The NFL is far and away the most popular professional sports league in the United States. While the remaining leagues from the remaining three of the ‘Big Four’ sports leagues in America garner a very respectable viewership and following, the extensive coverage of professional football on a 24/7/365 basis tells you everything you need to know about where the resources are going in terms of sports coverage. Depending on who you ask, the extensiveness of the coverage is warranted. The product that the NFL has put out in terms of competitiveness, parity, tension, and overall excitement dwarfs that of the other sports on a game-to-game basis. The 16-game schedule, compared to the lengthy calenders of the other leagues, heightens the importance of each individual contest, thus producing an experience that elicits the most impressive responses from combatants of both teams on the field, as well as coaching. Adding in the home-field crowd factor in certain locations around the NFL (New Orleans, Seattle, Kansas City), the NFL game has become bigger than any other sporting contests, and it is not even close.
From a big picture perspective, there have also been very little issue with the structure of the league in terms of scheduling / standings determining postseason participants. Teams do not earn points, they do not have to consider the nature of their wins towards a ‘resume’ of sorts, nor are they judged based on a computer-generated average. In the NFL, those who advance to the second season are based solely on wins and losses and, with the frequency with which teams play their division opponents, tiebreakers are usually very swift and effective. Like all leagues, the NFL has its issues, but as a whole it is without a doubt the ‘top-dog’ when it comes to the professional sports leagues in the U.S.
For all of its positives, the NFL has one major point of conflict that the remaining three sports leagues do not currently deal with. Only in professional football can a game go through both its regulation and post-regulation period and finish with both teams tied. This weekend, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, after playing to an identical 23-23 score through the first four quarters, both kicked field goals during the extra session and failed to score over the remainder of the 15 minutes. Watching the game, you could see the sense of confusion and dissatisfaction on the players faces when time ran out. With the amount of preparation that goes into every game for each team, to finish with such an outcome seemed to irk each player more than a loss. Especially considering the contest, a rivalry game in Lambeau Field with one team trying to remain in the playoff hunt long enough for their best player to return from injury, the feeling was mutual among viewers. From a standings perspective, the tie will prove to be worthless for the Vikings. Outside of draft implications, their season had already ended weeks ago and the game was merely an opportunity for them to damage the playoff hopes for a rival. As far as things go for the Packers, the result could loom large.
In the thick of both a divisional and wild card playoff race, not losing certainly is important. That being said, a win is more valuable for the Packers from the position they were in, and to miss an opportunity at a division win against the team that is generally seen as the weakest in the group is a blow to Green Bay’s playoff hopes. So why, when wins and losses are so valuable and crucial as far as determining the final bracket for the NFL playoffs, has the NFL failed to acknowledge the issues with games ending with a tie and determined a resolution? The only other sport that has had to deal with this recently, the NHL, has combatted the matter by installing a shootout following the five-minute overtime period. There are several complaints about the shootout method for determining a winner, and many feel that another alternative needs to be reached for the future of the NHL, but ties in hockey are a thing of the past. With players, coaches, executives looking for any sort of motivation to get them through the rigors of the NFL schedule, to not have a game end with the momentum or resolve of a win or a loss seems trivial with what the league has become.
As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I have a unique history with ties and how a team’s franchise player reacts to them. I can’t stand that something that is so rare on the NFL schedule (there have been four in this millennium), can potentially affect a team’s playoff future. Many find it laughable that with how successful the NFL has become from a competitive standpoint, that it has not addressed one of the few complaints remaining with it. One can look no further than to the college ranks, where NCAA football relies on an exciting, albeit easy one could argue, format that is heavy on scoring and has variable installed to heighten the intensity as the stakes grow. By giving each team an opportunity with the ball, something that the NFL has done to an extent, there are no built-in excuses for either side. By placing the ball in scoring position, a team usually still has to earn a touchdown to win the game, or at least make an impact defensive play to prevent the opponent from kicking a field goal. You could argue that starting the drive at the 25-yard line is too close, and almost ensures a field goal. College kickers are far from NFL kickers though, and a 42-yard kick is by no means a sure thing in the NCAA.
