The Overtime Solution

Published on January 29, 2010 9:15 PM by dbo.

I have been promising to write a post on my analysis of what is wrong with the CFL overtime format for a long time. I had started formulating a draft for publishing this off-season and coincidently, the CFL announces they are accepting fan suggestions on rule changes with a focus on overtime this year. What great motivation to finish this article.

The CFL has asked for answers to three specific questions on overtime changes, as well as whether the overtime format needs changes at all. Since implementing the “shootout” format ten years ago, the CFL has experienced feast or famine in its overtime games. Overtime sessions have had matching scoring on all possessions, resulting in complaints of too much scoring and too long of games, or sessions where neither team can score, leading to comments about bumbling teams. Unfortunately, the overtime period is going to reflect the game, and defensive battles will sometime continue into overtime with teams trading field goal attempts. No format will be able to affect the actual play on the field.

Before proposing a new overtime format, changes to the existing format or deciding to leave the rule as-is, one must understand the history and requirements of the overtime period. Then you can try to correct any deficiencies in the rules while still meeting all the goals required.

History of Overtime

The Canadian Football League first introduced overtime for regular season games in 1986. The format of two 5-minutes halves with no sudden death was also adopted for playoff games (changed from two 10-minute halves). The overtime mini-game followed the same procedures as the regular game: a coin toss and selecting ends and possession, each half started with a kickoff, teams switched ends at the half. From the 1991 Official Playing Rules for the Canadian Football League:

Rule 1 — Section 8: Tie Game

If the score is tied at the end of the second half there shall be a two minute intermission followed by an overtime period consisting of two five minute halves. Prior to the start of the overtime period the captains of both teams shall meet the Referee at centre field to inform him of their choices. The captain of the team winning the coin toss shall declare whether he wishes to have first choice at the start of the first or second half of the overtime period.

The game timing rules that apply in the last three minutes of a half shall apply during the last minute of each half of the overtime period. There shall be an interval of 90 seconds at the end of the first half of the overtime period.

In the event that the score is tied at the end of the overtime period the game shall be declared over and each team shall be awarded one point in the standings.

If the game is a playoff or championship game and a winner must be determined, the same procedure shall continue in consecutive ten minute overtime periods until a winner is declared. There shall be a ten minute intermission before the start of overtime and between any subsequent overtime periods.

From 1986 to 1999, 39 CFL regular season games went to overtime in this format, with six games ending in ties over this 14 year period. In the previous 14 year period from 1972 to 1985, 29 games ended in ties when no overtime period was required.

The overtime rules remained basically unchanged until the league adopted the current format in 2000. The new “shootout” or Kansas Plan-style format consisted of four possessions per team in 2000, but was reduced to two possessions per team in 2001. The same format was adopted for playoff and Grey Cup games. From the 2009 Official Playing Rules for the Canadian Football League:

Rule 1 — Section 8: Tie Game

In the event that the score is tied at the end of the second half of a game, each team will be given the opportunity to score using the following procedure:

  • The first team, as determined by coin toss, shall scrimmage the ball at the opponent’s 35-yard line and may advance by consecutive series of downs until it makes a score or loses possession.
  • The second team will then scrimmage at the same 35-yard line and proceed as above.
  • If the score is still tied, the procedure shall be repeated at the opposite end of the stadium.
  • A winner is determined only if both teams have had equal opportunities to score.
  • If a winner is not determined after two attempts the game will be declared a tie.
  • If the game is a playoff or championship game and a winner must be determined, the same procedure shall continue until a winner is finally declared.

From 2000 to 2009, 35 CFL regular season games went to overtime in this format, with six games ending in a tie over this ten year period.

Overtime Requirements

There is no formal, official list of requirements overtime is meant to meet, but we can try to glean them from statements in media discussions on the overtime format.

  1. Bring the game to a resolution other than a tie.
  2. Provide an exciting finish for fans.
  3. Do so quickly for players, fans and broadcasters.

One can see why the “shootout” format was adopted to try to meet these requirements. In the first year of this format, with four possessions per team to break the tie, the league found that more games than expected were going to the third and fourth possessions, making overtime games take up to an additional 45 minutes to complete. This was resolved by reducing the possessions to two per team, but I feel this change was the simple route when the complete detail of the format should have been examined.

The Overtime Problems and Solution

I have a few issues with the current overtime format:

  • I do not have an issue with the “shootout” format of overtime. I believe it maintains the integrity of the core of the football game (passing, running catching, kicking) while favouring/increasing scoring opportunities in an accelerated manner. However, the possession reduction only perverted the format for what is was intended, increasing the possibility of a tie, which is contrary to the first requirement of an overtime period.
  • There is an effort to keep the rule simple, as adopted it limits the number of possessions and any scoring restrictions from its NCAA origins, while not taking into account the CFL differences (the 35-yard line is much different field position in Canada). I feel we can create our own unique rule with a few additional conditions that will not be too complicated for fans to remember and understand.
  • While I said I do not have an issue with the format, that is for regular season only. In the playoffs and for championship games, the shootout format is not the right way to decide the game. It needs to be decided by all facets of the game. A consistent format for the whole season may be the reason for using the same rules in both seasons, with only playoffs and the Grey Cup requiring a winner be decided, but I look at other sports like hockey which use different period lengths and no shootout for their sudden death playoff overtime format.

