OT format proposal a step forward, but doesn't go far enough

Let's acknowledge that silver, Tiffany-made elephant in the room from the start: The NFL cannot, under any circumstances, have a Super Bowl decided by the flip of a coin.

Everyone connected with the game (except, perhaps, for anyone connected with the winning team) would view it as an outrage, an embarrassment of unthinkable proportions.

The 2009 NFC Championship Game put the league uncomfortably close to that nightmare scenario when the New Orleans Saints won a coin toss and Brett Favre could only watch as the Minnesota Vikings' Super Bowl dreams ended with one swing of a kicker's leg in overtime.

That, more than anything, is what prompted the NFL's Competition Committee to do something it has rarely done since overtime's introduction in 1974: propose a change to its format that owners will consider when they gather in Orlando, Fla., for the NFL Annual Meeting beginning Sunday. The proposed format would only apply to the postseason, which is further evidence that preventing a Super-sized face full of egg is the primary reason behind the willingness to tinker with OT at all.

What the committee has in mind would enhance the chances of each team having a possession in the extra period.

That is a great first step toward addressing a problem that the NFL would desperately like to avoid. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough.

Under the proposal, if the team that wins the toss proceeds to score a field goal on its first drive, the other team would get the ball. And if that team also scores a field goal, the present sudden-death format would then be in place. However, if the team that wins the toss drives for a touchdown, the game is over, and the opposing offense -- like Favre and the rest of his supporting cast in the NFC title game -- would never see the field.

As long as there is still a way for the game to end on a single possession, the issue is not being thoroughly addressed.

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Members of the Competition Committee are quite aware of that, and, on top of knowing that owners have a long history of opposing any alterations to overtime rules, there is considerable uncertainty within the group about the proposal's ability to draw the 24 votes necessary for passage. They will try to make their case more compelling by pointing out that, from 1974 to 1993, there was literally a 50-50 split between teams that won games after winning and losing the coin toss, but since then, OT victories have gone to clubs that win the toss 59.8 percent of the time, and to those that lose the toss 38.5 percent (note to those doing that math: the missing 1.7 percent are games that ended in a tie).

But the committee's primary concern is that anyone favoring the notion of both teams having at least one possession in overtime might not think the proposal goes far enough to ensure that will be the case. There also are multiple owners who will simply never be persuaded to change any aspect of the current OT rules, which allow for regular-season games to end in a tie and, for obvious reasons, call for postseason teams to play until there is a winner.

"I can't say that I have any sense for the votes," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the committee. "I think we've had probably two or three votes over the years. One was on the two-possession proposal, one was on moving the kickoff (back to the 35-yard line, where it was before being moved to the 30 in 1994). I think the two-possession proposal might have gotten 18 votes. I don't think moving the kickoff got that far.

"This doesn't mean that, as a committee, we shouldn't try to bring this or other issues up. But I don't really sense what the vote would be."

I'm all in favor of revising overtime, but would prefer to see a proposal that doesn't take a half-step toward allowing for each team to have at least one possession. Let's make that mandatory, regardless of what happens on the first series. If a team that wins the toss goes on to score a touchdown, let the other team have a chance to answer with a TD of its own. If not, game over. That would do plenty to ratchet up the drama and excitement of something that already has plenty of both.

Some have argued that, rather than focus on each team having a possession in overtime, kickoffs should simply be moved up to the 35 or even to the 40. This way, there would be more touchbacks and the team that won the toss would have a longer trek to set up a field goal. But that's hardly an iron-clad solution, which is probably why it has never been able to gain any traction within the league.

I'm not in favor of the league adopting the college overtime format, which eliminates the kickoff and essentially manufactures opportunities for both offenses to alternately be in scoring position. That is too radical a departure from how the game has been played through four quarters and gives it an awkward, scrimmage-like feel.

I also think, what is good enough for the postseason should also be good enough for the regular season. Although ties are rare under the current OT format for the regular season, let's play all NFL games until a winner is determined. The television networks (especially CBS and FOX) would hate the idea, fearing that extra-long games would wreak havoc with their prime-time Sunday programming.

However, as high as NFL TV ratings continue to soar, one has to wonder just how bad it would be for the networks to occasionally get some extended versions of the best reality program of them all.

Am I holding my breath for that to happen? No. And I'm equally skeptical about the owners adopting the playoff overtime change as it is proposed.

Other items on the meeting agenda worth noting:

» Discussions about the league's uncertain labor situation will dominate the four-day session. Owners and club executives are expected to address a wide variety of topics pertaining to negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. The current CBA runs through the 2010 season, which is expected to proceed as normal. However, questions have been raised about what might happen if no CBA is in place by the start of the 2011 season. The search for answers is expected to commence in earnest in Orlando.

» The Competition Committee is proposing multiple rules changes that focus on player safety. One that is likely to cause the most debate is expanding the protection provided to a "defenseless" receiver after he catches the ball. Currently, the protection ends the moment the receiver has possession of the ball with two feet on the ground. The committee is proposing language that would say that "if a receiver has completed the catch and has not had time to protect himself, a defensive player is prohibited from launching into him in a way that causes the defensive player's helmet, facemask, shoulder or forearm to forcibly strike the receiver's head." Said McKay, "We're trying to expand the protection a period of time because we've seen tape where people literally have caught the ball and had no opportunity to avoid and to protect themselves in any way." It seems that officials will face an enormous challenge trying to make what will be viewed as fair judgments on that one.

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