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What the NFL's overtime rules could learn from high school wrestling

The NFL's overtime format is better than it used to be, but it's still ... not ... perfect. With help from an unlikely source, here's one small OT rule tweak that could spice up the entire game.

Did you hear the news? The Seahawks and Cardinals tied 6–6 on Sunday night.

You might have missed the game, since apparently nobody watches NFL games anymore. Or you might have tried watching but given up halfway through because it was really late. Or because, well, it was 6–6.

But those of us who stuck it out were treated to a truly memorable game. It didn’t quite meet everyone’s definition of “good” or “exciting” for the first 60 minutes, but I thought it was fun.

In overtime, both kickers first traded made field goals, then traded missed chip shots. I’ll just assume you saw the highlights and the coach reactions (RIP Vine).

It was the fourth tie since the league adjusted the regular season overtime rules in 2012 so that a field goal on the opening drive of the extra period wouldn’t end the game. Of those four, it was the third in which both teams actually made field goals on their first drives before going scoreless the rest of the way.

As always happens in these situations, I saw and heard some chatter about the format, with people all over the spectrum on what they think is fair.

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The arguments are familiar. Many thought the old setup was unfair because a team could lose after allowing a couple first downs and a field goal, without their offense touching the ball à la Brett Favre’s Vikings in the 2010 NFC Championship Game. The counterargument is that the loser of the coin toss had 60 minutes to win if they wanted to avoid being put in that scenario. In addition, you could still win on a quick TD à la Tim Tebow, Demaryius Thomas and the Broncos in 2012. That’s where people counter that it’s unfair for the coin toss to have such a big impact on the game—which I believe leads right back to the retort about having 60 minutes to avoid it.

As you can see, there’s no perfect solution. Meanwhile, the NFL doesn’t want regular season games dragging on into multiple overtimes, in part to limit the number of snaps players are exposed to.

My extremely lukewarm take: I’m pretty much fine with the current format.

O.K., if you want a hotter take, I’ll give you one: I’m happy as long as the NFL doesn’t adopt the college overtime rules, which are horrible. There, I actually feel a little better now.

But I do think a tweak could be made. I’m in the camp that believes sudden death is fine (and fun, and exciting), but I do agree that a coin toss is pretty arbitrary for such an important moment at that stage of the game.

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So how can we settle this? Well, here’s a little thing the NFL could learn from Pennsylvania high school wrestling.

Back in my glory days, when I was a chiseled and intimidating 125-pound high school senior (Editors: Please leave that in), Pennsylvania wrestling had the following format to avoid ties: Overtime was one minute of sudden death—both wrestlers would be on their feet, and if anyone earned a takedown, the match was over. If nobody earned a takedown, the match went to a 30-second double overtime. One wrestler started double OT in the bottom position, the other on top. If the guy on the bottom escaped, he won. If the guy on top maintained control for the full time, he won. Either way the match would end in, at most, 30 seconds.

Now, here’s the part the NFL could learn from: The way you determined who was on top or bottom in double overtime was to give the choice to the wrestler who scored first at the beginning of the match.

So that got me thinking. Could the NFL also do away with the extremely arbitrary coin toss and replace it with a similar rule? Now, I know that scoring first might seem arbitrary, too. Why not use most total yards, highest time of possession, or some other qualifier that you might think measures who is in control of the game? Well, first score might still be a bit arbitrary, but at least it’s settled on the field—whereas the coin toss is either luck, physics or God, depending on which players you ask.

But more importantly, adding in this rule would make other parts of the game more exciting.

Start with the opening drive. Teams have no way of knowing if the game will go to overtime, but getting the ball first is a huge advantage if it does. All of a sudden there’s great incentive to get those first points, which could lead to teams playing more aggressively. Do you hate it as much as I do when teams punt on fourth-and-two from midfield? Well, lots of coaches who might be tempted to punt it away in a scoreless game today might be pushed to go for it on fourth down if they still have a chance to score the first points of the game.

Now think about the very end of regulation. Do you hate it as much as I do when a team kneels out the final 30 seconds to just play it safe and take their chances with OT? Well, you can imagine how the whole endgame could look different if one team knew it was getting the ball first in OT and the other knew it wasn’t. Again, you’d see certain teams play things more aggressively, which only makes the game more fun.

And in a bonus fun scenario: You can imagine touchdowns that would normally tie the game in the final seconds, where teams are already tempted to consider a two-point conversion like Jack Del Rio’s Raiders did in Week 1. If teams reach that situation already knowing they’d have to kick off to start OT, we might see even more teams prefer to let the game ride on a two-point conversion instead of giving away the ball to start overtime.

So first possession in overtime could be settled on the field, in a manner that also encourages coaches to be more aggressive at certain points in the game. I’m not leading the mob with torches and pitchforks to change the current format, but this little tweak sounds pretty good to me.

And that, kids, is why you should pay attention in high school.