MHR Primer Looks At The Coin Toss -- Why Would A Coach Choose to Defer?

ARLINGTON TX - FEBRUARY 06: The coin toss is shown on the monitor during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6 2011 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

     I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to rule changes in the NFL. At least not until someone calls my attention to them. This tendency cost me a game of Madden last fall. I was playing against my son-in-law and had won the coin toss. Now I was used to the idea that if I chose to kickoff, I would receive the ball to start the second half. So, I elected to defer and my son-in-law chose to receive. Imagine my surprise when the second half started and he chose to receive for a second time in the game.

     Strangely enough, the rules do allow for a team to receive the kickoff that starts each half of the game. All because of the NFL adopting in 2008, a college-like rule that allows the team that wins the coin toss to defer their choice until the start of the second half.

Take a jump with me and see how this unusual rule is worded and how teams chose to use the right of deferral in 2010.

Up until 2008, the coin toss that begins each NFL game was guided by the following rule:

The coin toss will take place within three minutes of kickoff in the center of the field. The toss will be called by the visiting team captain before the coin is flipped. The winner may choose one of two privileges and the loser gets the other: (a)Receive or kick, (b)Goal his team will defend. Immediately prior to the start of the second half, the captains of both teams must inform the officials of their respective choices. The loser of the original coin toss gets first choice.



Prior to the start of the 2008 season, the NFL decided to amend the coin toss rule, in the manner of the NCAA. The new rule came to be (paraphrased):

Three minutes before the start of the game, the referee meets with captains from both teams for a coin toss. The visiting team calls the toss. The winner of the toss may defer their choice to the start of the second half, or they may take first choice of: (a)Receiving the kickoff to start the game or kicking off to start the game or (b)Choosing which end of the field to defend in the first quarter -- teams will switch directions at the end of the first quarter and at the end of the third quarter. The loser of the toss gets the remaining option. At the start of the second half, the team that did not choose first (either because they deferred their choice or they lost the toss) gets the first choice of options.


     Conceivably, with the new rule, one team could, in fact, receive the kickoff at the beginning of each half. Say the Broncos are playing the Raiders and Denver wins the toss. They elect to defer their choice and the Raiders -- being the Raiders -- inexplicably elect to kick off. Denver now chooses which end to defend. At the start of the second half, Denver gets to choose first since they deferred. The Broncos choose to receive and thus receive both kickoffs.

     Now, in reality, when a team chooses to defer, the team that lost the coin toss chooses to receive the kickoff -- in order to avoid the scenario described above. I did not see a single instance in reviewing the games from the 2010 season in which one team choose to defer and the other team chose to either kickoff or select which end of the field to defend.

     Now the question becomes: Why would a team choose to defer their choice. John Clayton from ESPN has been openly critical of teams choosing to defer. He offers two arguments against the practice, using the 2010 season as an example: (1)When a team has deferred their choice, 68% of the time the other team scored first. (2)Since the NFL has become an increasingly offense-oriented league, why would a team not elect to take the ball, score and build an early lead? The first argument seems to make sense. The second simply reiterates the question of "Why would a team choose to defer?"

     When this topic came up in a discussion among the MHR staff, John Bena shared the point that it can be shown statistically that the team which chooses to defer gains an extra possession per game, and usually that team has the ball at the end of the first half. So by choosing to receive at the start of the second half, the deferring team gets back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game. Another reason that has been advanced for choosing to defer is to take advantage of inclement weather. I saw a reference to how one -- the posting author thought it was Herm Edwards -- chose to defer to take advantage of the fact that there was  45mph wind blowing and he wanted to force the other team to play into that wind to open the game.

