The Insane Overtime Format the NFL Doesn’t Realize It Needs

Introducing the “California tiebreaker.”

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14:  Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks on from the bench before a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
An NFL overtime can leave a player like Patrick Mahomes in the lurch. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There is no such thing as a perfect overtime format in football. Just ask Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City Chiefs’ prodigious quarterback led a last-minute, game-tying comeback against the New England Patriots during Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, and his reward was a front-row seat for Tom Brady’s touchdown drive that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl. New England won the coin toss and was awarded possession, and so Mahomes, the league’s likely MVP, had as much of a say in the extra period as me or you . (Unless you happen to be Tom Brady. Hi, Tom!)

Football is engineered to squeeze every ounce of consequence out of regulation’s four quarters. The extra period must be brief for the sake of player health, but anything too truncated casts doubt upon a game’s rightful victor. The NFL’s current overtime format—in which each team gets the opportunity to possess the ball, unless a touchdown gets scored during the opening possession—has been in place since the 2012 playoffs. While it’s better than the old “first field goal wins” system, it occasionally renders an entire team’s offense completely irrelevant.

Ideally, both teams’ defenses and offenses would be guaranteed equal opportunities. That’s the case in the college overtime system, in which each side alternates possession with the ball starting on the 25-yard line. This only values a team’s ability in the red zone, however, and if teams keep matching each other point for point, then things can drag on for quite a while. (An LSU–Texas A&M game from November lasted seven overtime periods.) This system, just like the NFL’s, also invests kickers with disproportionate importance, and no one wants to see that.

For an overtime to be truly egalitarian, each team must have an equal amount of time on offense and defense, and all advantages should be earned on the field and by the players themselves. (Except kickers, who should be allowed to beat the traffic.) Behold: the “California tiebreaker.”

The California Interscholastic Federation introduced the California tiebreaker in 1968, and the state’s high school football districts used the system through the 1970s and ’80s. The California tiebreaker is, to put it in the simplest possible terms, like tug-of-war without the rope.

Here’s how it works: The ball is placed at the 50-yard line, and the teams run four plays each (a coin toss decides who gets to go first), alternating possession at the spot of the ball after every play. If no one manages to score (field goals aren’t allowed), then the team that’s in its opponents’ territory at the conclusion of the eight plays is awarded one point and declared the winner.

A California tiebreaker could go something like this:

• Team A rushes for 5 yards, with the ball carrier tackled at Team B’s 45-yard line.

• Team B gets the ball at its own 45-yard line. It then completes a 20-yard pass.

• Team A runs a play from its own 35-yard line …

And so on and so on.

If the ball is anywhere on Team B’s half of the field after eight plays—even the 49-yard line—then Team A is the winner. There were some wrinkles (in the ’80s a few districts gave each team eight plays), but the gist remained the same for decades.

The California tiebreaker is speed chess with a smaller board. Strategy is key, and each play-call is of paramount importance. The California method also encourages rather than stifles individual brilliance. If Sunday’s AFC Championship game got decided California-style, then Mahomes would’ve had a chance to overcome the Chiefs’ defensive deficiencies—which is precisely what he did all season in bringing Kansas City to the brink of the Super Bowl. There is no room for “what could have been” in a California tiebreaker.

The most famous California tiebreaker of them all came in 1977, in a playoff game between Granada Hills High School and Palisades. On the seventh play of the tiebreaker period, a 17-year-old John Elway threw a 28-yard pass out of Granada Hills territory, putting his team on the Palisades’ 32-yard line. The defense stopped Palisades quarterback Jay Schroeder on the ensuing possession, and Granada Hills won, 28–27.

“It was amazing that we had two future Super Bowl quarterbacks out there deciding a game like that,” Eric Sondheimer tells me over the phone. Sondheimer is the prep sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and he covered the Granada Hills–Palisades game for the Van Nuys Valley News. (His lede: “Granada Hills High School quarterback John Elway has earned the nickname Mr. Clutch.”)

While Sondheimer was a witness to history, he was never sold on the California tiebreaker as an overtime format. “It was very bizarre,” he says. “You’re not ending it on a touchdown or something, you’re ending it on where you are on the field. Personally, I think it was kind of silly.” To each his own!

One issue I assumed would present some practical problems is the requirement to swap defensive and offensive units after every play. It’s a bit Keystone Cops to have players sprint on and off the field repeatedly—wouldn’t that slow the game down? “No, everybody was ready to go,” Sondheimer says. “They just went out there and did it. It really put the pressure on the coaches to make wise decisions because if you throw an incomplete pass, you’re stuck where you are. It was unique. Everybody had to be thinking about the next play.”

“I just remember that there was so much pressure,” Darryl Stroh tells me. Stroh was Granada Hills’ defensive coordinator, and he participated in only a handful of California tiebreakers before the format was phased out. By the time he became the team’s head coach, in 1985, most of the state had adopted a version of the current overtime system, which is reminiscent of what’s used in the NCAA.

“I much preferred the [California tiebreaker],” Stroh says. “It’s more like real football, you know?” He says the current overtime is limiting. “When you’re on the goal line, that means you can’t throw deep,” he says. The California tiebreaker, meanwhile, literally evens the playing field. “It’s pretty simple. I don’t know how you can get much fairer. Everybody gets their shot. Everybody has to play offense, everybody has to play defense.”

What if Mahomes had been afforded the same opportunity on Sunday that a teenage John Elway had in 1977? What if all overtimes were decided by eight total plays? “I don’t see how it would be a bad thing,” Stroh says. “You only need to be an inch across that 50-yard line to win it.”

The California tiebreaker may have been efficient, but the high-stakes approach wasn’t beloved by everyone involved. “It’s four downs for your life,” former El Modena High School football coach Bob Lester told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “The problem is, four downs are not going to signify which team is better.” Lester had an admitted bias against the format. The story notes that his team lost in the 1982 Southern Conference Championship due to a California tiebreaker. That game’s conclusion was so unpopular, officials in the conference briefly changed the rules to name teams co-champions in the event of a tie. By the end of the decade, the California tiebreaker was extinct.

Perhaps football is resistant to sound overtime policy because of the assumption that scoring must be involved. Take away that objective, and a very complicated sport gets distilled to a simple, thrilling narrative of territorial brinkmanship. As frustrating as it may be to watch your team lose because of field position, at least they had some say as to where the ball wound up.

Stroh recalls that Granada Hills was knocked out of the playoffs due to a California tiebreaker in 1978, one year after the Elway-Schroeder matchup. “That one we lost by a couple of yards,” he says. “It was kind of heartbreaking.” The result didn’t change his view of the California tiebreaker, though. “I always thought it was good. I always thought it was fair. I liked it,” he says. “I wonder why they changed it? I never found out why.”