By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
It does not get much more nerve-racking than a NFL game that goes into overtime. It used to be purely sudden death, which meant even the smallest error could lose the game on any play.
But the system was not perfect, and in a league with growing field goal accuracy and offenses moving the ball at will between the 20’s, something had to change.
Enter the new overtime rules passed in 2010 for the postseason, which can be explained most simply as “sudden death as long as the first possession is not a field goal.”
Its first use came last season on Wild Card weekend, and Tim Tebow needed just one play to throw the longest game-winning touchdown pass in playoff history (80 yards) to Demaryius Thomas to beat the Steelers. It was the quickest overtime in NFL history at 11 seconds.
That probably felt even less fair than the team who drives down the field for a game-winning field goal, which was starting to become too common. Shouldn’t the game be about who can score more, and not who can score first? But we can save the further overtime augmentation for another day.
What matters now is the impact this rule along with 2011’s kickoff change – moving kickoffs to the 35 to increase touchbacks – has had on overtime strategy. Things have definitely changed, and coaches have been slow to catch on.
There have been 22 overtime games in 2012 under the new system. Only the 2002 (25) and 2003 (23) seasons have featured more overtime games, so this has been a big year for it. While always keeping in mind 22 games is a small sample to study, there is enough here in year one worth looking into.
Comparing 2012 to historical overtime results
Thinking the new rule would lead to more scoring and drama, the reverse may in fact be what’s going on this season. First, let’s start with a comparison of all overtime regular season games (1974-2011) to 2012.
NFL Overtime Summary, 1974-2012 Regular Season
OT coin-toss winner
Non-tie win %
Elected to receive
Both teams 1+ poss.
Opening drive winning score
104 FG, 36 TD
Games decided by FG
Games decided by TD
Games ending in tie
The numbers for this year would suggest winning the coin toss is more important than ever, with 13 of the 22 teams (59.1 percent) coming away victorious this season.
However, each team has been getting at least one possession in 86.4 percent of the games, which is a big increase from the past. That is because teams are taking the opening kickoff down the field for the game-winning score less than half as frequently now that you need a touchdown to end the game.
That is the big number. Only three of the 22 teams (13.6 percent) have gone down the field for a touchdown, and the drive was always 80 yards in length. It would be 4/23 if you included Denver from last season, but let’s forget that happened the rest of the way here.
- Indianapolis did it in Tennessee with Andrew Luck throwing the first reg. season game-winning touchdown in modified overtime to Vick Ballard in Week 8.
- Tampa Bay completed an impressive comeback in Carolina with Dallas Clark getting the game-winning touchdown catch in Week 11.
- Seattle followed up a 97-yard drive in the fourth quarter with an 80-yard march to beat the Bears in Week 13.
When you leave a NFL coach the option of kicking a field goal, there is almost always going to be conservatism.
We have not seen teams aggressively go for the touchdown to win the game, or at least we have not seen it done successfully. All but five of the games have been decided by a field goal, and it would have been one more if David Akers could connect against the Rams. Historically overtime games are dominated by field goals (71.1 percent), but we may be seeing it even more in the new system.
It may even lead to an increase in ties, as we infamously had one in San Francisco this season. The Rams/49ers nearly played to another tie in Week 13, but the Rams won with 0:26 left.
OT games extending to final 2:00
There were four such games in 2010, but two of those had the winning team kicking the game-winning field goal at the two-minute warning. We were dangerously close to three ties this season, with Ravens/Chargers being the third game.
Like with most ties, you could always blame a choking kicker and Rams/49ers was the only game of the 22 without any overtime scoring.
What about all those predicted games where a team kicks a field goal, and the other, utilizing four-down offense, answers with a field goal or winning touchdown?
Yeah, that happened one time, and it was the Jaguars at Texans. Each scored a field goal, then Houston later won the game on a touchdown pass to Andre Johnson.
2012 overtime drive summaries and the big coin-toss decision
So how long before we see a head coach elect to kick off after winning the coin toss? It’s not like the college game (yet) where you want to go on defense first so you know exactly what you need on offense.
Coaches have been programmed for years – well, except for wind master Marty Mornhinweg and eight other brave souls – to want the ball immediately. It’s sudden death. You want the first shot to score, and maybe more importantly, you likely are going to get two opportunities to score before the opponent does.
It is the first decision of overtime, and possibly the most important. It is also a little different now that kickoffs result in touchbacks so often because of last year’s rule change.
Fact is even for an elite offense it is hard to go 80 yards for a touchdown, which is likely what you will have to do to win the game that way. Teams starting at their own 20 score a touchdown only about 16 percent of the time.
Throw in the fact the risk-averse coaches know they can still kick a field goal, and it’s not the obviously favorable scenario it may have once been in pure sudden death. Yet we have seen every single coach take the ball first this year.
How much good has that really done? This table shows the game flow in overtime in 2012. Obviously the team winning the coin toss and receiving had the ball on drives 1, 3 and 5. The opponent had it on drives 2, 4 and 6. “GW” means game-winning.
NFL 2012 Overtime Game-Ending Summary
Game-winning (GW) event
1st drive GW TD
2nd drive GW defensive stop
3 (2 downs, 1 fumble)
2nd drive GW score
6 (6 FG)
3rd drive GW score
5 (5 FG)
4th drive GW score
1 (1 FG)
5th drive GW score
2 (1 TD, 1 FG)
5th drive clock expires (tie)
6th drive GW score
1 (1 FG)
We have already mentioned just three teams ended the game by going 80 yards for a touchdown. In addition to that, only four teams have kicked a field goal on the first drive, meaning seven of the 22 drives (31.8 percent) have produced points of any kind. Only Jacksonville answered Houston with a field goal, while the other three teams turned it over on downs or Mark Sanchez fumbled in New England to end that one.
