There will never be a perfectly fair way to decide an NFL game when the score is tied after 60 minutes of play. In 2010, the league changed its rules so the team that lost the coin toss would receive an extra possession as long as the receiving team didn't score a touchdown.
And for a while, this seemed relatively fair. But then, the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills put on what can only be deemed as a perfect football game. With 25 combined points in the final two minutes, the game was notched at 36 apiece after the fourth quarter. No one wanted the game to end.
But the game did end. It ended on the first possession of overtime and it lead to a public outcry that the overtime rules were unfair. This prompted NFL owners to approve a rule that both teams would get a possession in overtime for the 2022 postseason.
While at face value this might seem fair, such a rule might benefit teams like the Dallas Cowboys.
The new overtime rules could benefit the Cowboys
The pendulum might have just swung too far.
Because for years, the team that won the coin toss was more likely to win. In a 2017 study conducted by The Ringer, they found that since the OT rules were changed in 2010, the team that won the coin toss had a 54.8 win percentage.
So if you received the ball first and had a somewhat decent offense, you were more likely to win the game. Contrast this with college football, where the team who gets the ball first only wins between 45 to 48% of the time. It is better to start on defense in college.
But the new rule, where the team that receives first cannot win the game on their first possession, might favor the team that starts on defense. Because if you can force a stop, you get the ball only needing to kick a field goal (nothing has changed there). And the average defense over the last 20 years prevents any type of score on a given drive 65% of the time. But even if you allow a touchdown or field goal, you have the chance to match.
We discussed the new overtime rules among other things on the latest BTB Roundtable on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our episodes! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Contrast this with the team that starts first, where there is no way they can end the game on their first possession. While the team that starts on offense can force a stop after scoring or win the game on the third possession of OT, the receiving team seems to be at a disadvantage.
Playing around with @PFF_Moo's great piece on scoring when necessary (https://t.co/QRZlKpNavR), I get something like a 55% chance of going-2nd team winning under the new overtime rules when teams with good offenses are playing each other (as tends to happen in playoffs) pic.twitter.com/5lBRiughIS— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) March 31, 2022
So, if you’re keeping track, it is impossible for the team that starts with the ball to end the game on their first possession, but there is roughly a 65% chance the second team gets the ball only needing a field goal to win. This 65% is not to be interpreted as the probability that the second team wins, but it gives us a baseline of the likely outcome after the first possession.
And there was already some value in starting second in NFL overtime before this rule change. When the Patriots and Cowboys went to overtime, Dallas had a 56% chance to win when New England faced a 2nd-and-5 on their own 44-yard line, per rbsdm.com. Inversely, in the Raiders versus Cowboys Thanksgiving matchup, when Dallas faced a 3rd-and-4, Las Vegas’ win percentage stood at 68.6%. Even before this rule change, if you had a solid defense and managed to put the other team behind the chains, it was favorable to go second.
So, with the new rule change, going second is likely going to become the best option.
Reached out to a few current NFL analytics staffers to ask: given new postseason OT rule, what's your instant reaction -- do you want the first or second possession?— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) March 29, 2022
Two said first.
Three said second.
A sixth said...
Assuming the Cowboys' defense is still their strong suit in 2022 (ranked seventh by EPA per play on offense and second on defense in 2021) then this rule could play to their advantage. Because if they win the coin toss, they can defer. If they lose, then if they are playing a team whose offense is better than their defense, they will likely take the ball first out of uncertainty or habit. Meaning that if Dallas makes the right decision, they would be starting on defense more often than not in overtime.
It is not like this is a massive leg up for the Cowboys. If the other team has a strong defense and wins the toss, then the Cowboys will have to start with the ball in a disadvantageous situation. This also assumes that Dallas makes the right decision, which is never a given for any team in the league.
But the NFL is a game of inches. And with the new rules, if you have a strong defense, which the Cowboys will presumably still have, there is value in going second. And that value could mean the difference between a postseason win and loss.
So, what if the decent offenses still decide to take the ball first and the Cowboys always defer? Well, you just gained an advantage because of the fact that settling a 60-minute game with sudden death can never be perfect. But imperfection is where strategy lives.
Who knows what will happen with the new set of OT rules. To be fair, there is a slim chance this rule applies to the 2022 Dallas season. But this change will likely benefit the team that starts second if they have a decent defense. Maybe this is only a one-year thing. But maybe, the Cowboys are on the winning end of a flawed system. Maybe they are on the losing end of it. We won’t know what this rule entails until it plays an impact in the NFL and there is a new wave of public outcry.