On Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, the team captains for the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns met at midfield, shook hands, and the referee flipped the coin into the air.
The Chiefs won the toss...
...for the ninth consecutive time.
The probability that this will occur — that is, that you can correctly guess whether a coin flip will be heads or tails nine times in a row — is one in 512. If the Chiefs win the toss at home on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, they’ll have done something that would happen only once in 1,024 attempts.
Those are some long odds. If this were to happen for another team — say, the New England Patriots — there would probably be an investigation into whether the coins being used are magnetized, and being controlled by some exotic technology being operated on the Patriots sideline by a 17-year-old kid who performs the service in exchange for Tom Brady jerseys.
It’s certainly true, however, that what head coaches do when they win the toss has changed over the years. Old guys like me remember a time when winning the toss simply meant that your team was going to receive the ball to start the game; that’s what coaches always chose to do.
But in 2008, the NFL changed the rules, allowing teams that won the toss a choice to “defer” to the second half.
Because this is an NFL rule, the choice now given to the team that wins the toss is a lot more complicated than it really needs to be. I found this handy graphic that explains it:
Only in the NFL could the result of a coin toss result in so many different outcomes.
Anyway... modern NFL coaches tend to choose to defer to the second half — which in practice, means that they choose to kick off to start the game, and receive the kickoff to start the second half.
Some coaches do this because they’re hoping to get an opportunity to score on two consecutive possessions. Others do it because they like the idea of starting the second half with a clean offensive possession where they will have a good idea of how the defense will play against them. Some coaches have even mentioned that if you’re on offense to start the second half in a road game, there’s less crowd noise — because many fans are still in the beer line or the bathroom as the second half begins.
Whatever the reasoning, it is true that teams that choose to defer to the second half tend to win a slightly higher percentage of the time — somewhere around 53 percent.
So most NFL coaches now consistently make the choice to defer. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is one of them. Since the Chiefs have now put together this improbable string of coin tosses, during Wednesday’s press conference, reporters asked why.
“The stats sit right there right at that 50-50 thing, but it swayed there toward deferring, so I just started doing that,” Reid said. “For a while there, it was the other way and I kind of went with that.”
Reid said that he’s only been doing it this way for the last six or seven seasons, but that it is important to be prepared for whichever way the coin falls.
“If one goes the other way, you have to be ready to go. You can’t have a letdown or something off a coin toss,” he said.
Reid said the streak of coin toss wins was ridiculous, but that the players were having fun with it — something that was made more clear when Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was asked whether the streak of coin tosses put more pressure on the captains in the pregame ceremony.
“I don’t want that pressure on me,” answered Mahomes. “I joke around about that. I say that’s one of the most nervous points in the game for me right now. It’s kind of a running joke type of thing. I don’t think there’s any pressure. Whatever happens, happens. At the same time, everyone knows the coin toss thing is going.”
Mahomes was also asked if there was a strategy about calling heads or tails.
“It’s like that thing no one talks about,” Mahomes said. “No one talks about it. They call out the team captains and you go up there and whoever wants to call it, calls it.”
I have to say that I like the approach the Chiefs are using. It’s simple. There’s no pressure. It’s backed up by statistical data. Contrast the answers Reid and Mahomes gave to the one Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gave on the subject in a 2015 ESPN article:
“All the factors that you would think would go into it, go into it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Sometimes we withhold that decision until we actually see what the field conditions are for that particular game, like Thursday night [against Miami], a game like that. Obviously if you’re playing in a dome in Indianapolis, we don’t need to get that information. But games that are weather games, that could affect that decision, too. How you want to start the game, what your offensive or defensive game plan is — here’s how we want to try to start the game — maybe that affects it. There could be a lot of factors, so we try to consider them all and do what we think is best.”
Belichick, however, forgot to mention the most important factor: whether the 17-year-old kid on the Patriots sideline has the latest Tom Brady jersey yet.