For a group so obsessed with the probabilities of every situation, NFL coaches are surprisingly divided about something seemingly simple: the value of receiving the football to start a game. Through the 2007 season it was a virtual given that teams would accept the opening kickoff if they won the coin toss. But the decision became less clear-cut in '08, when the NFL first allowed the toss-winning club to defer possession until the second half. By '11, 41.8% of teams were deferring, according to Massey-Peabody Analytics. Through Sunday that figure was at 51.7%.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of 2010, flip-winning clubs that have opted to receive first are 185--216 (a .452 winning percentage), versus 146--115-1 (.553) for those deferring. "Six and a half-dozen," says Broncos coach John Fox. "You don't know how it's going to go."
The actions of other coaches suggest anything but a toss-up. Over the last two seasons, for example, the Eagles' Andy Reid received 14 of 16 times. Conversely, in 2011, Jim Harbaugh, coaching his first season with the 49ers, deferred all 12 times.
How do such trends start? Fox points to one NFL tenet: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Yet even Fox can't be described as a pure Defer guy. In 2011 he deferred the final six times Denver won the flip. This year, with Peyton Manning at QB, he switched it up and accepted the ball each of the first four times the Broncos won the toss. But a series of slow starts had Fox questioning why he would waste a possession to start the game in the first place. On Sunday he deferred for the second straight time.
Others are more firm in their convictions. Through Sunday the Chargers, Chiefs, Jaguars, Lions, Saints and Texans had received each time they've won the toss in 2012. "Possession is nine tenths of the game," argues the Falcons' Mike Smith, who has accepted 34 straight times, going back to 2009. "And you score more often on offense."
The seven teams that have deferred each time—the Bears, Bengals, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Patriots, Redskins and Seahawks—might disagree. They're inspired by teams like the Broncos. In Week 6, down 24--0, they opened the third quarter with an 85-yard drive that ignited a run of 35 straight points, matching the biggest comeback in franchise history with a 35--24 win. (San Diego had won the flip, choosing to receive in the first half.)
"There's no reason for one way over the other," says Bears coach Lovie Smith, who defers on the road and plays it by ear at home, depending upon the weather. "The numbers don't say why one is better"—statisticians, gird yourself—"it's a feel as much as anything that you get on that day."