Why Do NFL, College & High School Teams ‘Defer’ The Coin Toss

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Before the coin toss, players can be seen holding hands or interlocking arms before they walk toward midfield. For those that haven’t been at midfield for the coin toss, here how the process goes…

First both teams will shake hands and introduce themselves to one another. In the NFL we can often see players dapping eachother up and giving a small hug.

This is strictly for sportsmanship and to make sure 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 discipline, 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?

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.” Each referee will have their own pitch before the coin is actually flipped.

One the referee is done with his introduction, he will then reveal his coin that he’ll flip. Often times, the coin is a simple quarter that has a “heads” and a “tails” side. Referees may choose to have a custom designed coin or use a half dollar, completely up to the referee.

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

One the referee shows both teams the coin that he’s chosen, he’ll then ask the visiting team captain, to choose heads or tails. The visiting team, because they have to travel, will have the option to pick heads or tails. Because the odds are 50/50 the captain will select one of the two options.

The referee will then flip the coin in the air. Below is a great visual of a referee coin flip.

Once the coin is in the air, the captain will “call it in the air” (meaning heads or tails). The coin must land on the ground. If the ground is mud or there’s poor conditions on the ground, the referee may catch it in his hand. The referee will always lay out the coin flip terms before he flips.

What Options Do Football Teams Have During The Coin Flip?

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

  • Kick
  • Receive
  • Defer
  • Field Direction

Let’s break down each available option…


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 that know they have a strong defense, and want to take the ball in the second half. Getting the ball in the second half is beneficial because it allows teams to implement half time offensive adjustments immediately.


What It Means: Receiving, means the 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 first chance to score points. It’s a great opportunity to establish first half field position if the team is able to drive the ball downfield.


What It Means: Defer is interesting, because many players and coaches mean that they’ll 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 is taking it as, ” I don’t want to choose now, I wan’t 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. Meaning, the opposing team has the option for the first half.

Often times, 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, often times means that they’ll kick in the first half, and second half (if you decide to receive, which you mostly likely will). This means the team that chose to “defer”, will get the ball to start the game and get the ball at half. Great thing for the receiving team, bad thing for the kicking team.

Choosing Direction

What It Means: Teams may elect to choose a direction instead of choosing to kick, receive or defer. This may seem like an odd choice, but it could have some benefits. For instance, the wind is incredibly strong, a team may choose to kick with the wind as opposed to 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 to be beneficial.

Also during overtime, this can prove to be extremely beneficial as often times 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 factor and student section is often located in the end zone. Teams may choose to defend the other end to avoid the noise factor.

How Important Is The Coin Toss In Football?

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

Teams should have a plan of attack if they win or lose the toss, and be prepared to not say “kick” if the other team defers. Remember, the team with the ball more frequently, typically wins the game. Time of possession is often times the key to winning football games, and it all starts at the coin toss.

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