The Big Deferral--Why Josh McDaniels is Still Smarter Than You

Yesterday, Josh McDaniels made one of his most interesting coaching decisions before the bodies even began hitting the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium.

He deferred the kickoff.

Although this decision is not controversial at the college level (Urban Meyer and many other coaches always defer), apparently it causes quite a stir when done by an NFL head coach.  As Mike Klis wrote today in the Denver Post:

The officials gathered the respective captains for a coin toss to see who would get the ball first. The Broncos called heads. It came up heads. What a break. The great Manning would have to wait . . .

 

What's that? McDaniels deferred. McDaniels' research had shown that the team that kicks off at the start usually has the final possession of the first half, and then gets the ball again to start the second half.

 

Score at the end of one half, score at the beginning of the next. Double-up the points while Manning waits on his sideline.

 

But even at its best, such decision would have to be considered counterintuitive.

My suspicion is that the only reason the decision is counterintuitive is because today, looking through the prism of a 28-16 loss, we want to find a reason--other than missed blocks and missed opportunities--to get our minds around why the Broncos got off to such a slow start yesterday.  It's easy today to criticize the move because the Colts got out to a 21-0 lead.

 

Statistically, it was the right move.  Teams that receive in the 2nd half (over time) have a slight edge in the win column.  But don't take my word for it.  In 2008, Mike Reiss with the Boston Globe, wrote this after visiting with Yoda himself, Bill Belichick:

Belichick noted yesterday that he's spoken with various college coaches about the rule change, because they've played under the rule. Those coaches told him that most teams in college defer.

"My guess is that it will approach that in the NFL as well, in time," Belichick said on a conference call with reporters. "Whether it does right off the bat or not, I don't know, but it will take some type of extreme conditions or a very unusual situation to not do that if you win the toss.

"That's our approach going into it," he continued. "We'll defer just about every time, unless there is some overriding circumstance that would cause us to do it differently. So, we'll start doing that now."

One benefit to deferring is that a team can formulate a specific offensive plan for the opening drive of the second half - based on what was seen in the first 30 minutes of play - during halftime. The team can then immediately enact that plan, instead of having another situation dictate its approach.

In recent years, statistics also reveal that teams receiving at the start of the second half have a slight edge in wins. 

For the full story, you can go here: http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/articles/2008/08/09/kicking_off_a_round_of_decisions/.

 

Why would teams have a slight edge over time?  Klis alludes to it in his story, although I'm guessing he doesn't spend a lot of time looking at drive charts.  It's due to the fact that, in any given game, there are only three ways for a team to get an extra drive opportunity:

 

1) Be in possession of the ball at the end of the 1st half and receive the kickoff to start the 3rd quarter

2) To have the opponent turn the ball over on a kickoff or punt return (because there is no drive created)

3) For your team to turn the ball over on a kickoff or punt return 

 

The last two ways are fairly rare, so we are left with the first way to really have an extra opportunity to score, or as Klis says, "double up."   Of course, this doesn't mean that you will score on these consecutive possessions, but at least you have the opportunity.  Over time, this would statistically add up to an edge, I'm quite sure of it.

 

If fans want to argue the point philosophically, that's fine.  Perhaps one thinks the wind can play a factor.  Perhaps one doesn't trust one's defense in a big game.  Perhaps one wants to take advantage of being on the road and getting the ball while the fans of the opposition are still using the restroom from halftime.  Those are all philosophical reasons for deferring or not deferring.  But statistically, McDaniels was on sound footing.

 

In the offseason, we'll look at some actual games where this extra drive occurs, and further, pull some numbers to see who is really being counterintuitive.  Hint:  It's not Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick, or Urban Meyer.  

 

Hopefully, we can focus on what's really wrong with the Broncos (like the number of missed blocks yesterday by Ryan Clady), instead of whether to defer or not to defer.  

 

That's not really the question.  Is it?

 

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