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Futbal and its flip

By Clark Booth
Posted: 1/9/2009

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Maybe we should look at it this way. Mr. and Mrs. Archie Manning are too decent to be subjected to the agony of watching their two precious sons duel it out like a pair of gladiators at the annual gridiron Armageddon.

Who to root for? What a painful dilemma it might have been for the Mannings. And what a glorious melodrama it would have been for the rest of us who didn’t have to worry about which of our dear boys would in the end get to walk away from the wreckage, bloodied and broken-hearted.

Without doubt Manning versus Manning was the most inviting prospect raised by this year’s pro-football tourney. But that much favored scenario got ruined by an eternally flawed San Diego team unworthy of even an invitation to the dance with their pedestrian 8-8 regular season performance. The ironies are endless.

It’s a checkered field in this year’s NFL playoffs; hard to fathom let alone predict. Scanning those left standing after the first round’s mayhem the best prospect would now appear to be a Soupey featuring the Steelers and Giants in a meeting of genuine NFL royalty. A match-up of Johnny-come-lately’s Carolina and Tennessee is another strong possibility although it’s a showdown that would hardly light up the skies.

Face it. There’s no truly great team out there although the Giants probably come closest. Some are high on Tennessee but I’ll believe that when I see it. The Chargers, who were 4-8 entering the climactic month of December, are as good a bet as any AFC team to make it to the Soupey. It’s all about “parity” and in a game dominated by that curious state of mind the difference between an 8-8 team like San Diego and a 13-3 team like Tennessee is nominal, the injury factor being roughly equal.

Boss Bill Belichick must be seething as he bends over his videotape night after night in the self imposed exile of his Foxborough war room. It must be agony for him to be stalking the sidelines of this festival well knowing his team -- even with all its well-documented problems -- was still better than at least six of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, including the Dolphins who snared the playoff berth Belichick thought he owned then not surprisingly rolled over for the Ravens.

Typifying this farce is the sight of the Arizona Cardinals, whom the Patriots crushed laughably early in December, advancing to the second round of the NFC runoff. The playoff system is plainly flawed. The NFL has too many divisions -- eight of them -- and that inevitably creates inequities such as .500 teams like the Cards and Chargers making it while 11-5 teams like the Pats flunk. You sometimes wonder, “what’s the point of the regular season?”

There are too many flukes and random caprices in the NFL’s playoff system. Maybe there’s nothing that can be done about the divisional imbalances that lead to such freakish anomalies as the Cards and Chargers. But there’s certainly something that the smart fellas who run the NFL can and must do about the way they conduct overtimes for games that are tied at the end of regulation. To have the mere flip of a coin have anything to do with the outcome of the season’s biggest games is absurd.

The point was again hammered home in the Colts loss to the Chargers. With the game tied at 17, the Chargers won the ceremonial flip of the coin allowing them to receive the ball. Greatly aided by three penalty calls -- two of which were highly questionable -- the Chargers promptly drove for the winning score. As is too often the case in these ridiculous overtimes, the team that lost the coin-flip -- the Colts and MVP Peyton Manning, in this instance -- never got their bloody hands on the ball. Thus it could be reasonably argued that the flip of a coin effectively decided a hard fought game that heavily influences an entire season’s outcome and that’s pure nonsense.

The NFL apparatchiks and their vast legion of media apologists are quick to insist that football is waged equally on offense and defense and that it therefore matters little whether a team starts the overtime with the ball or without it. That’s poppycock. All team games are waged equally on offense and defense.

Would it make sense in a basketball overtime to have a coin flip decide who in-bounds the ball and if the team that wins the flip immediately scores then the game is over? That’s what they are effectively allowing in the NFL.

In baseball, when the game is tied after nine innings they play extra innings --both a top half and a bottom half of each inning necessary -- giving both teams an equal opportunity to play both defense and offense. Would it be fair to declare the game over if the visiting team scored in the top half of an extra inning without giving the home team a chance to get even? That’s essentially what they are doing in the NFL.

The NFL must do something about this overtime fiasco before a Super Bowl is decided precisely the way the Colts-Chargers tilt was and that would lead to a furious uproar. The college boys have done so; requiring both teams to have a fling with the ball. I wouldn’t recommend the rather Mickey Mouse college system to the pros, but at least they have recognized the folly of the omnipotent coin-flip.

There are two choices for the NFL, it seems to me.

If the teams are deadlocked, they could simply continue the fourth quarter indefinitely until someone scores with possessions changing routinely and the clock continuing to roll while having no bearing. When the regulation clock reaches “zero” they would simply move seamlessly, and with no more interruption than a brief official time-out, onto the overtime clock and bear on until someone finally scores. The fourth period would effectively become open-ended. This would maintain the “sudden death” concept, which is obviously favored for its dramatic value. It would also lead to some mighty interesting changes in the tactics that teams deploy in the final minutes of the fourth period of tight games, including clock management and the use of time outs. The strategies it would oblige might be, I think, fascinating. Most importantly it would do away with the abominable coin flip.

A second option would be to continue the practice of having a fifth overtime period. Only it would not be sudden death but 15-minutes in length -- a full period -- (or at least 12 minutes long) and hence modeled on the way they do it in basketball. If after one period the score remains tied you go on and on with period after period until someone wins, or surrenders, or drops. But it would guarantee that both teams have at least one turn with the ball. A coin-flip would still be necessary, but its influence would be minimized. This would probably be the fairest and most civilized option and it’s consistent with the way the game is structured. Again, the tactics that this procedure would oblige would be fascinating. A team would think twice before casually settling for a field goal on an overtime drive.

They must do something. In the end, the right team won the San Diego-Indianapolis game, easily the best of the first round’s fare. The Colts, who’d been torrid down the stretch, were spotty and erratic. Named the league’s MVP within hours of the kickoff, Peyton did not live up to the distinction. Clearly at the crossroads, the Colts looked more like the September team that struggled mightily than the December team that roared to the wire on the wings of Peyton’s MVP charms. If one could quibble over the deluge of penalties that finally licked them, the end result was, alas, beyond dispute.

But for the bloody flip of a coin to have played such a crucial role? That is quite another matter.