So with the complaints regarding the matter and a viable alternative staring them right in the face, why hasn’t the NFL altered their format? Unfortunately, the answer is probably the reason ties will be a thing in the NFL for the foreseeable future: the league is petrified of doing anything that could possibly put the players in any more danger than what they already are. With the concussion issue temporarily in the rearview mirror, the NFL has to realize just how careful they have to be with how the game works from a player safety perspective. More than ever it seems, the frequency of penalties and fines surrounding hits to the head and upper body are affecting every contest. Quarterbacks are protected like porcelain dolls, and the roughing the passer penalty has become as comical as ever. Whether we like it or not as fans, the league is shifting away from the sort of hard-nosed, heavy contact football that many argue is its foundation. As players continue to increase in size, speed, strength, and skill level, the competition level of the gameplay continues to go up. As we have seen, with the sort of über athletes on the field for some teams, debilitating injuries are becoming more frequent. Whether it is of the upper-body nature (concussions) or the cringe-worthy leg injuries, the speed and ferocity of the bodies flying around the field makes them more and more a formality.
So in a sense, the NFL is a victim of its own success. They produced a product that had its participants striving to be the best and win at all costs. In doing so, they’ve made the game a more dangerous, albeit entertaining experience for the viewer. There are few things that pull at the heart-strings of sports fans than seeing the sort of toughness and sacrifice that goes into the NFL player’s career. It is widely acknowledged that no roster is ‘healthy’ throughout an entire 16-game season, and many players play through injuries that would sideline a lesser being. Looking at their game, and seeing the uproar over the concussion matter that they’ve only temporarily put to rest, the league knows they are walking a fine line as it is.
Because of this, and due to the nature of the gameplay of football, it is difficult to see a resolution that does not have unnavigable pitfalls. Unlike hockey, where the shootout is looked upon critically as it is, the NFL does not have an acceptable ‘winner-take-all’ alternative to their normal gameplay. The sort of outcry that would commence if the league were to have the opposing kickers alternate kicking field goals from longer distances until one missed would be unprecedented. To take away the ‘team’ aspect from the ultimate team game to determine the winner of a game would deal a harsh blow to the game from a competition standpoint.
The college format, while a much more acceptable solution and seemingly ideal as a fan, is what bring the health matter into play. Consider the situation for NCAA teams vs. NFL teams. College football rosters can have over 100 players dress for any given contest, NFL rosters dress a maximum of 46. The college schedule is, at most, 14 games and is often littered with bye weeks; the NFL schedule is 16 games in 17 weeks. This year, the Eagles played three games in 11 days to start their season with a new coach. While everything balances out over the course of a season, the toll that sort of activity does on a body is brutal to think of. With a debate being raged over the possibility of adding games to the NFL schedule for revenue purposes, to think the league would possibly risk player complaints of possibly having to participate in games going over five hours is tough to imagine.
No matter how much we complain about it, the NFL does not have enough incentive to change and it has too much to lose by altering the way tie games are addressed. In their minds, by instituting the rules that a field goal on the first possession cannot win the game and both teams can get a possession is more than enough action that needs to be devoted to the matter. The way that NFL games are currently formatted, the close ones often build to a crescendo by the end of the 4th quarter. Much like Sunday night’s Broncos-Patriots game, the contest finished with both teams having to make plays to ensure not losing in regulation. Had it not been for a special teams blunder by Denver, arguably the most entertaining game of the season would have had the worst possible result. We would all complain about it and mock the players that did not know the result was possible. Outlets would discuss the issue during the week, and fans would freak out when the tie kept their team from the playoffs. Yet, the NFL would look at the ratings from the game, see that they were the highest on the same night of an awards show, and allow the outcry to continue until the next week of games, where a new issue would come up.
The NFL knows where they stand on the totem pole of live entertainment. It is tough to imagine that there is any one thing that could happen in the sport that could derail the locomotive that is the NFL experience. In their minds, all they have to do at this point is continue with the formula they’ve been using, while continuing to tinker the game to try to keep the player safety issues at bay. I imagine that, having taken action on the overtime issue once in the recent past, there is no interest in re-hatching it this soon when the league has so much else on its plate.
I do not think that the most important sports league in the United States should have ties be a possible outcome. That being said, I almost always forget about them until they actually happen in a game. With only four happening since 2000, that’s so little of my football viewing mind dedicated to think about something. I cannot speak for the average fan, but I would imagine they spend even less time thinking about what has become one of the most forgettable phenomena in sports. Because of this, while I would think they might even agree it would improve the game, the NFL will not change the fact that the tie is a possibility in sports. I can’t read the future, but if all the NFL has to deal with is a small gripe session from its fan base once every four years, I think it’ll take it on the chin with a smile on its face. Ties are here to stay, and it shouldn’t even be that big a deal.