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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
It's time to apply new overtime rules

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Garrett Hartley
Garrett Hartley and the Saints celebrated after beating Minnesota in last year's NFC title game. If the new OT rules were in place then, Hartley's 40-yard field goal might not have been the game-winner.

Those long-complaining finally get their wish starting Saturday. New overtime rules are part of this year's playoffs.

Under the new rules, each team will get a guaranteed possession or the opportunity to possess unless the team that receives the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on its initial possession. If no one scores during the first two possessions of overtime, the game ends automatically on the next score.

In other words, if the team that wins the coin toss gets a field goal on its opening drive, the other team has a chance to match that score or trump it with a touchdown.

Was it really necessary to make any change? The NFL had 19 overtime games in 2010. Only two -- that's right, two -- were decided by a field goal drive on the opening kickoff. The 19 overtimes were the most since 2003.

Sudden death wasn't so sudden.

Although I can accept the compromise as part of the playoffs because those games are played until a score anyway, you have to question whether the change was really needed. Scoring in overtime is hard as it is. Now, coaches have to go into these playoffs without any defined history of how to handle these types of new overtimes. Proponents of a two-possession overtime don't like the cheap finishes of a kickoff, two or three first downs and then a field goal.

You have to wonder if already-conservative coaches will turn more conservative under these new rules. Look at some of the defensive head coaches like Rex Ryan of the Jets and Tony Sparano of the Dolphins, who often defer when they win the coin toss at the start of the game. By midseason, Ryan was wondering if he was handcuffing his team to slow starts by deferring kickoffs. Dolphins fans have been complaining all year about Sparano's conservative style, and deferred kickoffs were among the biggest complaints.

The original overtime rule was designed to minimize the chance of ties, and the plan worked beautifully. In recent years, quarterbacks, thanks to the no-huddle offense and spread formations, really got good in the fourth quarter and were able to force more games into overtime.

What can't be changed is the mindset of the coaches. Ultimately, overtimes are going to be determined by a field goal. Two-possession supporters complained for years that hard, physical games with big men pounding at each other for three hours shouldn't be determined by a coin toss and a kick. But that's just what coaches are angling for.

In the 19 overtime games this year, only two touchdowns were scored -- a 50-yard run by Steelers halfback Rashard Mendenhall in the season opener against Atlanta and a pick-six interception by Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson against the Houston Texans on Dec. 13.

The rule change, as it turns out, wasn't really necessary.

From the inbox

Q: I know it seems like a forgone conclusion that Matt Schaub will continue to start in Houston, particularly with Gary Kubiak staying, but it doesn't seem like a no-brainer to me. Although Schaub has proven to be a good starting quarterback, so had Jay Cutler, and everyone assumed he would remain in Denver, even after Josh McDaniels showed up. Schaub is a former backup and has had tons of success the last two seasons throwing the ball, but he still hasn't achieved a 2-1 ratio with touchdowns and interceptions. I think the biggest thing to consider here is how much high-end draft picks get paid and how much more sense it makes to pay a first-round quarterback that kind of money instead of pretty much any other position.

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A:
Finding a quarterback is hard enough. Just drafting one in the first round doesn't guarantee success. You're right in the sense that in this day of enhanced scouting, trying to gamble on a quarterback not taken in the first round could be questionable. Schaub is a success story, though. His touchdown-to-interception ratio isn't up to the standards of the top quarterbacks because his defense was so bad this year. Quarterbacks -- even the great ones -- tend to take more gambles when their teams have bad defenses because they realize each possession is more precious. The Texans can win with Schaub. The next mission is getting quarterbacks of Schaub's caliber to the eight to 10 teams that don't have good quarterbacks.

Q: It makes me very angry when I see every columnist bashing the NFC West because of a bad year. The division has had three separate Super Bowl teams (Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals) and yet everyone seems to think this is the biggest disaster in sports history. In 20 years there will be a different division with the same problems, and everyone's views are going to change. Why so much disrespect to the division?

Jason in St. Louis

A:
The Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record. The NFC West was 13-27 in non-division games. It was 6-26 in road games. The next time we run across a division as bad as that, critics will criticize because it will be deserved.

Q: Should the Seahawks progress with the development of Charlie Whitehurst in their offense? Or should they seek out a QB through the draft/trade? Because it seems like Carson Palmer or Kevin Kolb could be up for grabs, so would it be appropriate to grab one of those guys and begin to build again, considering that both are still young?

Arneet in Seattle

A:
By winning the NFC West and ending up with the 21st pick in the first round instead of the No. 8 pick, the Seahawks have to consider all options. Whitehurst showed something during the season finale against the Rams and might get a chance to come back next season to compete, but he needs a lot of work to be a winning starter. The Seahawks will have the option of bringing Matt Hasselbeck back for another year. But they have to find their next quarterback fast. At the 21st spot in the draft, they might not get a Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett. Kolb would likely cost a first- and third-round pick. That might be too much for the Seahawks to surrender, because they have more needs than just quarterback. A second-round choice for Kyle Orton might be a thought. It's pretty clear that Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco all have to come up with quarterbacks to hang with Sam Bradford in the NFC West.

Q: Why are some guys great as coordinators and bomb as head coaches? Obviously, the quality of personnel is a factor, but the great coaches seem to get more out of their teams.

Kevin in Panama

A:
This may sound too simplistic, but many assistants fail because they can't make the right decisions with quarterbacks. Eric Mangini succeeded to a certain degree with the Jets because he had Chad Pennington. He failed in Cleveland because he ruined Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Coaches are only as good as the players around them. Rebuilding a roster takes time, and no coach has five years to rebuild in this day and age. The shortcut is getting the right quarterback, which isn't easy.

Q: I've heard that some positions are more difficult to transition from college to pros. Running back is supposed to be easier while wide receiver is supposed to be harder. Where does offensive line fall on that scale?

Will in New Orleans

A:
I'll offer these stats. Anthony Davis, a first-rounder for the 49ers at right tackle, gave up 11½ sacks. Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga, a first-rounder, gave up 11 in only 12 starts. Redskins first-rounder Trent Williams gave up 11½. Seahawks first-rounder Russell Okung fought through two high ankle sprains this season. I'd put the order of difficulty for development this way -- quarterback, offensive tackle, cornerback, wide receiver.

Q: Despite the improved record, the Jets seem to have too many holes. I was more confident in the team last year. The defense, offensive line and the running game were all superior. Although Sanchez has less turnovers this year, I'd trade it all for last year's team. You agree?

Eric in Hoboken, N.J.

A:
I don't totally agree, but I think you have a point. Sanchez is better than last year, although at times he doesn't look as good. The team is much better at wide receiver with Santonio Holmes added to the mix. It's better at cornerback with Antonio Cromartie's addition. Where I would side with you is that the defense isn't as fast, particularly getting to the quarterback. The offensive line is also a little more banged up than last year. And the running game clearly isn't as good. I still wonder whether the Jets regret not keeping Thomas Jones.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.