Why Are There So Many NFL Games Going to Overtime?

Yesterday, while watching RedZone, as the Cowboys and Patriots became the second game to go to OT on the day, I remember Scotty Hanson saying something about all the overtime games we’ve seen thus far in the 2021 season. I don’t exactly remember what the stat he brought up was, but the point was that we’re seeing an unprecedented amount of games go to overtime.

I started to realize that, yeah, there has been an unusually high rate of games going to overtime.

So I took to Google to try and figure out how many games have gone to overtime this year vs. how many games went to overtime in seasons past. I couldn’t find any data on the matter, so I had to look it up myself.

What I found is that we’ve had at least one game go to OT every week this year, and 4 of the 6 weeks this year have had 2 games go to overtime.

Overall, we’ve already had 10 overtime games this year in just 6 weeks.

Last year, only 8 games went to overtime all season long.

In 2019, just 7 of the 256 regular season games went to overtime.

2018 saw a higher number of overtime games, 14, but again that was over the full 17-week season. We’re already at 10 through just 6 weeks this year.

2021 is on pace to see 30 overtime games over the course of the 18-week season. Over a 17-week schedule, like all the seasons prior to this one, it would be a pace of 28 total OT games.

This is completely unprecedented stuff. What’s going on here?

If you’ve been paying attention for the past 10 years, the NFL has talked endlessly about parity, parity, parity.

The NFL is doing everything it can to promote parity in the league. They don’t want dynasties. They don’t want perennial losers. They don’t want the same teams being good and the same teams being bad every year. They want every fanbase to feel like they can either win a Super Bowl right now, or are just a few short years of a rebuild away from competing for a Super Bowl.

No team has repeated as Super Bowl Champs since the 2004 Patriots. It’s harder than ever to do now because of the parity in the league. (The Seahawks would’ve done it in 2014 had they handed it off to Marshawn Lynch, however.) Sure, the Patriots won 6 Super Bowls between 2001-2018, and a few other teams like the Ravens, Bucs, Giants and Steelers have each won 2 Super Bowls since 2000, but the point is the NFL wants a different Super Bowl Champion every year, and for the most part they get it.

It seems normal now that it’s very hard to repeat, but it used to happen quite frequently. There were of course the 2003 & 2004 Patriots. Before them was the 1997 & 1998 Broncos. Just a few years earlier was the 1992 & 1993 Cowboys. You had the 1988 & 1989 49ers. The Steel Curtain Steelers of the 1970s did it twice: 1978 & 1979, and 1974 & 1975. The Dolphins did it in 1972 & 1973. And the Packers won the first two Super Bowls in 1966 & 1967.

The NFL never went more than a decade without a repeat Champion, and generally it would happen every 5-6 years.

Things are much different now. It is incredibly difficult to repeat. And that’s all by design. Parity.

In 2013, the Seahawks won their first-ever Super Bowl. The Broncos won their first Super Bowl in almost 20 years in 2015. The Falcons should’ve won one in 2016. The Eagles won their first-ever Super Bowl in 2017. The Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years in 2019. The Saints won their franchise’s first Super Bowl ever in 2009. Even when the Patriots won in 2014 it was their first Super Bowl Title in a decade.

That’s what the NFL wants. They want franchises to either break through for the first time, or return to prominence after a long drought. They want every fanbase maximally engaged.

The NFL prides itself on the fact that all the time, a team that finished last in its division the previous season finishes first the following season.

The Browns went 0-16 in 2017. In 2020, they were a few plays away from being in the AFC Championship Game. This is what the NFL wants.

You look at the draft rules, where the worst team in the league gets the best draft pick and the best team in the league gets the lowest draft pick, it’s designed to ensure bottom-feeder teams don’t remain at the bottom for long.

