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The NFL Should Celebrate Tie Games

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Why are fans of football so opposed to ties? They’ve been with the sport since the beginning.

Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants
Because this was better?
Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Lions and Cardinals just opened their season with a tie, and it brought a smile to my face.

Almost every time a match-up results in a tie, someone complains that ties are somehow wrong. For example, last year SB Nation ran a series of articles on how to “fix” overtime, like this one. However, that assumes overtime is somehow broken. With other sports, I might agree. The tournament format of tennis, for example, makes ties unworkable. However, in non-elimination settings, there is something thoroughly satisfying to a contest so close that the result is a draw. Here are three reasons that I think the NFL needs ties.

Ties are about tradition

Ties are part of the NFL, and I love it. In fact, the league champions had at least one tie to their records every season until 1931. The first team to buck the trend is not one of my favorite teams, to say the least. In 1920, the Decatur Staleys went 10-1-2 on their way to finishing second in the APFA; the winners were the Akron Pros, who went 8-0-3. In the first ten years of their existence, the Chicago Bears recorded 19 ties and had only a single season without at least one draw.

The game of football is, at its heart, a combat sport. It has been softened over time--for good reason--and it has had wrinkles added into it, but like most raw athletic competitions, football has had to acknowledge over the years that sometimes, both sides are evenly matched. In such contests, it makes little sense to cheapen the blood, sweat, and determination of an hour by having the outcome depend on a coin toss or a few extra minutes tacked on. The sport used to cherish the honorable stalemate.

Ties are about defense

Ultimately, a perfect defensive showdown would be a 0-0 game. Any score on some level represents a failure on the part of the defense, and as someone who enjoys the defensive aspects of football more than offense, I love the goal-line stand or a series resulting in a turnover on downs.

Any move made to break ties would favor the offense. It is possible to design a tiebreaker that doesn’t do this, but that’s not the direction the NFL is heading. They have to. I hate college tiebreaking, where amazing defensive holds are undone by placing the ball in scoring range and basically handing offenses a chance to score. Even if the NFL adopted a slightly different system, any new tiebreaker would have to favor the offense, because the goal would be to break the tie, and that means making it easier to generate points.

Offenses are cut enough breaks in the modern NFL. If they can’t score, they shouldn’t be coddled or gifted opportunities. The defense should get to celebrate a job well-done.

Ties add an element of strategy

Most NFL games are about tactics. Small scale plans and designs intended to open up opportunities for players are sometimes called strategy, but they are not. Coaches in the NFL tend to be tactical thinkers. They focus on the next play, or maybe the next series. Sometimes coaches will go so far as to make tactical adjustments during a competition, but those are always in the service of the same overall strategic goals.

However, the ability for a competition to end in a tie forces a level of strategic thinking. A tie can become an edge in a divisional race, causing a coach to glean an advantage out of what is otherwise a loss. Likewise, needing to avoid a tie can inspire riskier chances earlier in the game.

Ultimately, by adding a third option to the game (win, lose, or draw), the existence of ties in football complicates playoff scenarios and decision-making. It adds a level of intellectual complexity to the game. That’s a good thing.