The Case for Getting Rid of Overtime in the NFL

The league has reduced the extra period from 15 minutes to 10, but in the name of player safety (and strategy), why not just scrap the entire thing? Plus notes on Tom Brady’s undocumented concussion and why Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t signed on with a new team
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This week’s change in the length of overtime from 15 minutes to 10 closes the page on an issue raised, discussed and tabled at the annual league meetings. That March gathering included team owners, coaches and executives; this week’s meeting, however, is only for owners, who discuss and vote on changes privately, far removed from other team personnel.

This is hardly the first time owners have acted on a matter of great importance in the privacy of an owners-only meeting, giving little voice to the concerns of coaches and general managers. Although coaches cherish their time instructing players in the offseason, the 2011 CBA was negotiated between owners and players; coaches were not consulted. When the NFLPA made player health and safety a primary bargaining issue, owners found it both prudent and economically advantageous to reduce practice time in the offseason and contact in the season. Complaints by coaches about the stunting of player development due to these restrictions have become an annual ritual.

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Similarly, any concerns coaches may have had about reducing overtime paled when compared to player safety. Just as with the CBA, coaches and general managers are not going to influence ownership on issues that could affect bigger-picture concerns.

A final thought here: if player safety is the primary concern behind reducing overtime, then why play overtime at all? Instead of reducing it five minutes, why not do away with the entire 15? Doing so would yield two positive net effects: 1) player safety would be served to even a greater extent, and 2) coaches would have to differentiate themselves through strategic end-of-game decisions. How many times have we speculated/hoped that a team would “go for 2” to win at the end of regulation? That could become standard fare.

Let’s just scrap overtime. There, I said it.

Tom Brady and Wally Pipp

With player safety being one of the NFL’s top stated priorities, league executives must have spit out their coffee last week upon hearing Giselle Bündchen—Tom Brady’s wife—tell The CBS Morning News that Brady hid concussions from the Patriots. Predictably, NFL officials revved into high-alert mode, and a statement was soon issued about how there is no evidence that Brady suffered a concussion in 2016 (of course no records would exist if he hid it). Brady’s agent put out a similar statement. Many hours were spent trying to snuff out Bündchen’s suggestion, as if to tell the public, “Move on, nothing to see here.”

The NFL has been on a positive trajectory since the era depicted in the movie Concussion and the book/documentary League of Denial, an era they would like to forget. There have been rule changes promoting safety (such as the overtime rule above), increased penalties for violent hits, limits on practice time and contact, and some evidence of an increase in self-reporting by players, such as Ben Roethlisberger, as the league tries to move away from the “play-through, tough-it-out” culture of the past. However, a story about league’s biggest star (with Drew Brees also chiming in that he would hide a concussion as well) throws a hitch in the league’s messaging about player safety.

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Of course, we should not be naïve to think players do not hide concussions. Compared to easily discernible injuries—knees, ankles, shoulders, etc.—concussions are “silent” injuries. The prevailing thought has been that those doing the hiding are primarily the most vulnerable. Due to lack of guaranteed contracts and tenuous job security, hiding of concussions has been seen as a business decision spurred by fear of being replaced.

Brady and Brees, of course, would have no concern about job security—for the foreseeable future at least. This may suggest two powerful forces at work: 1) regardless of job security, some players at all levels are willing to play through a head injury, even knowing potential long-term risk (as all players now know), and 2) all players, even superstars, worry about being Wally Pipped—that is, losing their job to injury and never seeing it again. I saw this primal fear during my time as an agent and team executive, even with Brett Favre, the most durable quarterback in NFL history. He knew how he got his job—the guy in front of him got hurt—and he didn’t want to be subject to the same fate.

The inexorable reality about athletes, from marginal ones to superstars, is their default setting of wanting to play. The “adults” in the room—doctors, trainers, management, coaches—have to protect them, but they first have to be aware of the injury. Hiding concussions in football is a problem that may last as long as there are concussions.

Making Sense of Kaepernick

Why isn’t a team signing Colin Kaepernick? That question continues to reverberate around sports conversation, and I continue to reiterate what I have said throughout the offseason. On teams of 60 players—90 during the offseason—teams prefer anonymous, faceless “football guys” for backup roles (which Kaepernick will fill). I have referred to this as “attention discrimination,” with only important starters being immune to it.

It seems hyperbolic to hear that Kaepernick is being blackballed, signaling a collusion-infused plan to keep him out of the NFL. The fact that some teams may decide on another backup quarterback—for any number of reasons, perhaps including Kaepernick’s politics—does not, in my view, equate to being blackballed. These decisions are much more nuanced than what is often portrayed in the media.

A final note here: the NFL has the longest offseason of any major sport, with another six weeks to go before training camps open. As I say all the time about players, they don’t need all teams to like them; they only need one. My sense is Kaepernick will be signed, and we will soon forget the pendulum of discussion about why he wasn’t.

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