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Changing Overtime: The Birth of “The Josh Allen Rule”



January 23rd could have been our night. The Bills could have – and should have – had a chance in overtime to answer the Kansas City Chiefs offense. Josh Allen could have had an opportunity to equal, and maybe even outduel, Patrick Mahomes late into the night. Bills fans, if their strained hearts didn’t give out during the chaos, could have had their moment in the sun.

They didn’t, he didn’t, and we didn’t. But there is a weird sense of comfort in knowing the team, Josh Allen, and the Bills Mafia will be the last to suffer the suddenness of playoff death under the NFL’s old overtime rules.

AFC Divisional Round Game

It took seven minutes and twenty-six seconds between “we’re in the AFC championship game” to “the season is over”. (I went back, re-watched, and counted.) Seven minutes and twenty-six real-time seconds separated Tyler Bass’s extra point and the coin toss.

Prior to yesterday’s Owner’s Meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, that overtime coin toss played a disproportionate role in determining the winner of playoff games. In the biggest games in the biggest sport in North America, teams winning the coin toss could drive down the field, score a touchdown, and win the game, as the Kansas City Chiefs did on January 23rd. The opponent’s offense would stand on the sideline helplessly, as Buffalo’s did, never seeing the ball. Their season ends just like that.

When Josh Allen and Gabriel Davis scored their fourth touchdown of the night with thirteen seconds left, the Bills took a two-point lead. When Tyler Bass converted the extra point, the lead grew to three. The Bills were hosting the AFC Championship game in a week. All these grueling years of sorrow were finally worth it.

Seven minutes and twenty-six seconds later, after a putrid defensive gameplan and execution, the coin was tossed to determine which team would receive the ball… and the humungous advantage that comes with it. Josh Allen called tails. The coin came up heads.

Neither defense could have stopped either offense that night. Whichever team won the toss would win the game. One of the greatest games in NFL history decided by the flip of a coin. And though it was awful, the Bills were hardly the first team to experience that unique form of heartbreak.

The Overtime Coin Toss

Since 2010, when the NFL last changed its overtime rule to ensure playoff games could not end on a first-possession field goal, teams that won the coin toss are 10-2. Seven of those twelve games ended like Bills-Chiefs, with the toss-winning team scoring a touchdown on its first drive, leaving their opponent without a possession.

The very first playoff game under these new rules ended like that. It remains the quickest playoff game in NFL history. After they won the coin toss, the Denver Broncos took the ball at the 20-yard line after a touchback. On the very first play of overtime, quarterback Tim Tebow hit wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who scored an 80-yard touchdown and ended the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season in eleven seconds.

But they didn’t change the rule.

In Super Bowl LI, after the New England Patriots made a historic comeback to force overtime, they won the coin toss and received the kickoff. Quarterback Tom Brady led his team to a touchdown in less than four minutes. Regular Season MVP Matt Ryan didn’t see the ball in the only Super Bowl to need an extra period.

But they didn’t change the rule.

Two years later, in the 2019 AFC Championship game, the Patriots again won the overtime coin toss in Arrowhead Stadium. They scored a first-drive touchdown and prevented that year’s league MVP, Patrick Mahomes, from touching the ball. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl, and Mahomes and the Chiefs went home.

But they still didn’t change the rule.

It was our guy that forced their hand. The NFL watched Josh Allen orchestrate two lead-taking touchdown drives and then walk to midfield, call “tails,” see heads, and then shuffle back to his sideline, knowing his defense would never be able to stop the Chiefs. Allen looked dejected. The unstoppable energy within our unicorn quarterback seemed to evaporate in that moment, as if stolen by the crowd, whose primal cheer came not from winning the game, but winning the coin toss. They knew the game was over. He knew the game was over.

That is the lasting image of the game. Not Josh’s touchdowns, not Mahomes’s back-shoulder fade to win the game. The thing that people remember is one of the NFL’s most outstanding and marketable superstars with his head down because of the way a coin landed on the Arrowhead grass.

The NFL knew they couldn’t have that happen again.

The New Rule

This offseason, there were two different rule change proposals to address the overtime problem. The first was jointly proposed by the Eagles and Colts. They proposed that overtime games – both regular and postseason – should not end after a first-possession touchdown, and that both teams be given a chance to score.

The other rule change was proposed by the Titans. Their proposal was similar, but a first-possession touchdown followed by a successful two-point conversion would end the game. If the team failed its two-point attempt or simply chose an extra point, then the game would continue.

After considerable debate amongst the owners, the first proposal was accepted. However, they decided to keep the regular season overtime rule the same. Teams can overcome a first-possession overtime loss in the regular season. In the playoffs, they cannot.

This new rule addresses the finality of an overtime playoff loss. From now on, both teams are guaranteed the ball. If the game remains tied after these two possessions, the next score wins, whether it be a touchdown, field goal or safety.

What It Means

The new rule has several implications and will fundamentally change overtime strategy. If you receive the kickoff and score a touchdown, do you kick an extra point or go for two? Do you give the ball back to your opponent down seven (and risk them scoring and going for two to win)? Or do you take that risk on your own two-point attempt?

The variance of outcomes is fun to imagine. Under the new rules, the Bills would have gotten the ball back after the Mahomes-to-Kelce overtime touchdown. Do you think Andy Reid would’ve gone for two? If he kicked, and Josh Allen led another touchdown drive, would Sean McDermott have gone for two to try and end the game right then and there? Or would McDermott have kicked the extra point and then kicked off, knowing that since both teams have possessed the ball that a field goal would win the game for Kansas City?

Though it’s still somewhat painful to travel back in time and imagine the Bills-Chiefs game with these new rules, there is a strange sense of comfort and closure in knowing that the Bills were the last team to endure the old ones.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of pride in knowing it was that lasting image of our man walking sorrowfully back to the sideline after a failed coin toss, that ensured the rule would be changed.

Bills Helmet Bar on Twitter: “Not Super Bowl LI where Matt Ryan didn’t see the ball, not the 2019 AFC championship game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t see the ball.They changed the rule because the world wanted to see Josh Allen get the ball. #BillsMafia / Twitter”

Not Super Bowl LI where Matt Ryan didn’t see the ball, not the 2019 AFC championship game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t see the ball.They changed the rule because the world wanted to see Josh Allen get the ball. #BillsMafia

I honestly don’t think the owner’s would’ve approved anything if the Bills had designated anyone else as captain that night. If Jerry Hughes had called the coin toss wrong, I don’t think we have new playoff rules right now. But because it was Josh Allen, whose greatest mistake on January 23rd wasn’t an errant throw but simply calling “tails,” we now have fairer and more equitable rules moving forward.

Though I’m sure he’d have preferred an AFC Championship game at Highmark Stadium, literally changing the game is a solid legacy for Josh Allen’s 2021 season.

Blake Parnham is a sports official and a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Blake is an advocate for reducing the abuse directed at officials in amateur sport. On gameday, you can find him in his backyard at the Bills Helmet Bar, in Keswick, Ontario.