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Knot your average outcome: A historical look at ties in the NFL

So now we know how much Donovan McNabb knows about ties in the NFL. Which is pretty much nothing, since he didn't even know they existed. But exist they do, and once upon a time in the pre-overtime era of the league that Pete Rozelle helped make into America's game, they were far more common than a once every five- or six-year occurrence.

I got to thinking about ties this week in the aftermath of McNabb's admission, and starting digging into the 2008 NFL Record and Fact Book in the hopes of maybe educating the Eagles starting quarterback about a part of the game that had apparently never crossed his radar screen. Consider it a kind of "NFL Ties for Dummies''-type effort.

Maybe McNabb thought ties were only for the Philadelphia Flyers and their like in the pre-shootout NHL. Maybe he just never noticed that column in the NFL standings with the capital T atop it, just to the right of the W and the L. Or maybe, in this age of instant gratification, the thought of settling for just a so-so situation like a tie game is just completely out of step with McNabb's view of the want-it-now times.

"Maybe it's a case of Donovan obviously never played for Bud Grant,'' cracked former Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp, who was good enough to pick up the phone Wednesday afternoon in his San Jose-area home and answer a few of my questions about his experiences with tie games.

"And he didn't play in the Black and Blue Division. In our division (the old NFL Central), we played a lot of low-scoring, defensive minded games. We had Joe Schmidt coaching the Detroit Lions, Mr. Butkus with that Bears defense, and Ray Nitschke with the Packers defense. And we had the Purple People Eaters defense in Minnesota. It made for a lot of opportunities for ties to happen. But I get it, because for a quarterback who's offensive-minded, tying is not in a quarterback's mindset. You don't want to kiss your sister. And my sisters are beautiful.''

Kapp quarterbacked the 1969 Vikings into Super Bowl IV, where they lost to Kansas City in the game that made wired-up Chiefs head coach Hank Stram into an NFL Films legend. But in 1967, Kapp's first year in Minnesota, his Vikings went 3-8-3, tying 21.4 percent of the time in their 14-game schedule. And they weren't even the only three-tie team in the league that year, as Washington finished 5-6-3.

"You knew back then that a tie, it didn't hurt you,'' Kapp said. "It might not have helped you, but it didn't hurt you. In those days, they made tying reasonably valuable. But hey, I was a quarterback like McNabb, and I can't even fathom playing for a tie.''

The more I looked into the history of the NFL tie, the more I realized just how prevalent even-Steven games were prior to the league adopting a sudden-death overtime period in 1974. Pay attention now, Donovan, because I'm going to teach you a thing or two about the games where there are no winners or losers. These are just some of the more interesting nuggets I uncovered:

• I absolutely get why the NFL made the rule change to sudden death OT in 1974. Ties were getting out of hand. In 1973, the Browns, Chiefs and Broncos all went 7-5-2, and four teams overall had two ties. That's just too much tying. There were seven ties overall that season, representing 3.8 percent of the league's 182-game regular season. There had been five ties in 1972, eight in 1971, nine in 1970, and eight in 1969 (when it was still the NFL and AFL). In 1974, the first year of the new OT rule, there was just one tie.

• The 1967 season was a tying one for the NFL and AFL. Fifteen of the 25 teams that made up pro football had at least one tie. Five had two or more ties, and as noted earlier, the Vikings and Redskins had three ties each. Baltimore and the Los Angeles Rams tied for the NFL's Coastal Division lead at 11-1-2, but the Rams earned the tiebreaker based on head-to-head point differential (24 points net) against the Colts, who didn't even go to the playoffs despite losing just one game all season.

Green Bay beat the Rams in a playoff game, then out-lasted Dallas in a rather frosty NFL title game that became better known as the Ice Bowl.

• Though he doesn't know it, McNabb's own Eagles have quite a history with ties, stringing together five consecutive seasons with one from 1969 to '73. The beauty of Philly's streak was that it posted five losing records in the process of doing so: 4-9-1 in 1969, 3-10-1 in 1970, 6-7-1 in 1971, 2-11-1 in 1972 and 5-8-1 in 1973. That's tough to do. The Eagles have had just four more ties since then, in 1984, 1986, 1997, and you know when.

• The AFL West and the post-merger AFC West were annually a bastion of ties, and unlike the NFL/NFC Central, they played it wide-open on offense and weren't known for low-scoring, defensive-minded games. In the 10-year span of 1964-73, both the Raiders and Chargers had 11 ties in their 140 regular-season games, a whopping 7.9 tie percentage. The Chargers twice had three ties in a season, going 9-2-3 in 1965, and 5-6-3 in 1970. The Raiders were a winning "tie'' machine, posting seven above-.500 seasons with at least one tie in that 10-year span. Those records ranged from 8-4-2 in both 1970 and 1971, all the way up to 1969's sterling 12-1-1 mark.

• The 1970 AFC West was probably the tying-est division in the history of pro football. All four teams in the AFC West had at least one tie that year, with the standings reading Oakland at 8-4-2, Kansas City 7-5-2, San Diego 5-6-3, and Denver 5-8-1. The Chiefs posted that same 7-5-2 mark three times in a nine-year span, doing it in 1965, 1970 and 1973.

• The Houston Oilers actually made the 1969 AFL playoffs with the unlikely record of 6-6-2. They went a nicely balanced 4-2-1 at home, and 2-4-1 on the road.

• The old Boston Patriots had at least one tie for seven consecutive seasons from 1961 to '67, with nine ties total in that span. That's nine ties in 98 games, meaning a remarkable 9.2 percent of the time they played games in which no one won. Most notably, they had a turnaround season in 1966, going 8-4-2 a year after going 4-8-2 in 1965.

• The first three years that the Jets were the Jets (after being the New York Titans from 1960 to '62), they went a maddeningly consistent 5-8-1. They inched up to 6-6-2 in 1966, and then 8-5-1 in 1967. Finally in 1968, the Jets broke the tie pattern, going 11-3 and winning their only Super Bowl.

• Ties weren't just an AFL/AFC thing. The St. Louis Cardinals had eight straight seasons with at least one tie, from 1966 to '73. They went 4-9-1 four times in that span, including three agonizing years in a row (1971-73).

• In Vince Lombardi's only year coaching the Redskins, they put up a hopeful 7-5-2 in 1969, breaking the franchise's streak of 13 consecutive non-winning seasons.

• And when it comes to ties, the king of all kings were the 1932 Bears, who somehow went 7-1-6. I'll bet whoever their starting quarterback was, he knew about ties. Not coincidentally, Detroit that year went 6-2-4, so I'm guessing at least a few of those sister-kissings were Bears-Lions affairs.

So you see, there's a lot more for all of us to learn about ties in the NFL. It's not just McNabb. Although it still boggles the mind that No. 5 had played in so many overtime games without knowing that there was no sixth quarter looming.

"I'm shocked, absolutely shocked that he didn't know that,'' said Vikings pro personnel consultant Paul Wiggin, who played all 11 of his NFL seasons as a Cleveland Browns defensive end (1957-67). "McNabb's a bright guy. I played for Paul Brown in Cleveland, and I gua-ran-tee you we knew all about ties. He made you know. And McNabb would have too if he played for him.''

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