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The NFL's Un-American New Fad: Tie Games

September 18,2018 07:18

In 2009, a Connecticut-Syracuse college basketball game went to six overtimes. It took so long that it felt like college football, which, by the way, eliminated ties a couple of decades ago because this most distinctly American breed of fans abhorred ...and more »

The NFL is developing a disturbing new habit—one that is strange, uncomfortable, and very…European.Football is now being forced to reckon with the tie.As Green Bay and Minnesota played out a 29-29 draw at Lambeau Field, the NFL was aghast at its second tie in as many weeks. In fact, with one tie this weekend, the NFL had more standoffs than the English Premier League, which had none.
The NFL does not like this.
“It’s not losing,” Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said, “but it’s damn sure not winning.”
Two ties in two weeks may be a random aberration, but NFL teams—and fans—may need to get used to it. Ahead of last season, the league slashed overtime from 15 minutes to 10. Previously, in 2012, the league had changed the rules so that both teams would get the ball unless the receiving team scores a touchdown on the opening possession.
But ties in football aren’t nearly as common as they are in soccer. Despite the rule changes, there weren’t any in the NFL last season, and they happen so infrequently that it’s awkward to even to look at a team’s record that features a grotesque third column. It confuses fans who prefer a result, even one they don’t like, and leaves players emotionally disoriented.
“I don’t know what to feel after a tie,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, right, and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins chat after the teams played to a 29-29 tie. Photo: Robin Alam/Icon SMI/Zuma Press

Americans love to look down on soccer for its willingness to recognize that sometimes two teams can’t settle the score. They are so repulsed by the concept of saying that neither side won that the most common analogy is “kissing your sister.” So most American sports are prepared to go to absurd lengths to avoid ties.
The NHL abolished ties following the 2003-04 season and now uses overtime and shootouts to determine a winner. The NBA has so much scoring that a winner emerges with enough overtime periods—the record of six has stood for more than 60 years. And baseball will play extra inning after extra inning in front of near empty stands theoretically forever.
In 2009, a Connecticut-Syracuse college basketball game went to six overtimes. It took so long that it felt like college football, which, by the way, eliminated ties a couple of decades ago because this most distinctly American breed of fans abhorred the very concept.

Huddersfield Town players are all smiles after picking up a point on the road after a 1-1 draw at Everton on Sept. 1. Photo: peter powell/Reuters

Even soccer, during its early forays on the American pro sports scene, recognized that ties might be an issue. The North American Soccer League banished ties to oblivion in the 1970s and replaced them with penalty shootouts and eventually hockey-style shootouts, even for regular-season games.
Europe, however, long ago made its peace with the idea of a hard-fought battle that yields equal dissatisfaction, firm handshakes, and no winners. In the Premier League last season, more than a quarter of all matches ended in draws, with 99 occurring over the 10-month campaign.
No one sees anything wrong with that. With three points awarded for a victory and one for a tie, a stalemate can still give a team something positive to cling to. For an underdog, it might even make the whole journey worthwhile.
“An away point in the Premier League is always good,” David Wagner, manager of struggling Huddersfield Town, said after a recent draw on the road at Everton. “It’s a deserved point due to our defensive organization and the effort from the players in this game was great. They worked their socks off.”
NFL teams aren’t giddy after their games end with the score knotted up. And in some sense, they should embrace deadlocks even more than soccer teams. Ties, in football, are functionally half a win—which makes them more valuable than the one point most soccer leagues award.
If there’s any team that should pop champagne after a draw it’s the Browns. That’s because the Browns lost every single game last season and all but one the year before that. Then they tied the Pittsburgh Steelers, annually one of the best teams in the league, during Week 1 for Cleveland’s best start to a season in more than a decade.

Antonio Callaway of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field after a 21-21 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Browns coach Hue Jackson refused to see it as anything but a frustration. There was no solace in taking something, anything, from this result. “Obviously,” he said, “disappointed at the outcome: a tie game.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was equally miffed. “It’s an awkward feeling after a game like that. You don’t know what to feel or to say or think.”
Some players showed signs of acceptance. Aaron Rodgers, a self-styled fan of England’s Manchester City, noted it’s “better to be standing here with a T instead of an L.” And Vikings coach Mike Zimmer at least had the clarity to identify the difference between losing and other results: “It’s better than a loss, obviously.”
But it’s mostly as foreign as meat pies. The Browns’ Jackson was asked if there’s any consolation that Cleveland left the field with a tie and not a loss. He had a curt reply.
Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com and Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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