What are the odds that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ record-setting offense take possession of the football first in the Super Bowl if they win the opening coin toss? If recent history is a guide, not good.
In the first 42 Super Bowls, the team that won the toss got the game’s opening possession. That changed in 2008, when the National Football League gave teams that won the flip the option to defer their kick-or-receive decision to the second half.
Since that rule change, teams have increasingly chosen to defer after winning the coin toss, with the percentages climbing to 65 percent this year from 38 percent in 2008. In four of the past five Super Bowls, the team that’s won the flip has deferred, taking the opening possession of the second half instead of the first half.
“What a lot of coaches want to do is come out in the second half with the ball, that way they have more information,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, who won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season and is now an NFL analyst for NFL Network. “If I would have had that rule, I would have always deferred.”
Billick’s last season as an NFL coach was in 2007, the year before the league’s competition committee approved the rule change to allow deferrals as in college and high school football. Before that, the options were to kick or receive. Teams winning the coin toss would always opt to receive the opening kickoff because the loser would have the same choice to start the second half.
“If you chose to kickoff, you have to remember the other team got the first choice in the second half, so they would always choose to receive,” said former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, who is now a rules analyst for Fox Sports. “So you could end up kicking off in both halves. This was a rule change that I pushed for. I couldn’t propose it myself, but to me it made sense.”
After the rule was implemented in 2008, 97 of 256 teams winning the toss that season deferred their choice to the second half. The number rose to 141 of 256 in 2012 and to 166 this year, according to statistics provided by the NFL. Those teams had an 88-78 record this season for a .530 winning percentage.
The trend has continued this postseason, whether it’s an effort by coaches to make an early defensive statement, a decision based on weather, or to try to get more second-half possessions when NFL scoring is at an all-time high. NFL games averaged a record 46.8 points this season, which ends with the Feb. 2 Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Of the 10 games played this postseason, eight teams winning the kickoff have deferred. The two clubs that won the coin toss and chose to receive the opening kickoff -- the Indianapolis Colts against the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs against the Colts -- both lost.
In last week’s American Football Championship Game, when Denver beat the Patriots 26-16, the Broncos won the toss and deferred to the second half.
The strategy was effective. Denver opened a 13-3 halftime lead that included a field goal with 25 seconds left in the second quarter. The Broncos received the second-half kickoff and put together a 14-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that used almost half of the 15-minute third quarter. Manning said knowing the Broncos would receive the second-half kickoff helped with the decision to kick a field goal on a 4th-and-1 play in the final seconds of the second quarter.
“That was good just to get points on that possession,” said Manning, who set NFL season records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013. “We knew we were getting the ball back first series of second half. To keep Tom Brady on the sidelines is a good thing.”
While the San Francisco 49ers lost to the Seahawks 23-17 in last week’s National Football Conference championship game, they deferred after winning the coin flip and gained the early momentum by putting their defense, third-best in the NFL, on the field first. San Francisco All-Pro defensive end Aldon Smith forced a fumble by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the first play from scrimmage, helping to quiet the crowd of more than 68,000 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
“A more defensive-minded coach typically will defer,” Billick said in a telephone interview from his home in Baltimore. “There’s also something to be said for having the ball to start the second half where you can react to how the game has unfolded. But weather is an element as well because it might affect the direction I’m going in the fourth quarter. You get to choose to go with or against the wind at the end of the game.”
That might be even more of a factor in the Super Bowl, which is being held outside in a cold-weather site for the first time. The weather at kickoff may be below freezing at MetLife Stadium, a venue with a reputation for gusting winds.
The team without the option to kick off or receive to start the second half would get the second choice, which is deciding which goal to defend. That choice could be dictated by weather, such as extremely strong winds, and might be one of the few reasons a team winning the coin toss would elect to receive the opening kickoff -- they could decide which way their offense is going in the fourth quarter.
“But if the weather gets really severe and Denver elected to receive in the first half, Seattle, when it gets the second-half choice, could say, ‘We want this goal,’ so they could ensure they have the wind in the fourth quarter,” Pereira, who will contribute to Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast coverage, said by telephone. “So Denver would receive twice.”
Teams that defer in the Super Bowl have a 2-2 record since 2008, including Baltimore’s 34-31 win over the 49ers last season. Since the deferral rule was instituted, the only team to win the coin toss in the Super Bowl and choose to receive was the New Orleans Saints after the 2009 season. The Saints had the NFL’s highest-scoring offense that season, yet were forced to punt after three plays on their opening possession in Miami and fell behind 10-0 to the Colts before scoring 31 of the next 38 points to win.
While deferrals have climbed 27 percent in the six years the rule has been around, Pereira said he expects it to eventually reach about 90 percent.
“I do think we’ll get there in some point in time because more and more young coaches are getting in the league and see the opportunity to end up with the ball two times in a row,” Pereira said. “It doesn’t guarantee you, certainly, but the chance to have the ball in your hands and score at the end of the first half and then get the ball at the start of the second half is very attractive.”