A huge change the league made with parity in mind was overhauling the rookie contract rules during the 2011 CBA negotiations (remember the lockout?) In 2010, #1 overall pick Sam Bradford signed an absolutely ludicrous rookie contract with $50 million guaranteed before he even took an NFL snap. If you remember back then, with every passing year, the top rookie QB would sign a record-breaking deal, with each more lucrative than the last. The Bradford contract in 2010 was the final straw for the owners, who had had enough of being wedded to their first round picks for years to come.

Drafting a first-round bust could set a franchise back for half a decade because you had to devote so much of the salary cap to him. It was basically like teams were signing rookie QBs to the type of contracts Mahomes and Josh Allen just got, yet these guys had never even taken a snap in the league. You were all-in on your rookie QB basically from the moment you drafted him.

Plus, because you were devoting so much of your salary cap to a rookie QB, it made it harder to fill out the roster around him, and harder for your team to climb out of the basement of the league. You ever wonder why the Lions could never put a good team around Matthew Stafford despite how good he was? Stafford was the #1 draft pick in 2009, just before the new rules went into place. He got a ridiculous contract under the old rules, and he’s been highly-paid ever since. It was simply impossible to put a great roster around him when since day one of his career, his salary had been the single biggest part of the cap for the Lions.

Now, post-2011, it’s much different. High draft pick rookies don’t make nearly as much money as they used to in the 2000s, even the top QBs. All rookie QBs are on very team-friendly contracts, which is why the model now in the NFL is to build up as great a roster as you can while you have your QB on a rookie deal, and make your run at the Super Bowl before you have to pay him the big bucks. It worked for the Seahawks in 2013. It worked for the Eagles in 2017 (kind of: while Wentz was on a rookie deal, they obviously won it with Nick Foles). It worked for the Chiefs in 2019–Mahomes was on a rookie deal that year and didn’t sign his mega-contract til after the Super Bowl win.

It’s also what the Ravens are trying to pull off with Lamar Jackson before they have to give him a mega-deal. Same with the Browns and Baker Mayfield, and the Cardinals with Kyler Murray, the Chargers with Justin Herbert, and, I guess now the Bengals with Joe Burrow have to be included in that category too, as they’re now 4-2 (yet another worst-place-to-first-place story, by the way). All those guys are still on their rookie deals right now.

Today, rookie contracts, especially those for QBs, are more like “prove it” deals. You get about 3-4 years to prove yourself, and the front office can put the best possible roster around you because of your low salary, which frees them up to spend elsewhere. Then, once you prove you’re franchise-worthy, you get the big contract.

But if you’re not, the team can easily move off of you. Drafting a QB bust doesn’t kill your chances for the next half-decade nowadays. It used to be that if you drafted a bust QB, it would set you back for years. Now, it really doesn’t.

So much of the leagues rules and initiatives are designed with parity in mind. They make it no secret that they are constantly striving for greater parity.

But if the league’s push for parity means greater competitiveness and egalitarianism, that has to impact the on-field product, right? I mean, after all, no matter what you do with the contracts and the salary cap rules, the single most important factor in determining who wins the Super Bowl each year is, obviously, the games themselves.

The way to have parity is to have more close games. If both teams are alive late in the 4th quarter, that’s parity right there. Close games often can go either way, and that’s what the league wants.

I remember hearing last year that the league wanted to do away with onside kicks and replace them with a 4th & 15 attempt. It was said to be in the name of “player safety,” but the real reason is because onside kicks are rarely recovered, and this is the biggest reason teams’ late comeback efforts often fall short. NFL.com even acknowledged as much in its article on the matter (linked), and everyone in the sports media knew the real reason.

While the proposal obviously wasn’t approved, it wasn’t rejected, either. It was merely tabled for further discussion down the line, and don’t be surprised it it’s actually implemented sometime in the next 5 years. You’ll probably see it in the preseason soon here because that’s kind of like the NFL’s experimental lab since the games don’t count.

The NFL wants to replace the onside kick with a 4th & 15 because it would mean more improbable come-from-behind wins. You could be down 16 points in the final two minutes and have a realistic shot at coming back and winning the game under these new rules. You score a TD, get the 2-point conversion, convert the 4th & 15, and then go back down the field and score again all without the other team ever getting the ball. And their defense is on the field the entire time getting absolutely gassed (so much for player safety).

