The NFL finally admitted its overtime format was broken when it revised the rules to allow a team a possession to match or beat a first-drive field goal. Although I have been shouting from the rooftops that OT was broken, I was not strongly in favor of any particular fix. I thought that adjustments such as returning the kickoff line to the 35 from the 30 would do a lot to reduce or eliminate the advantage the coin-flip winner had, but if the NFL wanted to keep it's sudden death format, there weren't many other good options.
The solution the NFL settled on strikes me as too complicated, and it only partially addresses half of the problem. I'm reminded of my favorite non-sequitur (all too common in politics and public policy):
We have a really big problem. We must do something.
This is something, so we must do this.
Well, the NFL has certainly done something.
There were really two issues with the previous system. One, it favored the coin-flip winner dramatically. And two, it was increasingly likely the coin-flip loser would never have a chance to play offense, while the coin-flip winner would never need to play defense. The recent fix only partially addresses the second problem because a first-possession TD would still end the game before the other team gets the ball, and it may not affect the first problem much if at all.
As I laid out in my previous analysis of the new format, the coin-flip winner will still enjoy a substantial advantage. In any situation where the teams either both fail to score or both score FGs on their first possessions, the rules revert to the old sudden death format in which the coin-flip winner has a 3:2 advantage. The only combination of events that reduces the advantage is when the coin-flip loser scores a touchdown following a first-possession FG by the coin-flip winner.
In the event tree below, the math works out to where the coin-flip winner would have a 56/44 advantage compared to a 60/40 advantage in recent years. That would be an improvement, but the truth is we can't really predict what the new advantage will look like. The probabilities I used are educated estimates, but they depend on how coaches react under the new rules.
Known for their irrational risk aversion, NFL coaches are now faced with a myriad of risk-reward decisions. It's clear that a coach needing a FG to stay alive will use all four downs to keep his drive alive, but there are many more situations that aren't as obvious.
On the first possession in OT, what will a coach do if faced with a 3rd and 7 on the opponent's 29? Will he run it up the gut for 4 yds to set up a FG, which may or may not hold up to win the game? Or will he be thinking touchdown and call for a pass, going for a fist down but risking a sack or turnover?
What about the coach of the team with the second possession? Knowing he needs a FG to stay alive, what would he do in the same situation? His decision is very different because even a successful FG gives the ball to the opponent under the old sudden death rules, rules that heavily favor whoever has the ball. Maybe he should even go for it on 4th and 7.
Coaches don't like the new rules because they are unequipped for these kinds of decisions. There is no existing conventional wisdom for their decision-making intuition to fall back on. I'll probably have a field day second-guessing them next season, but I'm not sure I like the complexity.
I think the entire OT discussion is missing one very important underlying problem. The NFL has certain requirements about its OT format it wants to preserve. It wants a quickly-resolved, exciting, and fair game. It wants the format to resemble 'true' football that incorporates all three phases of offense, defense, and special teams. These requirements dictate what kind of OT rules are necessary, and that's the way it should work. But there is one unspoken requirement the NFL seems to have that makes no sense: Overtime must begin with a coin flip.
Wait... Why? Why must there be a coin flip? Why should something wholly arbitrary and entirely random dictate all the rules that follow? Why should the flip of a coin bestow an advantage of any size to either team? Remove the coin flip from the process, and things become much clearer.
The unfortunate reality is that no system will be perfectly fair. Some team will likely have an advantage over the other. In fact, granting one team a significant advantage over another is a celebrated part of the NFL. For most playoff-bound teams, the main question in the latter part of the season is who earns home field advantage in the playoffs. The home team wins 57% of the time--in all games, not just the tiny few that go into overtime.
The question is, how do we determine which team gets that advantage? In baseball, the team that bats second has an advantage in the 9th inning (and in extra innings) because it knows what is needed to win. If the first team doesn't score, the second team knows it can adjust its strategy to play 'small ball,' increasing its chances of scoring just one run at the expense of possibly scoring more. If the first team scores two runs, the second team knows it needs a rally and would adjust its strategy accordingly. For baseball fans, this edge is accepted as a natural part of home field advantage.
The NFL could eliminate the OT coin flip and assign first possession to the home team. Or, it could simply use the result of the coin flip to begin regulation. Why does there need to be a second coin flip at all?
In either case, knowing ahead of time who would start OT with the ball would indirectly mitigate the advantage of first possession. If I'm coaching a team that just scored a TD to tie the game late in the 4th period, and I know the other team would have the first possession in OT, I'd want to go for the two-point conversion. I'd probably rather take my chances on the 2-yard line than have to kick off to start OT, under either the old or new format. The same principle applies to a team that can decide between attempting a game-tying FG or going for a TD to take the lead.
Anyway, there are millions of NFL fans, and there are just as many ideas for fixing OT. (And I think half of them are collected in comments at this site.) I think the 28-4 vote by the teams to change OT was really more of an admission the old system was broken rather than an endorsement of the new format.