Why Teams Defer The Coin Toss In Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: August 31, 2023

Before the coin toss, players can be seen holding hands or interlocking arms before they walk toward midfield. The coin toss is one of the most important parts of the game.

When a team defers the coin toss, it means they will decide to kick, receive, or choose a direction to defend in the second half.

This article will walk you through a football coin toss and what is done at midfield.

Football Coin Toss

Here is how the process goes for those who haven’t been at midfield for the coin toss.

First, both team captains will shake hands and introduce themselves to one another. In the NFL, we can often see players handshaking and giving a small hug.

This is strictly for sportsmanship and ensures the captains on the field can control the game if anything gets out of hand. The captains are responsible for controlling and keeping their players disciplined like a general would in the military.

Here is an example of players shaking hands at the coin toss

What Happens During A Coin Toss In Football?

Football Coin Toss

The referee will then explain his guidelines and rules to the captains. It will typically go, “Let’s make sure we have a clean game, no swearing, no foul language, and no hitting after the whistle.”

Once the referee is done with his introduction, he will reveal the coin he’ll flip. Oftentimes, the coin is a simple quarter with a “heads” and a “tails” side.

Referees may choose to have a custom-designed coin, completely up to the referee.

The key is to make sure there is a clear differential between heads and tails.

Referee coin toss football

Once the referee shows both teams the coin he’s chosen, he’ll ask the visiting team captain to choose heads or tails. The away team captain decides on the coin toss option. Because they have to travel, the visiting team will have the option to pick either heads or tails.

Because the odds are 50/50, the captain will select one of the two options.

The referee tosses the coin in the air, and the coin must land on the ground. It will show either heads or tails.

If the ground is mud or there are poor conditions, the referee may catch it in his hand. The referee will always lay out the coin flip terms before he flips.

The team wins the coin toss if the team calls the correct heads or tails.

There are typically 4 options when the coin is flipped that the referee gives to the team that wins the toss:

  • Kick
  • Receive
  • Defer
  • Field Direction

Let’s break down each available option during the football coin toss.

Kick

What It Means: Choosing to kick means your team will be on kickoff, and once the kickoff is successful, your team will be on defense. Kicking is good for teams with a strong defense and those who want to take the ball in the second half.

Getting the ball in the second half is beneficial because it immediately allows teams to implement half-time offensive adjustments.

Most teams will elect to kick so they can start the second half on offense.

The opening kickoff is extremely important as well, as it will set the tone for the game. If the kicking team can tackle the opposing team with great field position, then the first possession for the offense will be farther back into their own territory.

Receive

What It Means: Receiving means the kickoff return team will be on offense to start once the kickoff return team returns the ball successfully. The benefit of receiving first is the offense gets the first chance to score points. It’s a great opportunity to establish a first-half field position if the team can drive the ball downfield.


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Defer The Coin Toss

What it Means: Defer the coin toss is interesting because many players and coaches think it means that they will take the ball in the second half. While this is true, this is not entirely true, and one false mess-up could cost your team. Let us explain.

When choosing to defer, the referee considers it as ” I don’t want to choose now; I want to choose in the second half.” He will then ask the opposing team what they want.

Now, this is where things can get interesting. Because you say “defer,” you’re saying I’ll choose what I want in the second half, which means that the opposing team has the option for the first half.

Oftentimes, opposing teams will listen to their coach before heading to the coin toss, and the coach will say they want to kick.

Choosing to kick when the other team defers oftentimes means that they’ll kick in the first half and the second half (if you decide to receive, which you most likely will).

This means the team that chose to “defer” will get the ball to start the game and get the ball at the breakā€”a great thing for the receiving team, a bad thing for the kicking team.

Choosing Direction To Defend

What It Means: Teams may choose a direction instead of choosing to kick, receive or defer. This may seem odd, but it could have some benefits.

For instance, the wind is strong, and the team may choose to kick with the wind instead of against the win. This may prove beneficial in a tight game, especially in the fourth quarter.

We saw this happen with the New England Patriots when Bill Belichick took the wind instead of receiving in overtime, which proved beneficial.

Also, during overtime, this can prove extremely beneficial as oftentimes, one score will end the game.

College football also has to make a crucial decision in overtime whether to choose an end zone to defend. Especially if it’s a large school like Penn State or Ohio State, the crowd and student sections are often located in the end zone. Teams may choose to defend the other end to avoid the noise factor.

Second Half

Once the second half begins, the referees will go back to who won the coin toss in the first half and what they chose to do. Teams in professional football leagues like the NFL have won and lost games based on the coin flip.

For example, in overtime against the Indianapolis Colts, Bill Belichick took the wind (defended a goal line), rather than take the ball. For many, this sounded crazy but it was actually a huge advantage because the wind played a massive part in that strategy.

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In our opinion, very important. It’s important to plan, especially to start the game and come out of halftime with a plan to execute. It’s important to be proactive, not reactive to what the referee says after the coin flip.

Teams should plan to attack if they win or lose the toss and be prepared not to say “kick” if the other team defers. Remember, the team with the ball more frequently typically wins the game.

Time of possession is often the key to winning football games, and it all starts at the coin toss.

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The most famous coin toss is the Super Bowl coin toss, which is one of the most highly anticipated events.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.

What do you like to do if you win the coin toss? Do you prefer deferring or receiving the football? Let us know in the comment section below.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.

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