The Steelers’ and Lions’ horrendous 16-16 affront to football on Sunday not only ended Detroit’s 12-game losing streak, but it also continued a little run of ties that’s dogged the NFL ever since they shortened overtime from 15 to 10 minutes. Going back to 2018, when the change occurred, there’s been at least one tie game in every season, and since 2012, when they tweaked the sudden death rules so a field goal on the first possession wouldn’t automatically end a game, there have been 10 total games without a winner or a loser, which averages out to exactly one per year.
Ties are still a rarity, but like the safety or the flea flicker or a successful end zone fade route, they show up enough that it’s not a total shock when they happen. Anybody who regularly watches pro football should be aware by now that it is possible for a game to end tied, and honestly anybody with more than just a passing casual interest in the NFL should notice in the standings when a team has a strikingly odd record like Detroit’s 0-8-1.
But just as ties have become practically an annual tradition in the league, so too has the regular post-game revelation that a bunch of players have no clue that they exist. Lions-Steelers was no exception, as players on both sides of the draw admitted that they were oblivious to the fact that the game could end without a decisive score.
“I didn’t even know you could tie in the NFL,” said Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris. “In my mind, I was sitting on the bench saying, ‘I’ve got another quarter to go.’ But someone came to me and said, ‘That’s it.’ I’ve never had a tie in my life before.”
Lions RB Godwin Igwebuike—who’s four years Harris’s senior—also confessed that he had no clue what would come after the OT clock expired, and he seemingly threw Dan Campbell’s entire sideline under the bus. “It’s nuts,” he said. “I’m back there like, ‘Yo, how many overtimes can we do?’ And they’re like, ‘Three’ … I hear, ‘Two, one,’ and we were like, ‘Yo, whatever’s going on, we’re about to just put our all into it.'”
Donovan McNabb has the misfortune of being the guy everyone references when talking about players who don’t know the OT rules, because he was caught unaware in 2008. But that Eagles tie was the first in the NFL in six seasons. Even as tie games have increased in frequency, someone always seems to cop to their cluelessness on each occasion. In 2012, following the first tie since McNabb’s gaffe, Danny Amendola said he thought there was going to be a second overtime. Also after that game, Niners safety Dashon Goldson, then in his sixth season, gave a memorable quote about a rule that’s existed since the birth of the NFL.
“I’ve never heard of a tie in football,” he said. “When I saw both sides walking onto the field, I was like, ‘Where’s everybody going? Did somebody quit? Forfeit?”
After the NFL’s next tie, in 2013, multiple Packers were apparently readying themselves for double overtime. In the tie after that, in 2014, Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin owned up to his ignorance of the tie. Jay Gruden, who had over a decade’s worth of NFL experience at this point, made the same claim after a tie happened in 2016.
And when the Steelers tied the Browns in 2018, Pittsburgh rookie safety Terrell Edmunds needlessly hyped himself up for more action. “Honestly, at one point, I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to go back out. Let’s get right. Let’s go stop ‘em.’ And they were all like, ‘It’s just a tie, bro.’ I was like, ‘Oh man.’”
You’d think the recent run of ties—they’re more common than the Super Bowl over the last five seasons—would have established the occurrence as ordinary enough that nobody on either team could be caught by surprise (or at least players know better than to say so publicly). But this fascinating blind spot clearly persists. There are a number of different explanations for this lack of knowledge: Guys are so caught up in their high school and college careers that they don’t really follow the pros until they get there; coaches preach winning so devoutly that they’re loath to even mention the possibility of a tie; the constant intensity of being an NFL player lends itself poorly to big-picture thinking. Some of these possibilities have simpler solutions than others, but with NFL coaching staffs already hilariously bloated, one potential easy fix would be to have a guy on the payroll as an “overtime consultant.” His sole job would be to wander around the sideline after the fourth quarter ends, calling out, “This game could end in a tie!” like he’s preaching on a street corner.
Or, perhaps, the issue has already been fixed league-wide, and this particular Lions-Steelers contest was so ugly that a bunch of guys just erased from their brains the entire concept of football. That’s a more serious problem, but I’m sure that Dan Campbell is up to the challenge.