There’s always somebody who doesn’t get the memo. Sunday in San Francisco, that somebody was Dashon Goldson, the 49ers’ free safety. Goldson didn’t know quite what to make of it when, after the St. Louis Rams completed a 24-yard pass in overtime, the two teams began walking to the middle of the field to shake hands. But then, you don’t see tie games in the NFL every day.
In fact, the Niners’ 24-24 deadlock with the Rams was just the fifth since 1990 — the fifth in 5,530 regular-season games. That figures out to one every 4.32 seasons. Yes, a tie in the NFL is rarer than a blue moon.
That’s why Goldson was confused by the abrupt cease-fire. Since he’d come into the league, only one other game had been played to a standstill: the Philadelphia Eagles' 13-13 draw with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008. After that one, it was Philly’s Donovan McNabb who was scratching his head and saying, “I never knew in the professional ranks it could end that way. I hate to see what would happen in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs.”
(Earth to Donovan: Postseason games are played until there’s a winner.)
What Goldson, McNabb and so many others don’t understand is that ties are far more than just a bookkeeping inconvenience, a quirk of NFL life. They’ve played a major role in pro football history. Indeed, they’ve helped make the league what is today.
How so, you ask? Well, the first NFL championship game came about in 1932 because of ties. Back then, you see, a tie wasn’t counted as a half-win, half-loss, as it is today; it was simply disregarded, eliminated from the equation. It was like the game never happened. Thus, a playoff was required at the end of that season between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans, both of whom had finished with a 6-1 record — though the Bears actually were 6-1-6 and the Spartans 6-1-4 (with two of the ties coming against each other).
Because of a snowstorm, the title game had to be moved indoors to Chicago Stadium. The field there was much smaller, though, only 80 yards from end to end. With less room to operate — the hockey rink’s dasher boards were dangerously close to the action — the teams improvised and added hash marks 10 yards in from each sideline. (There were no hash marks in 1932. A play began where the last one had ended. You can imagine how much fun that was.) After the game, won by the Bears 9-0, the league made hashes permanent and adopted several other offense-friendly rules. The NFL’s popularity soared and it had ties to thank for it.
Something else you may not have known: Pro football’s greatest regular-season comeback took place in a tie game. That would be the 38-38 barnburner between the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills in 1960. The Broncos, down 38-7, scored 31 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes to snatch a deadlock from the jaws of defeat. Too bad it was a wickedly cold day — and only 2,500 stuck around to see the dramatic conclusion.
That’s the thing about tie games: They might not give us resolution, but they often give us memorable rallies. In 1948, for instance, the Rams stormed back from a 28-0 deficit in the second half to salvage a 28-28 draw with the Eagles. (The ghosts of Los Angeles Coliseum are probably still talking about it.) And let’s not forget, the wildest tie in Washington Redskins history — 35-35 against Philly in 1967 — featured a 21-point Redskins comeback, one of their best ever.
Then there was the infamous 7-7 Monday night-er against the Giants at FedEx Field in 1997. On that auspicious occasion, Gus Frerotte knocked himself out of the game by bashing his head into a wall while celebrating a touchdown.
Finally, if it hadn’t been for a 20-20 deadlock with Green Bay, the Baltimore Colts would have wound up 0-9 in the ‘82 strike season instead of 0-8-1 — and would have joined the ‘76 Tampa Bay Bucs (0-14) and 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16) on the dreaded list of Teams That Lost All of Their Games.
Ties, to be honest, get a bum rap. They’re not nearly the irrelevancy they’re made out to be. Sure, fans hate settling for half a loaf, and football at all levels has taken steps to eliminate ties. The NFL even tweaked its rules this year to increase the chances that both clubs would get the ball in overtime. What we don’t know yet is whether, in the pursuit of fairness, the league is opening the door to more 24-24 spectaculars like the one the Niners and Rams just played. If so, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the world will go on.