The Overtime Gambit

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Every team elects to receive the opening kick off in overtime. With the changing rules, does it ever make sense to buck the trend and defer?

gam·bit

noun

1. (in chess) an opening in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of some compensating advantage.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sparked an NFL wide trend of deferring the opening kickoff to the second half. His thought process was that the team had the chance to close out the first half with a score, and follow that up with a strong opening drive to start the second half. It not only allows a potential swing of 14 points in the middle of the game, it also allows the team to gain the possession have the opposition has already revealed a few of its plays.

Essentially, Belichick has decided that it's better to give up an early possession in order to have one later in the game with the game's temperament more revealed.

Now, what happens if the game continues into overtime? The new rules where the team receiving the opening kick off has to score a touchdown, while any other possessions can finish the game with a field goal, should have changed the historical logic, right?

The old rules made the decision obvious- you always elected to receive if you won the coin toss. Any score could win the game, so starting with the ball was imperative. Down the ball, start the drive from the 20, and the team would only need 50 yards to be fairly certain of victory.

Now? What happens if you receive the kick off and you don't score? You put the game back in the hands of the opposing team. And what if you elect to defer? If you believe in your defense, you could force a stop and would only need to score a field goal in order to win. With the ease of gaining the yards for a field goal multitudes easier than gaining the additional yards for a touchdown, wouldn't that make sense as a viable option?

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The Scenario: An average team facing another average team in both offense in defense. As in, actually using the league averages over the past decade in each scenario. Not including variance, yet.

Team A kicks off, Team B receives.

One aspect of receiving the ball is that the further away from your goal line you start your possession, the fewer yards you are expected to gain. The average team who started from the 5 yard line gained 31.7 yards on that drive. The average team who started from the 40 yard line gained 25.9 yards on that drive. No, this does not mean you want to start further in your own end, but it does give us some information on where the average drive will end.

A team who starts from the 20 yards line (fairly standard) averages 30.6 yards on their drive, bringing them to just over midfield- not anywhere near close a touchdown, but just outside of field goal range. In fact, only 15.5% of drives from the 20 end up with touchdowns. The average team would punt, and the average punting unit would pin the opposition around their 10 yards line. Average stuff.

Team B now starts their drive on the 10 yard line, needing just a field goal to win. Drives starting at their own 10 result in scores (touchdown or a field goal, because now a field goal is an optimal play) 22.5% of the time. Of course, the average drive starting at their own 10 ends at their own 43 yard line- still out of field goal range. But in this possession, Average Team B increases their chance in winning by over 7% by deferring.

Of course, if they don't score, Average Team B will end up punting from their own 43, giving the other team the ball back at the 18 yard line, essentially resetting the game so that Average Team A can try their drive again, but this time only needing a field goal. This time, the odds of scoring increase to 26%, and giving Average Team A the best chance of winning.

In this situation, the average teams reach an equilibrium of punting, with neither average team reaching field goal range. Still, deferring the kick gave Average Team B a sizable boost in possible victory. Only if Average Team B failed to beat average production on their drive, would that transfer the best overall chance of victory back to Average Team A.

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Of course, this is the NFL and Average Team A and Average Team B only exists in hypothetical terms and in Tennessee. In reality, the variance between each team and Average Team with respects to offense and defense changes the variables.

Cleveland, with an elite defense and a just-above-laughable offense might opt to defer because their defense can provide the offense with more than optimal field positioning. The offense can't be trusted to score a touchdown, but with a defense that's allowing only 25 yards per drive when starting within the 20 (8 yards below the league average), the odds increase of giving the offense the ball a shorter field to score a field goal.

On the flip side, the Broncos have a porous defense and an elite offense- if they were to defer, it would not only be a slap in the face of Peyton Manning, it actually could put the team at a disadvantage with a sub-par defense playing on the field.

Additionally, against Average Team B, if Average Team A is able to score a touchdown from the 20 at a greater rate than they can score anything from the 10, then it's worth pursuing the touchdown option. The Broncos, in this case, have scored a touchdown on 27.9% of drives started within their 20. Over the past two seasons, they've only scored on 20% of their drives from within the 10. For the Broncos, opting to receive makes the most sense.

So when evaluating what to do in overtime, there are four possible factors to evaluate that spawn from "Receive" or "Defer":

Receive

1) How Team A scores touchdowns from their own 20, factoring in Team B's defense

2) How Team B scores in general from their own 10, factoring in Team A's defense

Defer

3) How Team A scores in general from their own 10, factoring in Team B's defense

4) How Team B scores touchdowns from their own 20, factoring in Team A's defense

If 1) - 2) is greater than 3) - 4), then a team should opt to receive. The opposite should lead to a deferral.

Let's compare the Patriots and the Jets.

Over the past two seasons, the Patriots have scored a touchdown on 24% of their drives that start between the 10-20 yard line.The Jets have allowed 19.7% of these drives to result in a touchdown.

On drives started by the opposition on the 20, they've gained an average of 30 yards (making the Patriots defense "average"). With the net punt, it's fair to expect the Patriots to be pinned around their ten yards lines in the scenario of a stop. The Patriots have scored a touchdown or a field goal on 32.4% of drives starting inside their own 10. The Jets have allowed 16.2% of drives to result in a score.

The Jets have scored a touchdown on 5.93% of drives starting between their 10-20 (Patriots allowed 15,4%), while have a touchdown or field goal on 25% of drives starting inside their own 10 (Patriots allowed 20%).

So if choose the average in the Offensive production and the defensive allowance, we can create table of possible outcomes:

NE
Yd Result O D
20 Touchdown 14.9% 17.6%
10 Score 28.7% 18.1%

If the Patriots opt to receive, they can be expected to score a touchdown on 14.9% of their drives. If they have an average drive and are forced to punt, the Jets are projected to be able to score on 18.1% of their drives starting inside the 10.

On the other hand, if the Patriots elected to defer, the Jets would be expected to score on 17.6% of their drives, but if the Patriots could force a punt, the Patriots chance of scoring to win rockets up to 28.7%.

So opting to receive the opening kick off in overtime is a net deficit scenario in a Patriots vs Jets game for the Patriots. Opting to defer actually yields the higher probability for success.

(not calling a unique penalty for the first time in league history would also help in overtime, but that's besides the point).

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Now there's not a simple formula to determine whether a team should opt to receive or defer in overtime. There is a clear case-by-case decision, where how the team is currently performing, who the team is playing, what the wind direction is in case of a field goal, and a whole plethora of additional factors must be accounted for.

But what the numbers show is that there might be some merit in deferring the opening kick off of overtime. It will be interesting to see which coach might be the first one willing to take advantage of the potential.

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