Friday, December 28, 2007

Tie me up, tie me down

One of the things I love about the countdown to the NFL playoffs is that it's pretty much the only time you ever hear about ties anymore. Go find the playoff scenarios in your newspaper -- or just wait for them to roll around evey five minutes on ESPN News -- and you'll see those ties, sticking out like a drunkard's shirttail: "Cleveland will claim a wildcard berth with a win and a Tennessee loss or tie"; "Pittsburgh can win the AFC North title with a win or a Cleveland loss or tie." Unfortunately, none of the playoff scenarios ever depend solely on a tie -- unfortunate, because that would be so awesome. Usually, when a team is on the playoff bubble (cue Jim Nantz: "They need a win and some help"), it has to go out on Sunday and win, then come back to the locker room and root for another team to fail. It'd be great if instead they had to root for them to play poorly, but not too poorly. I wish I could see it.

And yes, Poindexter, you are correct: There is in fact a theoretical scenario that would hinge on a tie. Say that, going into the final weekend of the regular season, the three teams in contention for the final wildcard spot have identical records. If Teams A and B play each other that weekend, and if Team C would lose a tiebreaker to either of the other teams, then Team C needs A and B to tie. But that's not going to happen.

It's not going to happen because teams don't tie anymore. The playoff scenarios in the newspaper might as well say something like, "Cleveland will claim a wildcard berth with a win and a car accident or shooting that kills a key Tennessee player." Harsh, yes, but far more plausible. Two NFL players have been killed by gunfire in the past year. That's twice the number of ties in the NFL in the past 10 years, and just one shy of the number of ties in the past 18.

Ties used to be commonplace, of course. Look through the standings from the 1950s and 1960s, and you find years in which half the teams in the league had played a tie game, some of them more than once. That's because they didn't play overtime in the regular season back then. Sudden death was used only in postseason games -- which there weren't many of -- and it wasn't even needed until 1958, when the Colts beat the Giants in overtime to win the league championship. (This is the game you always hear referred to as "the greatest game ever" and "the game that put pro football on the map in America." It wasn't, and it didn't. It's just the first game that a lot of baby boomers remember. Thus, it has to be the most important game ever, right? Surprise, surprise.)

Overtime didn't come into use during the regular season until 1974, and it had an immediate impact. Whereas the NFL schedule up to then was a veritable orgy of tie games, nearly all games thereafter ended with a winner and a loser. Tie games, by season, back to the first year of the NFL-AFL merger:

1999019862^rule change^

What's really notable, however, is not the drastic reduction in ties starting in 1974. That's easily explained by the standardization of overtime. No, what sticks out is how ties all but disappeared when the calendar clicked over to 1990. From 1974 to 1989, there was an average of one tie a season (well, 0.81 ties a season, but we're rounding). Since 1990, the average is one tie every six seasons. And that's including the bizarre outlier year of 1997, when the league had its first tie in seven years, then had another tie just a week later. That second tie, by the way, is best remembered as the game in which Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte celebrated the tying touchdown by head-butting a padded concrete wall and injuring his neck. Five years would pass before the next (and, to date, last) tie, a Falcons-Steelers matchup on a sloppy field that ended 34-34 as Plaxico Burress caught a last-second hail mary from Tommy Maddox (who had a club-record 474 passing yards) and came down with his legs in the end zone but the ball on the 1 yard line.

So what happened? I'm not positive, but I do have a theory, and it has to do with the single biggest rule change in the NFL over the past two decades. That change wasn't the introduction of instant replay. It wasn't the two-point conversion, the liberalization of passing rules or the crackdown on contact with receivers. Rather, it was the decision in 1994 to move kickoffs from the 35 yard line back to the 30 in order to reduce touchbacks and generate more returns and thus more "excitement" (by which, of course, we mean more "injuries" and more "illegal-block-in-the-back penalties"). The sharp pencils at Football Outsiders have documented the effect this change has had on sudden-death overtime. Before 1994, they found, the winner of the overtime coin toss actually won less than 50% of all sudden-death games. After 1994, however, that percentage went up to something like 60%. The real advantage in winning the coin toss in overtime, it turns out, is not that you get the ball first, but that you're more likely to start out way ahead in the battle for field position.

The sudden-death period lasts 15 minutes of clock time, which is a long time to play when you've already been on the field for three hours. As players tire, field position becomes all the more important. The closer you are to the end zone at the start of a drive, the less ground you have to cover to get into field-goal range. When one team starts out with a decided field-position edge, that just increases the chances that that team will win -- which means there won't be a tie.

The change to the kickoff spot may not be the sole reason behind the death of the tie -- after all, ties pretty much disappeared four years before the rules changed. I can think of other possible factors, especially the retirement of the generation of players and coaches who grew up in the game playing to ties. They believed that a tie (which counts as half a win in the standings) was at least better than a loss, and they were less averse to the idea of playing to preserve the tie rather than take risks for a win -- risks that might become turnovers. Many players and coaches today, however, think a tie is actually worse than a loss. They'd prefer the certainty and finality of the "L" to the kissing-your-sister aspect of the "T." Said Falcons QB Michael Vick after the 2002 game with the Steelers, a game his team damn near lost on the final play of overtime, "The tie's a downer."

Regardless of whether the kickoff rules were what put a stop to ties in the first place, those rules have been a key reason why ties have never made a comeback, why we've only seen three ties in the past 18 seasons. And why ties remain the funny little appendix of the NFL standings, a vestigial column of zeroes between "W-L" and "Pct," waiting for the next time two bumbling clubs collide in the dark.

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