Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Overtime

Life is often quite seasonal. Minnesotans (and others) who have slogged through the recent heat and humidity know that in a few months we'll be surrounded by snow and facing temperatures below zero (and that this changes everything). The shift for teachers between August and September can only be described as a change in lifestyle. So, too, is life seasonal for a football fan: if you're a die-hard, everything will be different in about a month. And there are some things we can do to prepare for it. One thing I've done is adjust my web browser: sites for football box scores, news, and stats are prominent and easy to reach, as I'll be reaching them quickly and frequently soon. Another thing I've done is clean up the DVR: football season puts quite a strain on its capacity, so I need to make as much room as possible. With that in mind, I finally got around to finishing the 1994 Vikings-Bears overtime game that has been saved in my DVR for months.

Overtime is a funny thing. To get there, one team must play another team to a dead heat, to match up so evenly that in the allotted time for a game, one team is not better than the other. An overtime game means that for sixty minutes, two teams played each other evenly. Sure, it doesn't mean just that: sometimes flukes, luck, and mistakes mean one team far outplays another and still ends up in a close game (that goes either way). But basically, accounting for all of that, the score means two teams were dead even. Yet, a winner must still be declared: no matter how even the teams are, one team gets a W and the other gets the L.

That Viking-Bear game was a little weird. Really, I would say neither team played very well. The score was as high as it was (27-27 through regulation) because of turnovers and special teams play. Neither offense really showed much: the Bears couldn't run the ball at all, the Vikes didn't score an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter (and required fourth down to do that). But the defenses weren't exactly dominant, either: they each occasionally looked hapless giving up pass plays. It was really two mediocre teams, whose strengths (like the Bears' special teams, or the Vikings' run defense) and weaknesses (like the Bears lack of explosive offensive talent, or the Vikings' pass defense) played each other to a fair draw. But somebody had to win.

What happened in overtime? The Bears won the toss and got the ball, then marched down the field passing on the Vikings. On a key third down they got stuffed with a run up the middle (which the Vikes had been stuffing all game), and Kevin Butler, he of the single-bar helmet, misses a game-winning field goal. The Vikings get the ball back, and end up winning on a nifty little play to Cris Carter: he goes in motion, gets a linebacker covering him, goes for a quick out but turns upfield, catches the ball just past the linebacker, uses fine footwork to stay in bounds, runs downfield and avoids a chasing safety to run into the endzone. Ballgame.

How did the Vikings win this game? They played an opponent to a draw. In overtime, the defense struggled, allowing Chicago to move into field goal position. Then a conservative Chicago team ran their weakness into the Viking strength. Chicago missed a field goal. Then the Vikings created a bigger offensive play than they were able to create in 60 minutes of regulation.

They played evenly. Then, for the Vikes to win, the Chicago kicker had to miss a makeable kick. Then they had to get their one big offensive play of the game. If things go differently, maybe NFL Network is still showing the game on TV a decade and a half later, but I'm probably not watching it. Watching the game now, I could sense the euphoria of a fan seeing Butler miss that kick (though I knew he would), and seeing Cris Carter catch and run for the game-winner (though I knew he would). If that happened today, I'd have waves of euphoria carrying me for a week. Still...two teams played each other evenly.

I'm actually in favor of the NFL abolishing regular season overtime. Would we really be hurt by ties? Would we be less entertained watching coaches decide whether to play not for either overtime or a win, but a tie or a win? Would we have less to talk about? Wouldn't the fourth quarter be more intense? Wouldn't the final standings be simpler to order? Wouldn't it be more fair? Wouldn't teams play it differently, and maybe more interestingly, without it? Is it the end of the world if we as fans, watching on TV or in person, got entertained by 60 minutes of football and came away with both teams playing evenly? We'd miss on the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat, sure. But I think it would be better--and certainly better than the idiotic sudden death overtime where the percentages give a major advantage to a team winning a coin toss.

But there are still playoffs, and so there still must be some way to determine a winner of a playoff game when two teams score evenly through 60. You can't have ties in the playoffs. I'm glad the NFL changed the playoff OT rule away from sudden death (and think they should, and will, extend it to the regular season eventually). Playoff overtime reflects the excitement and intensity of the playoff game itself: everything that has happened that season comes down to this single game, where one team wins and moves on and the other team ends its season with a loss. It's why we love the playoffs. It's why it's fun to watch, why it matters.

But I will say, seeing the Vikings lose two NFC Championship games in overtime is a bit much. I've thought for a while that if the Packers win another Super Bowl before the Vikings win their first, I'll have a hard time following football for the offseason: it just wouldn't be fun anymore (though I'd probably come around in September). But seeing the Vikings lose an NFC Championship game in overtime for a third time in my life, I'd probably just shut football down for a while. It just wouldn't be fun anymore. I've sort of recovered from my sports nervous breakdown of January (sort of. There are some big scars lingering from that freaking game that won't really go away until the Vikings actually win the Super Bowl). Being so close to the Super Bowl, then losing in overtime again? I'd wince every time I saw the color purple.

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