Without that rule, the Chiefs and Bills might still be playing
Last weekend’s NFL Divisional playoffs were astonishing. Four games. Four winners. Four woulda, shoulda, coulda winners but for one last play (except for, of course, the Packers, who absolutely should have lost to the 49ers). Winning margins of 3, 3, 3 and 6. An average winning margin of 3.75! It was a weekend of football that will never, ever, happen again.
But with all the drama, all the ups and downs, one game stood out. It was a game that will forever be referred to as “The Greatest Football Game of All-Time!” And that from a man who actually was in attendance at Candlestick Park on January 10, 1982 at the previous “Greatest Football Game of All-Time,” the NFC Championship game between the 49ers and the Cowboys, a game etched in every fan’s memory as the day of “The Catch.” (Yes, etched even in Cowboys fan’s memories…for reasons other than mine.)
That game this past Sunday? The Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Buffalo Bills.
Unfortunately, “The Greatest Football Game of All-Time” will not be remembered for its unsurpassed greatness; it will be forever tarnished by one of the worst rules ever devised by a professional sports league. In fact, as of this writing, three days after the game, if not for that rule, the Chiefs and the Bills might still be playing.
As regular time ran out, the teams were tied. Unlike the regular season where games can end in a tie, playoff games cannot – one team must move on. To address this, the NFL rules committee, in their infinite wisdom, came up with a solution. To avoid confusion or my own misinterpretation, here is the rule in Article 3.1 that determined the victor in the Chiefs/Bills game:
Both teams must have the opportunity to possess the ball once during the extra period, unless the team that receives the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on its initial possession, in which case it is the winner…
Kansas City won the coin toss at the beginning of the extra period and elected to receive the ball. Buffalo kicked off and NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO GET THE BALL BACK!
In essence, the winner was decided based on a FLIP OF THE COIN!
Is that hyperbole on my part? Consider this:
As Sports Illustrated reported, “According to the current overtime rules, a coin flip decides who gets the ball to start the extra period, and sudden death will not be enforced unless the team that gets the ball first scores a touchdown on the opening drive. Per NFL research, teams who won the coin toss have won 10 of the 11 playoff games since these rules have been enforced.”
SI goes on, “Of those 10 games won by the team that won the coin toss, seven of those squads won via a walk-off touchdown on the opening drive.”
No mathematician, I, but by my count the team that won the coin toss won 90.9% of the time and in 70% of those wins the opposing team never had a chance to get the ball!
Even the most recent beneficiary of this absurd rule, KC Chief coach Andy Reid, suggested it’s worth looking into changing the rules.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to it. That’s a hard thing. It was great for us last night, but is it great for the game, which is the most important thing we should all be looking out for? To make things equal, it probably needs to be able to hit both offenses, both defenses.”
As I was looking for some other event in which there could be a comparable finale, one of my daughters mentioned spelling bees, specifically the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Here are the end of contest rules:
If only one speller spells correctly in a round, a new one-word spelling round begins and the speller is given an opportunity to spell [the championship] word on the list. If the speller succeeds in correctly spelling the championship word in this one-word round, the speller is declared the winner. But if that speller misspells the championship word in a one-word round, a new spelling round begins…”
For example, it’s the last round. Two spellers remain. Speller A correctly spells her word; Speller B incorrectly spells his word. Speller A is not declared the winner until she successfully spells one more “championship” word. If she misspells that word, Speller B is not eliminated and the two go on.
While not exactly the same, pretty close. Speller A is not the last person standing until she answers one more question. In the case of “The Greatest Football Game of All-Time,” Kansas City should not have been the “last team standing” until Buffalo had one more chance.
Professional football is the most popular game in America. It’s a money machine. But it’s clearly not run by geniuses. Perhaps some of that money should be used to hire some geniuses, maybe someone from the spelling bee organization – they must have a genius or two over there – to overhaul the rules. And not just this rule because it’s top of mind and possibly the most…egregious: E-G-R-E-G-I-O-U-S, egregious. But the entire rule book.