Fans scratched their heads, bookies tore their hair, and players didn’t know what to feel, so both teams sulked. After all, ties are for soccer, right?. Baseball players will play extra inning after extra inning in search of a W. Even the National Hockey League, which resides in the basement of the Big Sports, decided to get rid of ties by instituting a regular-season shootout – a reflection that lower-skilled teams had begun, in unsportsmanlike style, to play for ties instead of wins.
Football, culturally, isn’t supposed to end without a winner. It’s just, well, downright un-American, as could be sensed by the frustration of players. "It just feels like it's unfinished business," San Francisco cornerback Tarell Brown told reporters.
Before 1974, ties were actually commonplace in the National Football League, with rules that legislated that only playoff games had to be decisive.
But that year, the league made a big change to the ominously titled “Sudden Death” section of the prodigious NFL rule book, basically acknowledging that, hey, ties aren’t very manly. The rule is simple. Two teams that can’t settle the matter in the allotted 60 minutes get to play a fifth quarter. Whoever scores first, wins.
But note the asterisk left over from 1974: Only playoff games have more overtime periods if the teams still can’t score, meaning ties can and do happen. They’re rare, granted. Only 18 ties, including Sunday’s, have happened since the rule change in 1974.
Since 1989, there have been only five tied games, making Sunday’s ending, at least for players and coaches, seem unprecedented.
The rule continues to be on the league’s radar screen. Just this year, the NFL changed the rules again, allowing for a “modified sudden death” – the language just keeps getting grimmer – mandating that each team have a chance at a possession. The change came after it became clearer that the odds of winning overtime had come to rest increasingly on who won the coin toss to start the period.
On Sunday, both teams had possession of the ball in overtime without the new rule needing to be enforced.
Sunday’s game wasn’t without drama. After both teams scrambled mightily for field position in the overtime, 49ers kicker David Akers missed a 41-yard field goal, a letdown followed by brief jubilation by the Rams when their rookie kicker, Greg Zuerlein, put a 53-year attempt through the uprights.
That would’ve ended the game, but some lack of discipline by the Rams resulted in a delay of game penalty, and Zuerlein failed to make the ensuing 58-yarder.