I’ve come up with is to do it like they do in basketball, or hockey (minus the penalty shots).  Just make it an extra period, probably less than a full 15-minutes (I’m thinking 10 minutes) and play until the time’s up.  If the score is still tied, another period.  In theory, I suppose, the team that receives first could chew up the entire 10-minutes and then kick a field goal as time expires.  But the way football is played these days, that seems unlikely.  Even if the trailing team got the ball back with a minute or so, it’s better than the chance they have now.  (On Sunday, Lightning36 tweeted out this idea, and I’ve long felt this way myself).

It’s not perfect, and I’m open to better suggestions. 

But I think it needs to be corrected.  You could argue that the biggest play Sunday was when the Pats called “heads” for the final coin flip. The biggest football game of the year should not have the outcome so heavily influenced by a mere flip of the coin, should it?


  1. Current rule sucks. Both teams should get at least 1 possession. If tied after that, next score wins. And I hate college football OT,as well as DH in baseball.

    1. Thanks Norm.

      Regarding the DH, you gotta admit that the rule helped the Cubs in the World Series this past year. But yeah, it sucks.

  2. How about the way college football does it.

    "If a game is tied after four quarters, the teams will play extra periods until the game finds a victor. Each period consists of one possession for each team, the order of which is decided by a pre-overtime coin toss. After each period, the order of possession flips. Each drive starts at the defense's 25-yard line."

    Seems a very good way to do it actually in my opinion and for a long while now I thought the NFL should adopt this overtime scenario.

    1. Take your case for the college rule up with Norm, FD (comment above). I like it for college but not sure if it's good for the pros. An actual OT period is best IMHO.

  3. If the game is tied, then it should just be decided with a coin-toss. If both teams end up with half the points each, then they only 50% deserve the win, and a coin-toss gives a 50% chance.

    I suspect that, although mathematically fair, this would be very unpopular, but any tie-break solution is unfair to the team that loses, and the system that gives each team a 50% chance of the advantage in OT seems entirely fair.

    To anyone that objects to their team ending up on the losing side of this current tie-break system; well their team had the chance to win in full-time and blew it, so boo-hoo.

    1. This is starting to sound like a good idea to me.

      Now that I think more about it, let's change the extra inning rules in baseball. Instead of letting the visiting team bat first in the top of the 10th, flip a coin to see who bats. If that team that bats first scores a run, they win. No need to bother with that messy bottom of the 10th.

  4. Here is a wild idea. In the event of a tie at full-time, whichever team won the pre-game coin-toss loses.

    Theoretically, the team that wins the pre-game toss should then be allowed to pass the advantage of winning that toss, along with the disadvantage of losing a tied game, to the opposing side. Presumably, this would never happen as tied games are rare, so for a tied result the losing team would have to accept they had started with a slight advantage and failed to convert it to the win.

    I did some digging for stats. According to this article the team winning the pre-game toss win the game about 52·6% of the time.

    I found this article suggesting there had been 325 overtime games from 1974 to 2003, which out of a toal of 7070 games is about 4·6%.

    Thus winning the toss wins an extra 2·6% of games, and automatically losing full-time ties (assuming they would otherwise lose about half of them anyway) would result in losing an extra 2·3% of games. On these figures, it would reduce the unfair advantage of the pre-game toss-win to 0·3%, and erradicate ties.

    (I am a bit concerned about my figures as the info I found on Google was patchy, I have a suspicion the second article I linked to maybe, being two years back, is perhaps instead for the period 1974 to 2013, which, if the title has such a typo, makes me wonder to trust the OT 325 stat. Also, does the 52·6% figure in the first article reflect the change in where the kick-off is now mandated. However, along as a properly researched study did not show the advantage of winning the pre-game toss was lesser than the disadvantage of automatically losing full-time ties, then I think the suggestion stands up as fairer and better.)

  5. Good sportsmanship would have dictated that Brady lob four passes over the goal post with the line of scrimmage being approx 25 yards and then letting Atlanta attempt an 80ish yard drive to score a touchdown. Of course after Atlanta chokes on that drive then Brady simply wins in OT on his second drive. Screw the rules, "fix" the problem with a gentlemen's agreement between the coaches.

    1. HaHahahahahaha.

      Have you met Bill Belichick?

    2. Nope, he's not a gentlemen inclined to even entertain this option?

    3. He's a known cheater. But seriously, no coach in any professional sports would consider this.

  6. Tony's blogs gone silent, but he sent this tweet:

    tony bigcharles ‏@sevencard2003 4m4 minutes ago
    just released $20,000 cash bond, washoe county justice center. looking at possibly doing 3-15 yrs. new roll $11,200 heading back to reno

    Any idea what happened?


    1. Holy smokes! I hadn't seen that yet. I have no idea. But I assume we'll find out before long.

    2. the boy cried wolf again....

      2 new blog posts just went up, make sure to read BOTH of them. the previous tweet is not true and totally fictional. the blog gives truth

    3. Yep. s.i, I assume you saw the followup. All total bullshit.

      What a dick. I was about to write up a post about my session with Tony from December. Now I may not. I know he's an attention whore and I'm not sure I want to give him the attention.

    4. Just saw that. Kid drives me crazy sometimes.