John McGrath: NFL overtime rules could use tweaking

The most tumultuous week in memory for the NFL was capped off Sunday by, yep, still another controversy.

Only this controversy has been swathed in a back-to-the-basics-of-football debate regarding the overtime period commonly known as sudden death. Following a string of off-the-field incidents involving abusive players from every corner of the map — Baltimore, Carolina, Minnesota, San Francisco — it’s refreshing to realize the correlation between “sudden death” and the NFL is innocent and non-literal.

(Although the term isn’t for everybody, and never was. Curt Gowdy, the late NBC broadcaster, insisted on calling overtime “sudden victory.” Instead of dwelling on the fate awaiting the losers, Gowdy wondered, why not accentuate the positive? Gowdy’s crusade failed to gain traction. “Sudden death” conveys the extreme premise that there is no tomorrow — cue the NFL Films orchestra music — while “Sudden victory” sounds like something that happens to an octogenarian who buys a winning Powerball ticket at the grocery store.)

About the NFL’s version of sudden death: Implemented in 1974 to minimize the odds of a regular-season game ending in a tie, the first-team-to-score rule largely was acknowledged as equitable for the next 25 years or so. But after college football adopted an overtime format ensuring both teams a shot at the end zone, in 1996, calls for the NFL to revise its overtime were heard.

Those calls went nowhere. The league’s competition committee met for 10 days in the spring of 2009, consulting players and conducting a league-wide survey. Status-quo prevailed, and that seemed to be that ... until the Chargers’ Darren Sproles scored a sudden-

death touchdown in a 2009 AFC playoff game against the Colts, whose all-world quarterback, Peyton Manning, was tethered to the sideline.

The competition committee reconvened, and overtime rules were amended for the 2012 season: If one team concludes the first overtime possession with a field goal, its opponent shall be granted a possession to retaliate.

It was a compromise, and like many compromises, it’s half-baked: While taking the potential entirety of the first overtime possession out of the hands — er, foot — of an accurate long-distance field-goal kicker (and aren’t they all these days?), there still was no opportunity for a team to answer an overtime touchdown with a touchdown of its own.

Which brings the narrative to Sunday at Century Link Field, where the Seahawks won the coin toss that rewarded them the first possession of overtime against the Broncos, and then won the game with an exquisitely executed touchdown drive.

Tethered to the sideline, once again, was Manning, reduced to a spectator after leading Denver to a game-tying comeback possession for the ages: 80 yards in less than a minute, with no time outs, punctuated by a two-point conversion pass.

The Seahawks’ overtime response to the Broncos’ fourth-quarter rally provided incomparable theater, and served to remind all of us why the NFL, despite its many flaws, is indestructible. Pro sports doesn’t get any better than a collision of superior teams holding a grudge, and the wherewithal to sustain that grudge well after regulation time has expired.

But the game turned on a coin flip determining the first possession of overtime. There’s something wrong about that.

“They changed the rules a little bit, but it doesn’t really change if you go down and a get a touchdown,” Manning said Sunday. “It puts a premium on the coin toss. Called tails at the beginning of the game, went with it again in overtime. It was heads, and it proved to be a significant call.”

Seahawks fans can’t be blamed for interpreting Manning’s lament as sour grapes. The Broncos were familiar with the revised parameters for overtime: If you call tails and the coin lands on heads, the challenge is to keep the opposition out of the end zone, and then get the ball back.

Make a third-down stop or two. It’s not complicated.

But what if the Hawks had lost the coin toss? What if Manning, liberated from having to monitor the clock, had guided Denver on an overtime touchdown drive with the apparent effortlessness he demonstrated during the last minute of the fourth quarter?

Such “What if?” scenarios are conjecture, of course, but I’ve got a suspicion there’d be groundswell support among Hawks fans for any rules modification allowing quarterback Russell Wilson an opportunity to lead his team on a corresponding touchdown drive.

The idea of the revised overtime format, at least in spirit, was to reduce the serendipitous consequences of a coin flip. Just because the Seahawks won fairly and squarely, demonstrating poise and precision, does not obscure the fact the revised overtime format needs further tweaking.

Here’s an easy tweak: Make the coin flip as irrelevant as possible, and give both teams at least one possession of the ball in their pursuit of “Sudden victory.”