Playoff Overtime and Strategy

Playoff Overtime and Strategy


Playoff Overtime and Strategy


We didn’t see an overtime game last weekend.  The new overtime playoff rules, which no longer allow the receiving team to win the game outright with just a field goal on the first possession, remain untested.  Coaches must be prepared for the subtle strategic changes that this rule change creates, though there does not seem to be agreement on what effect it will have.

The new format provides that the initial receiving team in overtime can win the game by scoring a touchdown on the first possession, but a field goal leaves the other team a chance to respond.  If the initial kicking team can answer with a touchdown, they win.  A field goal continues overtime (and reverts to sudden death overtime), while failing to score would end the game.

The first issue is whether a team should choose to kick or receive.  A team that receives first has two advantages.  First, they can still win the game on the first possession with a touchdown, and the other team has no chance to respond.  Second, if the game is still tied after one round of possessions-either by being scoreless or both teams kicking a field goal–it reverts to old overtime rules and you want to be the first to possess there, just like in the past.  The kicking team, on the other hand, has the advantage of knowing what they need.  If needing a field goal to tie, they can adopt a fourth down strategy (with the benefit of also not having any clock constraints) until they get in position to attempt a field goal.  They can also pursue a touchdown to win the game outright if they don’t want to go to another round of overtime possessions.

Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats looked at the various overtime proposals last spring and concluded that the option that was ultimately adopted still favored the receiving team, but not as strongly as the standard overtime procedure.  Under regular season overtime rules, the receiving team is a 60% favorite.  Under the playoff rules, the receiving team’s likelihood of winning drops to 56%.

The intriguing strategy decisions will be those that occur when a team faces a fourth down with a long field goal attempt, or near the goal line.  Whether the team is the first or second to have the ball may also effect how the team shoud look at the field goal.  Here’s how I think the rules affect these decisions.

If the first team in possession faces a fourth down with a long field goal attempt (45+ yards), the rule change should dictate a slightly more aggressive strategy, because a conversion gives the chance of a win without having to play defense.  By my quick and very rough estimation, the break even point to go for the first down would be at around a 30% chance of picking up the first down.  For a good passing team, that would mean going for it in most fourth down situations.  Of course, statistical analysis suggests that teams should be more aggressive in this part of the field anyway, so I expect coaches to play it like they normally would here, even though the incentives to going are slightly increased.

If the second team is facing a similar decision while trailing by 3, I expect coaches to follow the general orthodoxy and kick for the tie.  In reality, a decision to kick from deep leaves that team with about a 20% chance of winning (because of high risk of miss, plus likelihood of losing as the team kicking off in sudden death).  A conversion doesn’t automatically result in a touchdown, but gets the team closer to either an outright win or a more certain tie.  Again, teams should be more aggressive here.

The more interesting scenario to me is what could happen near the goal line.  Here, the payoff of a successful conversion is more clear cut.  If the first team with possession is facing a fourth down near the goal line, there are multiple reasons to go for it.  First is winning outright.  Second, though, is the relatively likelihood of the opponent scoring on its possession.  If the fourth down fails, the opponent is operating out of a standard three-down situation, probably plays it conservatively near their own end zone, and has a longer distance to score.

If the team settles for a field goal, the opponent will get better field position, use a four down strategy until they get inside the 30.  They will also not have any time constraints like a normal late game situation for a team needing a field goal to tie, so they can run the ball and not have to worry about passes to the middle of the field.  I would go for it on fourth down near the goal line in most circumstances as the first team in possession.

If the second team gets near the goal line and trails by three, they need to consider it to be analogous to going to traditional overtime but already knowing they lose the coin toss.  I wouldn’t be quite as aggressive as the second team, but would probably go for it inside the four yard line.  Consider that a team that tries for two rather than going to overtime with an extra point is a reasonable strategy, when you don’t know the result of the coin toss.  Armed with that knowledge, though, teams should go for a fourth down conversion and win if they are facing anything close to the equivalent of a two point conversion near the goal line.

[photo via Getty]

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