NFL overtime rules are incomplete

NFL rules try to cover every contingency in every situation, but I thought of a situation where, under extraordinary circumstances, the rules would be self-conflicting.

The rules for overtime games during the regular season were recently changed so that each team would get a chance to possess the ball, unless the team that gets the ball first scores a TD. In that case, the game ends. But if the team that gets the ball first only scores a field goal then the opposing team gets a chance to even the score, or win with a TD.

Here’s the rule from

No more than one 15-minute period will follow a three-minute intermission. Each team must possess, or have the opportunity to possess, the ball. The exception: if the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on the opening possession.

That seems simple enough, but what happens if the team that gets the ball to start overtime drives the ball down the field, slowly and methodically, and makes a field goal with no time left on the clock? The rule states that the opposing team should get a chance to possess the ball, but the 15-minute extra quarter has ended.

A 15-minute drive would be exceptional, and as far as I can decern a drive of that duration has never happened, but it could. If during each set of downs a team used three plays to get a first down, and they managed to get a first down by only a yard or two, and they ran the play clock down to 1 second each play, then they could eat up the entire 15-minute extra period.

I’ll break it down. There are 900 seconds in a 15-minute quarter. That’s time for twenty plays, assuming they run the 40-second play clock to 0 and the play takes 5 seconds to run–45 seconds for each play. A twenty play drive is unheard of, but it would only take 6 1st downs, assuming each set of downs took three plays to reach a 1st. If the team averaged 12 yards for every set of downs they would cover 72 yards.

As implausible as this sounds consider how much more likely this becomes if a team were to lose yardage on their first two downs, and then get a first down due to a penalty. Take for instance a situation where on 1st down from the 50-yard line the QB gets sacked for a 15-yard loss. Then on 2nd down the QB is sacked again for a 10-yard loss. Now it’s 3rd down and 35 from their own 25-yard line. If on 3rd down the defense gets a roughing the QB penalty that gives the offense a 1st down. But, the penalty is only good for 15-yards. The offense would have 1st down at their own 40. In essence, they would have used about 90 seconds from the clock and lost 10 yards, but still have 1st down. That sort of thing happens. If you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys I’m sure you can remember it happening seemingly every week–minus the 1st down part. :-)

Now imagine your average long, methodical drive, that chews up a lot of time on the clock. It’s not uncommon to see drives of 12 plays using up around 9 minutes. Throw in two of the situations mentioned in the previous paragraph and suddenly a 9-minute drive has become a 12-minute drive. At this point the offensive team would actively be trying to run down the clock as much as possible in case they have to settle for a field goal, because they would want to leave the opposing team as little time as possible to get a field goal to tie it up. If they managed to make the field goal with no time left on the clock then there would be massive confusion. Clearly the rules don’t cover this scenario.

I propose that the NFL should amend the rules so that the opposing team would get an untimed drive where they would have a chance to tie the game, or win it with a TD. Or even better, just leave the rule as it is and wait for this situation to happen so that we could see the madness that ensues.


A friend pointed me to this blog post with the longest drives, by duration, in NFL records.

Even if the team with the ball first had only a 10-minute drive it wouldn’t be fair for the other team to have only 5 minutes to score. They should be allowed to drive the football without time consideration, just as the first team did.

What do you think?

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