     I went to the play-by-play records for the 2010 games, as posted on ESPN.com and found that in 72 of the games, the team that won the toss elected to defer. As Clayton pointed out, in 68% (49 out of 72) of the time, the other team scored first. But only 61% of the time (44 out of 72) did the team that score first win the game. Some additional statistical information worth noting is:

1)100% of the time the team that lost the toss elected to receive the first half kickoff.
2)53% (38 out of 72) of the time, the other team's first drive ended in a punt.
3)11% (8 out of 72) of the time, the other team's first drive ended in a turnover and/or a defensive score.
4)64% (46 out of 72) of the time, the other team's first drive ended in a punt, turnover or defensive score.
5)57% (41 out of 72) of the time the deferring team went on to win the game.
6)60% (43 out of 72) of the time the deferring team had the last possession of the first half and the first possession of the second (back-to-back possessions)
7)49% (21 out of 43) of the time, the deferring team scored on one of the back-to-back possessions.
8)14% (6 out of 43) of the time, the deferring team scored on both of the back-to-back possessions.
9)35% (25 out of 72) of the time, the deferring team scored on the first drive of the second half.


     Statistically, it would seem that there is some justification for using the deferring of your choice on the coin toss as one more strategy to attempt to gain an additional advantage over your opponent. How did the thirty-two teams of the NFL look at this strategy?

     In order to answer that question we can look at several things: the number of times the various NFL teams chose to defer, how many times they achieved the goal of back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game, their propensity for scoring on those possessions and how they fared in those games in which they deferred.

     The first thing to be noted is that twelve teams (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Diego, Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Arizona) never deferred their choice.

Let's take a look at the twenty teams that did choose to defer their choice at least once. The first table will look at the number of times they deferred (DEF), the number of back-to-back possessions they gained (B2B) and the number of times they scored on the first drive of the second half (SFD):

Team DEF B2B SFD Team DEF B2B SFD
Buf 8 4 2 Den 3 2 1
NYJ 7 5 1 Ten 3 2 1
NE 6 3 3 KC 2 1 1
Bal 6 5 2 Min 2 0 2
Jax 6 4 1 Car 2 0 0
Chi 5 4 1 Sea 2 1 1
Mia 5 3 1 NO 1 1 0
Pit 4 2 3 Hou 1 1 0
Oak 4 1 2 Was 1 1 0
GB 3 2 2 SF 1 0 0


     We can see that there was a wide range in the number of times teams chose to defer. Buffalo (8) did it the most, while New Orleans, Houston, Washington and San Francisco only tried the deferral option once. We can also see that the strategy met with mixed results when it came to securing back-to-back possessions, ranging from a high of 83% (Baltimore) down to three teams (Minnesota, Carolina and San Francisco) that were not able to achieve that goal. As a strategy to set up a team for a scoring drive to start the second half, this also met with mixed results, ranging from a high of 100% (Minnesota) down to not scoring on the opening drive of the second half. What can we draw from this? Some teams were able to capitalize on the strategy while others were not.


     Please note: in counting end of the first half possessions, if the opposing team had a single play (either a kneel down or a single offensive play) to end the half, I counted the last possession by the deferring team as the last possession of the half. This occurred fifteen times, where the deferring team had an offensive possession that was followed by a one-play possession by their opponents before time ran out in the half.

     I would assume that many, if not most, of the choices to defer were made in the hopes that the deferring team would gain the advantage of the back-to-back possessions at the end of the first half/beginning of the second. The goal was not only to get back to back possessions but also to score on one or both of those possessions. Let's see how well this played out (B2B=number of back-to-back possesions; S1=scored on one of the two; S2=scored on both):

Team B2B S1 S2 Team B2B S1 S2
Buf 4 2 0 Den 2 2 0
NYJ 5 3 1 Ten 2 0 0
NE 3 2 1 KC 1 1 0
Bal 5 3 0 Min 0 0 0
Jax 4 2 1 Car 0 0 0
Chi 4 2 0 Sea 1 0 1
Mia 3 2 0 NO 1 0 0
Pit 2 1 1 Hou 1 0 0
Oak 1 1 0 Was 1 0 0
GB 2 0 1 SF 0 0 0


     Once again, we can see that the majority of the teams were able capitalize by scoring one of the two back-to-back drives. Only six out of the twenty teams (New York Jets, New England, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Seattle) however, were able to capitalize by scoring on both drives in a back-to-back possession situation. Interestingly enough, five of those six teams were ones that made it into the playoffs and two of them were the Super Bowl teams.

