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Super Bowl 2024: why do NFL teams choose to defer the coin toss?

Tradition or strategy? The coin toss in the National Football League has become an interesting ‘tool’ in the modern game.

Tradition or Strategy? The traditional coin toss has become an interesting ‘tool’ in the modern game.

The use of the coin toss in professional football dates back around a century but a lot has changed since then. And as the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers get set to do it in the season finale (and we know who won it), I thought I’d take a better look at the tactics behind the decision.

Super Bowl:

NFL Coin Toss: what’s to know?

According to present day NFL rules, both team captains are required to meet at the 50-yard line three minutes before kickoff to determine which team will have possession of the ball first. Given that his team must travel, the away team captain is traditionally allowed to call ‘heads or tails’ as the referee tosses the coin in the air.

Whichever captain wins the toss now has the option to kick or receive. Prior to 2008, teams would elect to receive 99% of the time. More than a decade later and things have changed quite a bit.

Coin Toss as it happens

When the time for the coin toss comes, both teams will normally greet each other with hand shakes. In the NFL it is not uncommon to see players giving hugs amongst themselves. Then it’s down to business. The match official will then explain his guidelines and rules to the respective captains asking them to ensure a ‘clean game,’ which is to say no foul language or hitting after a whistle has been blown. At this point the referee will reveal the coin which he will then flip.

Once the coin has been displayed to both captains, he will ask the visiting team’s captain to choose ‘heads or tails.’ The coin is then flipped in the air. While in the air the captain must make his choice and call. The coin must land on the ground flat. Once it has done so, a choice between 4 typical options is presented to the captain who won the toss. They are: Kick, Receive, Defer and Field Direction.

What coin is used in NFL Coin Toss?

The coin itself is normally a simple quarter though some referees have been known to carry custom coins. In recent years, a specially designed Super Bowl themed coin has been all the rage.

How does deferring in NFL work?

Deferring in the NFL is quite an interesting option. In principle when a team defers they are basically saying they will take the ball in the second half. This can be interpreted as “I prefer to choose in the second half.” At this point the referee will ask the opposing team what they want to do. This is where things things get interesting.

Quite often teams will opt to kick first as they would prefer to receive the ball to start the second half. On the other hand choosing to kick in the face of deferral often results in the team having to kick in both halves. End result? The team that chooses to defer will get the ball to start in both halves. This of course doesn’t help the opponent’s cause.

What’s interesting to note, nonetheless, is that the frequency with which NFL coaches choose deferral is increasing steadily. According to an ESPN study of trends, deferral is up some 80% in the past decade which would suggest there is some method to the madness.