So much for the new rule making overtime longer with more scores. It has been other factors doing that, which may in fact speak directly to conservative play in a system that is supposed to fuel aggression.
The most common result has been part of the one we have advocated all year during Captain Comeback: kick off, play good defense, get the ball back, and now you can drive a shorter field for a game-winning field goal. That has happened six times. It really is the optimal strategy.
Only 10 of the games made it to a third drive, which means the coin-toss team getting a second crack at it. Then of the five games to feature a fourth drive, all but one (Ravens/Chargers) had a fifth drive. Only Texans/Lions on Thanksgiving had six drives, and both teams missed a field goal in a choke-fest of bad coaching.
Here is the summary of each overtime drive.
NFL 2012 Overtime Drive Summaries
There is the proof of the bad field position. Teams start on average at their own 20.6 when getting the ball first in overtime. Only one team started past their own 25, and that was Arizona (own 34) against Miami. Eighteen out of 22 teams started at their own 20 or worse.
Meanwhile the 19 times they gave the ball back to the opponent, that team started at the 36.2 on average. That is highly influenced by two huge interceptions in games with the Steelers: Matt Cassel giving them the game in Pittsburgh, while Ben Roethlisberger did the same in Dallas.
What’s most interesting is how the optimal strategy should have happened even more times than it did. Three missed field goals – Dan Carpenter against the Jets (48), David Akers against the Rams (41), Shayne Graham against the Lions (51) – that were very makeable cost three teams a chance to win on the second drive of overtime after stopping the team who won the coin toss.
There were only a total of three missed field goals on all other drives combined, and two of those would have never even happened had Akers and Graham made their kicks first.
The team that may have executed the optimal strategy the best was Detroit in a 26-23 win at Philadelphia in Week 6. Philadelphia received, started at their own 25, Michael Vick was sacked twice, and the Eagles had to punt from their own 4-yard line. Detroit started at the 50 and only had to go 23 yards for the game-winning field goal. Game over. Easy.
You cannot be overly concerned that a team is going to drive 80+ yards for a touchdown on your defense to start overtime, nor should you be so optimistic your offense will do the same. The numbers don’t lie.
Even if you do give up the opening field goal, is it not fairly advantageous to have four-down offense all the way with no pressure of time? This is a situation we practically never see, because teams only use all four downs in desperate situations late in the fourth quarter.
Now you could come out with 10:00 left and keep using four plays to get 10 yards. That’s not bad at all. The problem is we have only seen four examples of this in 22 games, and one of those involved Detroit botching a 4th-and-1 play at the Titans’ 7-yard line when they admittedly were not even trying to go for it.
In each of the last three weeks we have seen a team win the coin toss, receive, start at their own 20-25, and quickly give the ball back and lose by a field goal.
Baltimore did it in Washington, even though they could have tested Kirk Cousins coming off the bench in overtime. What are the chances he leads an 80-yard touchdown drive? Are they better than Joe Flacco leading a 45-yard field goal drive? The Redskins returned Baltimore’s punt 64 yards to easily set up the winning field goal.
Pittsburgh wanted the ball first in Dallas, came out with the no-huddle offense, but Roethlisberger’s poor pass was intercepted and returned to the DAL 1. Another game-winning drive where the quarterback just had to fall down.
Then on Sunday, the Cowboys were in the opposite position. They just had an incredible comeback from 14 points down to force overtime, decided to let the offense go out there again, but they quickly punted. Jimmy Graham made huge plays for the Saints, and they kicked the game-winning field goal.
Those last three games have softened the outstanding record for the coin-toss winner (0-3). But when you break the games down, is getting the ball first really the factor providing the winning advantage? I do not think so, at least based on these 22 games.
You may feel good about your offense, but expecting them to score on a long field, even if they just did it, is not that likely. In fact, wouldn’t a team be less likely to score an 80-yard touchdown on back-to-back possessions?
Purely out of interest on the “momentum” concept, the team who scored last in the fourth quarter to force overtime went 15-6-1 (.705) this year. This would be worth looking into historically some day.
Are you entertained yet?
The NFL needs to find a happy medium between the college overtime system and something that provides both offenses a chance while not being absurd. The new system has helped in that regard, but it is still not perfect.
If you were expecting to see four-down offense rule the day in overtime, it has been a disappointment so far. Whether it’s because the system is new and teams are cautious, we might actually be seeing more conservative offense than ever before in overtime.
Not even Bill Belichick and the Patriots pushed the envelope in their overtime game against the Jets. Maybe it’s because they knew Sanchez would hand the game over with a fumble (“butt” variety or “classic” will do).
If you are going to take the ball first, you better be somewhat aggressive and at the very least flip the field position. Going three and out is more devastating now, as you trigger the classic sudden death rule, and the other team has a short field to drive.
The added kickoff change correlates with overtime now and should factor into a coach’s decision making. It will take years before we get enough new data to better understand what the best decisions are, but clearly the old methods are no longer as valid.
Hard to imagine you can become a maverick by kicking off, but some day a coach will be the first to try it. Hopefully it works out too, because we know once you screw up a decision, the ridiculous media pressure prevents other coaches from trying.
Fear is the mind killer of a coach, and you cannot be afraid to give your team a chance to make you look smart. Not putting Matt Cassel out there to drive 85 yards for a touchdown sounds pretty smart to us.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.