Currently, the greatest roadblock to a late comeback from down 2 or more scores is the onside kick. Onside kick recovery rates nowadays are around 6% for the league, down from about 20% prior to the new rule changes in 2018 that made them “safer.” Most comeback attempts are stopped dead in their tracks by the low onside kick recovery rates, but the NFL wants to change that by eliminating onside kicks altogether.

And this is all in the name of making the games closer, more exciting, and down-to-the-wire.

But if replacing onside kicks is still a ways away, what is the league doing right now to encourage closer and more exciting games?

This is where officiating comes in. The league can’t fully rig the games (although some out there believe it does), but it can steer them in its preferred direction due to rule changes and “points of emphasis.”

We all know the game has gotten “softer” over the years, with the rules increasingly favoring the offense. It’s almost impossible to play defensive back nowadays given the referees’ hair triggers when it comes to calling defensive pass interference. You breathe on a QB and it’s roughing the passer: you can’t hit him too high, and you can’t hit him too low, either (the Brady Rule).

They say it’s about “player safety,” but really, it’s about increasing scoring.

The league believes fans don’t want to see defensive slugfests and low-scoring games. Or blowouts, either. And they’re largely right on that.

But this season it feels like it has gone to a whole new level.

I don’t have any data to back up my claim here, but I’m sure a lot of you are seeing the same thing I’m seeing: it feels like there’s a flag thrown anytime a trailing team’s offensive drive seemingly gets stopped on 3rd or 4th down, giving them a do-over. It’s almost to the point where if a team throws an incomplete pass on 3rd and long, or 4th down, I’m expecting the refs to throw a flag for DPI, or defensive holding, or roughing the passer.

The NFL hasn’t said anything publicly because it would be construed as them rigging the games, but we do know the NFL instructs the referees before each season on how to officiate games differently from the previous season. It’s what’s known as “points of emphasis.” The NFL tells the referees to make certain things a “point of emphasis.” Translation: throw more flags for it. This year it’s holding. We’re seeing so many flags for holding (which I think is the league’s way of somewhat balancing out all the flags thrown on the defense). And of course there’s the ridiculous taunting rules that are the epitome of No Fun League-style rules.

I am almost certain the NFL instructed the refs before the season to not be hesitant to throw a flag on the defense on 3rd and 4th down. If there’s anything that looks like PI, flag it.

The end result is that we’re seeing so many of these games go to overtime–way more than ever before. I believe it has to do with officiating.

I don’t think the NFL has explicitly told the refs to do what they can to ensure these games are close and go to overtime, but I think they’ve nudged the refs in that direction.

The NFL has stated countless times publicly that it wants parity, parity, parity and close, exciting games. So it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that this constant push for parity and competitiveness is what’s behind the huge increase in the number of games going to overtime.

Now it’s possible that this is just a coincidence, but when it comes to a multi-billion dollar business like the NFL, I seriously doubt it.

Is this a good thing for the game? Well, it definitely undermines the league’s claims to be all about player safety. Overtime means greater odds of injury. (As does adding a 17th game to the schedule, and bumping up the number of international games to 4 every season).

My main gripe, personally, is that I don’t like the NFL’s overtime format. I think they should go to the college overtime rules, and I’ve wanted this for years now. I don’t like that games can end in ties.

And obviously it doesn’t fully sit right with me that the league is pretty much manipulating the outcomes of these games. They’re not going to overtime naturally, but rather due to the refs.

While I’m all for close and competitive games, I think the NFL has gone a bit too far this season. It’s become a little too obvious what’s going on, and it’s starting to feel manipulated.

That’s bad for the league, if fans are starting to feel like the games are rigged, and I do think the league will pull back a little, either on the fly this year or in the offseason.

But then again, if the ratings are going up, why would they stop what they’re doing?

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