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As 2010 evidence suggests, NFL overdid it with overtime tweaks

Hearing Jets kicker Nick Folk candidly admit Sunday that he assumed the NFL's new not-so-sudden-death overtime rules for the playoffs also applied to the 2010 regular season prompted a thought: Why haven't we heard the annual hue and cry about the inherent unfairness of a team being able to win the coin flip and then be victorious on the first possession of overtime?

But after a little research, now I understand why. Week 9 in the NFL featured a season-high three overtime games, giving us 11 this year that have required more than 60 minutes to settle the outcome. But until Folk made a winner out of the 6-2 Jets with his 30-yard field goal just 2:18 into overtime, we had not seen a single-possession OT game this season.

That's right, 10 out of the league's 11 overtime games (see table) this season have gone at least two possessions -- and seven of them went three possessions or more. (Taking it even one step further, three games flirted with being ties, lasting until there were fewer than two minutes remaining in overtime.)

There's been no controversy about the overtime rules this season because 91 percent of the games involved have seen both teams have a shot to win in overtime, in the process rendering rather moot the NFL's dubious decision to have one set of overtime rules for the regular season and another for the playoffs.

This time, unlike last January's NFC title game in New Orleans, Brett Favre got the ball in overtime for the Vikings, and led Minnesota to a 27-24 win Sunday against Arizona. There was no uproar this week because the Cardinals got the ball to start OT and punted. Coin flip? Who cares about the stinkin' coin flip?

The specter of Favre's Vikings being denied in sudden-death overtime was at least tangentially behind the NFL's move to change the overtime playoff rules last March. By a 28-4 vote at the league's annual meeting this spring in Orlando, the owners voted to implement a system in which both teams are assured at least one possession in an overtime playoff game, providing the first team to have the ball doesn't score a touchdown on that drive. But in the regular season, the sudden-death rules still apply, Folk's Donovan McNabb-like unawareness aside. The first team to score wins.

Just one game this season ended on an overtime touchdown, and it came way back in Week 1, when Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall ripped off a game-winning 50-yard run on the first play of the Steelers' opening overtime possession against Atlanta. But the Falcons got the ball first in OT and punted, and thus the game's outcome had no relevance to the experimental rule that will apply for the first time this coming postseason.

There was considerable sentiment within the league this spring, in the coaching community especially, to have the same set of overtime rules for both the regular season and the playoffs -- whichever those might be. Most coaches seemed to feel if you were going to turn overtime into a two-possession format, barring a first-possession touchdown, it'd be better for them to be a little familiar with those type of game-situation decisions in the regular season before they got to the pressure-cooker that is the NFL playoffs.

It's hard to know for sure whether having 10 out of the first 11 overtime games this year going at least two possessions will blunt any momentum to change the regular-season OT rules to fall in line with the playoff rules. But logic says it's reasonable to assume we'll eventually wind up once again with one uniform set of rules, that being the new two-possession playoff-game format. It nearly was implemented for the regular season this year at the May owners meeting, before being tabled for further study.

The move strikes me as the league trying to fix something that's not broken. Maybe this season's overtime results are just a statistical aberration, but clearly there has been no overtime debate this year because no one outside of the Lions on Sunday could claim to have been cheated by the sudden-death format.

While I've been a proponent of keeping sudden-death overtime as is, I understood the league's fear of having the Super Bowl decided by a coin flip and thought the playoff-only proposal made sense as a logical middle-ground solution. But taking that same remedy to the regular season certainly doesn't seem justified based on this year's results. Are we really desperate to have uniformity when we can go an entire half-season without even remembering we had a problem in the first place?

And let's remember, there have always been different overtime rules in place for the regular season and the playoffs to begin with. In the regular season, overtime lasts 15 minutes. In the postseason, teams can play eternally, at least in theory. And if you think that inconsequential, you've obviously never endured double overtime.

In the NFL, little seems to happen in the way of change unless there's a controversy or clamor that pushes an issue to the front burner and sparks a debate among fans and the talking-head set. But if we continue to get two-plus possession overtime games this season, perhaps there won't be that tipping-point moment to come along and serve as impetus for change.

That's just how the league works. Whether Nick Folk realizes it or not.

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