To correct these issues, I propose the following overtime rule:

Rule 1 — Section 8: Tie Game

In the event that the score is tied at the end of the second half of a non-playoff and non-championship game, each team will be given the opportunity to score using the following procedure:

  • The first team, as determined by coin toss, shall scrimmage the ball at the opponent’s 35-yard line and may advance by consecutive series of downs until it makes a score or loses possession.
  • The second team will then scrimmage at the same 35-yard line and proceed as above.
  • If the score is still tied, the procedure shall be repeated at the opposite end of the stadium, with the ball scrimmaged 10-yards further back each time.
  • A winner is determined only if both teams have had equal opportunities to score.
  • On a team’s third attempt, upon scoring a touchdown, they must attempt a two-point convert.
  • If a winner is not determined after three attempts the game will be declared a tie.

In the event that the score is tied at the end of the second half of a playoff or championship game there shall be a five minute intermission followed by a fifteen minute overtime period. Prior to the start of the overtime period the captains of both teams shall meet the Referee at centre field to inform him of their choices. The captain of the team winning the coin toss shall choose between:

  1. kicking off or receiving the kickoff or,
  2. which end of the field to defend.

The same procedure shall continue in consecutive fifteen minute overtime periods until a winner is declared. The captain of the other team shall have first choice at the start of the second period, and team captains shall continue to alternate first choice at the start of subsequent periods. There shall be a five minute intermission between any subsequent overtime periods.


This is really a framework. I am not tied to the details like number of possessions, except I would like to see them increase. I chose three as a compromise to see games that go the distance complete earlier. I chose to leave the initial round of possessions at the 35-yard line and move subsequent rounds if required back 10 yards. The starting point and amount to move back could be adjusted. I chose to require a two-point conversion on the third possession. I could accept this applying to earlier or all possessions.

For playoff overtime, I chose a non-sudden death 15-minute period as a compromise over two ten minute halves. Some may believe that this compromises the game and favours the coin-toss winner. I believe as it is not sudden-death there is only a slight advantage to the coin-toss winner and still some strategy over choosing possession or ends. For sudden-death games, it better maintains the integrity of the game as a continuation of play and allows last minute drives to win the game to still occur.

How do these rules address the requirements?

  1. There is a better chance of the game being resolved. More possessions, plus rules to move the ball back after each possession and require a two-point convert on third possession touchdowns should mean most games come to a decision.
  2. Maintains the exciting finish for fans for regular season games, while increasing the difficulty of the shootout. For playoff and championship games, the traditional timed format provides the opportunity for the last minute drive and last-second game-winning score.
  3. Making the shootout format more difficult should see games finish on fewer possessions, reducing the length of overtime and making fans, players and broadcasters happy.

Other changes I may consider:

  • Forgoing the coin toss on the shootout format and allowing the home team to select the order of scrimmage. In football the home team has no real advantage besides home field. This could be one slight advantage to the home team that would eliminate the time for a coin toss. In the end, teams still need to execute. If it favours home team victories, that is good, as providing entertaining wins for the home team is good business.
  • Playing in the regular season until there is a winner (eliminate ties), but this would require more restrictions that required touchdowns only and two-point convert attempts to ensure most games didn’t go forever. The length of game is a factor, the CFL must remember its fans, players and broadcast partners.

Changes I would oppose:

  • Awarding overtime losing teams points in the standings, or overtime winners additional points. Overtime is there to produce a winner (2 points) and a loser (zero points) or a tie (1 point for each team). Awarding of points to the losing team will not encourage teams to be more aggressive for the win, but only ruin years of history in recording team records.
  • Trying to eliminate the possibility of somebody winning in overtime on a single point (missed field goal) by disallowing single points scores, requiring teams to win by two points or any other suggestion. As I have stated before, the single point is an integral part of the CFL game that has years of history behind it. The edge cases should not be addressed by warping the overtime rules to eliminate a situation which did not occur in the last ten years and was only a possibility in one game in the same period.
  • Trying to hybrid a timed period and shootout matching score format with kickoffs, or have them follow each other. Length of game is an issue.
  • No one-on-one receiver vs defensive back challenges or other attempts to simulate a hockey shootout.

Have Your Say

These are my thoughts to add to the debate and discourse on this subject. Maybe you agree, maybe you have your own new format. Please feel free to express yourself here, I’m open to well thought out suggestions and I may decide to back yours. Overall, it is important to voice your own opinion to the CFL on this subject, whether it is to back this or another proposal or the need to not change anything at all. The popular suggestions will float to the top and they may be workable into a better overtime format.

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The Overtime Solution was published on January 29, 2010 9:15 PM by dbo.

2,348 words.

This article is categorized under Game and tagged with overtime, rules and shootout.

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