Another way to look this information is how the teams fared in the games in which they deferred their choice.  It breaks down this way:

Team Record % Team Record %
NE 6-0 1.000 Jax 3-3 .500
Pit 4-0 1.000 Min 1-1 .500
KC 2-0 1.000 Den 1-2 .333
NO 1-0 1.000 Ten 1-2 .333
Hou 1-0 1.000 Buf 2-6 .250
Bal 5-1 .833 Mia 1-4 .200
Oak 3-1 .750 Was 0-1 .000
NYJ 5-2 .714 SF 0-1 .000
GB 2-1 .666 Car 0-2 .000
Chi 3-2 .600 Sea 0-2 .000



     There is no way that I would argue that a team -- New England for example who won all six games in which they deferred -- won those games because they deferred their choice. Rather, I would suggest that coaches chose to defer their choice after the coin toss because they saw it as a viable strategy for gaining an additional advantage over their opponents. Some teams were able to utilize this strategy to help them win, some were less successful.

One final look at the deferral question which I found rather interesting was what the playoff teams did in the post season. In the Wild Card Round, only one team deferred their choice: Kansas City. The Chiefs won the toss and deferred. However, they were not able to establish back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game against Baltimore. The Ravens scored first in the game and the Chiefs were not able to score on the first possession in the second half. Needless to say, the Ravens went on to win the game.

What would be interesting would be to compare these percentages to games in which the team that won the toss did not defer their choice to see if there is a significant difference. It should also be realized that the deferring of the choice is a strategic move and does not insure having back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game nor does it insure a win. Rather it simply represents one more way in which a team will try to gain an advantage on their opponent.

The Divisional Round was a little more interesting, in that three of the four teams which won the toss elected to defer. Pittsburgh won their toss, deferred, got the back-to-back possessions but didn't score on either of them. The Steelers did however score first in the game and went on to defeat the Ravens. Green Bay deferred, but did not gain the advantage of back-to-back possessions. Although Atlanta scored first in the game, Green Bay capitalized on their strategy by scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the second half as they went on to win. The third team to defer in this round was New England. The Patriots got their back-to-back possessions advantage to add to the fact that they scored first in the game. However, New England failed to score on either of those back-to-back possessions and eventually lost the game.

The Championship Round saw the teams continue the practice of deferral. Both the Jets and the Bears won their respective tosses and chose to defer. New York deferred but allowed Pittsburgh to score a touchdown on the game's opening drive. The Jets bounced back by gaining their back-to-back possessions and scoring a field goal on the one that ended the first half and a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Unfortunately, this still left New York behind by fourteen points and they were not able to overcome that deficit. Chicago adopted the same strategy, but without similar results. The Bears allowed the Packers to march the field for a touchdown on the game's opening drive. Although Chicago was able to gain the advantage of back-to-back possessions, they totally failed to capitalize -- throwing an interception on the first one, and having to punt on the second. Green Bay went on to win the game.

The Super Bowl followed the pattern of the Divisional and Championship Rounds. Green Bay won the toss and opted to defer. They held Pittsburgh to a punt on the game's opening drive and went on to score first in the game but failed to establish the goal of back-to-back possessions. The opening drive of the second half was a Green Bay punt. Nevertheless, the Packers went on to win the game.

Once again, we can see how teams chose to use or disdain the privilege of deferring their choice. The impression that I've been left with by all of this is that the use of deferring the choice serves the good teams (such as New England or Pittburgh) as a sound strategic move that they are able to capitalize on more often than not, while for the bad teams (such as Buffalo or Miami) it comes across almost like a tactic of desperation -- an attempt to shake things up, take the opposition by surprise in the hopes that something good might come out of it -- which generally failed.

So, why would a coach choose to defer the choice to the second half? For the same reason that he makes any other choice: to attempt to gain one more advantage over the opposing team, because the statistics suggest that he very well might.

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