Super Bowl overtime rules are the best of a bunch of bad options

As the clock hit 0:00 on regulation in Super Bowl LVIII, the questions flew across a hundred thousand bars, mancaves, dens, hangouts and — apparently — at least one sideline: How does overtime work in the Super Bowl? It’s sudden death, right? Both teams get the ball at the 25, right? If the first team scores a touchdown, it’s over, right?

The NFL’s postseason rules are simple enough in theory: Each team gets a chance to possess the ball, one way or another. It’s an elegant solution, (usually) bringing in all three phases of the game for each team: offense, defense and special teams. It’s just that the execution of those rules gets a little wonky, particularly when you add in 1. the tension of the Super Bowl and 2. a ticking clock that honestly doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of the game.

The NFL’s format — which combines two entirely different rosters, motivations and gameplay endeavors into a single team — doesn’t allow for the clean, efficient overtime solutions of most other sports. Most other sports involve the same players on both offense and defense, but a sudden-death option in football effectively sidelines half of each team.

From the start of the NFL’s Super Bowl era right up through the 2011 season, the overtime rules were simple, if unbalanced: The team that scored first won the game. Touchdown, field goal, safety, whatever. That certainly ended overtimes quickly, but the effect was that a team that won the coin toss only had to travel a few dozen yards to get into game-winning field goal range.

Starting in 2012, the team that won the toss could end the game with a touchdown, but a field goal — or no score at all — gave the ball to the opponent, who had one possession to tie or win the game. Ten years later, beginning with the 2022 season, the NFL instituted a rule which gave both teams the ball at least once, regardless of what points may be scored to start. The only exception: a defensive score (i.e. safety, pick-six, fumble recovery for a TD, etc.) on the offense’s first drive ends the game immediately.

This is where the NFL gets tripped up in its own legalese. Sudden death is so much easier to understand for the average fan — score and you win, end of story. The list of conditionals attached to the NFL rules, like amendments to congressional legislation, turns overtime into a series of bureaucratic checkpoints. Navigate them properly, the way Kansas City did, and you get yourself a brand-new trophy, even if you leave a few confused fans and opponents in your wake.

Naturally, the Chiefs have benefited from both recent overtime formats. Two years ago, in the instant-classic “13 seconds” AFC divisional championship against the Bills, Kansas City scored first in overtime to notch a walkoff win — a win that spurred the development of the current rules. Sunday night in the Super Bowl, Kansas City — which would have lost the game if San Francisco had scored a touchdown under pre-2022 rules, and would have lost outright under pre-2012 rules — turned its sliver of opportunity into a third title in four years.

Even before San Francisco ran its first play in OT, the second-guessing of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s decision to take the ball first began. As our Dan Wetzel explained in detail in the hours after the game, Shanahan put the Niners at a disadvantage by giving the chiefs the chance at a final say.

Not only that, Shanahan apparently didn't communicate to his players the strategy and methodology for overtime. Several 49ers players conceded that they didn't know the exact playoff rules, with one saying he only learned them from reading them off a display on the Allegiant Stadium screen. It's one thing for friends around the buffalo chicken dip to be confused about how a game should go; it's another entirely when you're talking about the players on the field. (For the record, Mecole Hardman — who caught the game-winning touchdown for the Chiefs — wasn't aware he'd just won the Super Bowl, either.)

The clock is mostly ornamental in overtime, too. Each team gets the right to see its first possession through to its natural end, meaning that even though the clock was winding down as Kansas City drove the field, there was no chance the Chiefs would surrender the ball to the clock. It was the equivalent of the end of the first quarter, not the end of the game.

The fact that the Chiefs won by playing more strategic and disciplined football in overtime helped to validate the new rules — that, and the fact that the 49ers clearly squandered their opportunities, both during the game and in overtime. The “both-teams-get-a-chance” rule package is unwieldy and awkward to explain, yes. But until we go to a soccer-style field-goal kicking competition with five players from each team — including at least one lineman — this will have to do.

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