That train wreck of an NFC Championship showdown last Sunday drew an audience of 57.9 million. Aside from the Super Bowl, no telecast has been seen by as many television viewers since the 1998 finale of "Seinfeld."
It’s possible that NFL executives suffered some pangs of internal unrest while watching the Vikings try to give away a game that the Saints appeared ill-equipped to accept, but their public stance, verified by the spectacular TV ratings, insists that pro football is more popular than ever.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Yet I suspect most fans are open to some common-sense rules tweaking that could guarantee better theatre presented at a faster pace, especially in the “sudden-death” phase of playoff games.
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Sudden death? Please. There was nothing remotely sudden about the game-deciding drive Sunday. As death scenes go, it lasted longer than Al Pacino’s shootout with a procession of obscure assassins in “Scarface.”
The coin flip that gave New Orleans first possession in overtime was held at 6:55 p.m. PST. Garrett Hartley’s 40-yard field goal cleared the crossbar at 7:18.
During the 23 minutes between the coin flip and the kick, the Saints marched 39 yards. Think about this: 39 measly yards determined the conclusion of an NFC season that began last July in training camp.
A 39-yard touchdown run would have been one thing. But in this case, the 39 yards were produced in painfully belabored increments. The “action” was interrupted by three replay reviews – none of which overturned a call – before the ninth snap of the Saints’ 10-play drive.
Then, when it became apparent that New Orleans would settle for a field goal with the ball at the Minnesota 22 yard line, the Vikings called a timeout, which was followed by an incomplete Drew Brees pass, which was followed by still another Vikings timeout.
Hartley’s clutch kick was true – despite the attempt to ice him with the second timeout, the kid came through in the clutch – but there’s something unsavory about a marathon championship game ending when a kicker answers the only real challenge that he’s faced all day.
Here’s a solution to fix an overtime format that did nothing to heighten suspense on Sunday while doing just about everything to turn what should’ve been gripping drama into a long yawn.
Come to think of it, here’s two solutions:
• Repair the mess that is replay review. It’s here to stay, I understand, but what’s so wrong about using the coach’s challenge system in overtime? In reviewing three of the Saints’ first eight plays in OT, the officials seemed to be saying: “Don’t put this on us if there’s a controversy, because we’re taking a second look whenever necessary.”
Of course, there was a controversy – a pass-interference flag foolishly thrown when a Saints receiver stumbled while stretching for an unattainable catch at the Minnesota 29 – but that’s life. The officials aren’t perfect, and no amount of needless replay reviews can change that.
If a coach sees something worthy of dispute, let a coach make a challenge. Otherwise, move on.
• Revisit the premise of overtime.
Some believe the coin flip is too arbitrary of a method to award the first possession. Even if a coin flip is continued, the argument goes, at least allow the team that’s forced to kick off to have a possession of its own.
Others are thinking out of the box. The other day, former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, KJR 950-AM radio’s football analyst, offered an intriguing variation of the overtime kickoff format: a punt instead of a kick, because a punt that lands out of bounds does not give the receiving team automatic possession at its 40 yard line. To the contrary, a coffin-corner punt can pin the receiving team inside its 10-yard line.
That’s a thought. Another thought – mine – is to retain the status quo but with a major caveat: The winning score in overtime must be achieved by a touchdown.
Eliminating the field goal would require teams to put together Super Bowl-bound drives more genuine than 39-yard grinds to a 40-yard kick. Eliminating the field goal, too, would discourage coaches from calling the psychologically motivated timeout to rattle the opposing kicker.
Furthermore: How many overtime games are concluded with an anticlimactic series of plays inside field-goal territory? Both teams know a field-goal attempt is imminent. The fans in the stands know, and the fans at home know. But the offense plods on, as if acknowledging the guilt in winning with an easy kick.
Then the easy kick is attempted and, as was the case Sunday, the easy kick is converted. While the bars in New Orleans emptied so fans could dance on Bourbon Street, the rest of us were left to wonder: Is that all there is?
It could be so much better. A prohibition of overtime field goals in the playoffs means all-out on every snap. No kneel-downs. No TV shots of the kicker pacing back and forth on the sideline, booting footballs into an empty net, then pacing back and forth some more.
The down side of the touchdown-or-nothing conclusion to overtime is that it can lead to exhaustion, but isn’t that the idea? It’s the playoffs. A season hangs in the balance.
The fabled 1958 sudden-death championship between the Giants and Colts is widely recalled by NFL historians as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It wasn’t, not really. The “Greatest Game” was as flawed with messy turnovers as the NFC Championship was in New Orleans.
But what that 1958 classic did have was an ending worthy of the stakes: The Colts, knocking on the door of the New York end zone, turned down the field goal and scored a 1-yard touchdown.