Why Does Football Use A Coin Toss To Decide Possession?

Yesterday, I was searching around the internet seeking out a video I had seen some time ago on how NFL captains decide whether to call heads or tails at the coin toss. It was a video — I'm pretty sure produced by NFL Films — that I'll never forget because Troy Vincent of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of my favorite players ever, looked dead in the camera and said, "Tails. Tails is it." And he said it as if anyone who chose heads was crazy. It cracked me up.

Sadly, I could not find the video anywhere. But as I was searching it out, I began to wonder why in the world the sport of football uses a coin toss to decide possession in the first place.

Think about it — the other three sports that make up the Big Four don't use a coin toss, which simply comes down to chance. In basketball, each team sends in a tall guy or its best leaper for the jump ball. Whoever times the tip-off the best and gets the highest earns the opening possession for his or her team. Then, possession from there on out is either determined by that opening tip or, in the case of college basketball, the frustrating possession arrow. Still, to start the game, there is a tip-off, where the teams compete for possession.

The same is true in hockey. Each and every time there is a stoppage, a center from each team mans the face-off circle and whoever has the better blend of timing, strength and help wins the draw, giving his or her team possession of the puck. Again, the two teams line up across from each other and fight for possession. It's something that is earned.

Baseball, as we all know, is a different animal. Unlike basketball, hockey and football, baseball isn't a possession game. It's a game comprising a lot of individual acts in a team setting. Possession doesn't even really come into play in the sport, but there is a standard procedure for figuring out who hits first and who takes the field first. The home team always is in the field to start the game, while the away team takes its hacks. Of course, with no time limit and equal opportunities for each team to hit, baseball is a different animal. The clock doesn't come into play, and neither does possession.

However, like basketball and hockey, possession is huge in football. That's why time of possession is a stat. Teams want their offenses on the field as often as possible. When they're on defense, they're doing everything in their power to regain possession of the pigskin. Possession is precious in football.

That's what makes it so odd that to decide who gets possession to start the game, then again to start the half, and if it comes to it, in overtime, football uses a coin toss, which comes down to nothing but chance. Yes, the chance is 50-50, meaning neither team has an advantage, but it seems unseemly that in a game in which possession is so vital it comes down to the flip of a coin. Surely there is some way to have the players on the field earn it, no?

Honestly, I never thought about it before today. It's been a part of the game since its inception, with minor tweaks after a few mishaps here and there. But as I sat at my desk and thought about it, the crazier it seemed. Scoring on the opening the drive can be a huge momentum-builder to start a game, as can a long, sustained drive to keep the opposition off the field. You get the ball first and have a good drive, and you can set the tone for the game.

Of course, there is a defense out there that can create its own momentum, and the game is long. One drive in the opening minutes does not make or break a game. However, come overtime, it can have a huge influence. In fact, the team that won the coin toss to begin overtime won the game at such a high rate that the NFL has been trying to come up with new overtime rules for years, finally implementing them last season. And college football amended the sudden-death OT long ago.

It's just something I found incredibly interesting, a coin toss deciding who gets the ball in a game that hinges so greatly on possession. Honestly, I don't have any real idea on how it could be changed; it's been so ingrained in the game since its onset. But that doesn't make it any more strange, in my opinion.

Ideally, there'd be a way to have the players decide it. But I'm coming up blank.

Maybe I'm just crazy. In fact, I'm certain I am. But if anyone has any other ideas on how the sport can decide possession besides the flip of a coin, I'd love to hear it. Because letting the coin do the work just seems too simplistic for such a complicated game.

4 Replies to “Why Does Football Use A Coin Toss To Decide Possession?”

  1. Well, if I remember correctly, the ill fated XFL had two guys sprint toward each other in a mad dash for the ball placed at the 50. Winner gets possession as long as they didn't crash head on and knock each other out. That wouldn't go over too well in this concussion sensitive era.

    The coin toss has become a ritual and I think most fans like it. It gives the team captains a chance to shake hands and wish each other well. It's kind of like when boxers meet in the middle of the ring just before the fight, only a little friendlier.

    Besides, if you drop the coin toss, that's one less thing the gamblers have to bet on.

    1. I certainly don't have a problem with the coin toss for the reasons you just mentioned. It just seems, well, odd to me. How did they decide on a coin toss? Why? Were there any alternatives? I'd love to overhear how the whole thing came about.

      For whatever reason, it fascinated me yesterday.

      1. I know the exact NFL Films piece you're referring to. I remember Randy Moss kept yelling, "Tails dawg, gotta pick tails. Its what I pick everytime on PlayStation."

        I died. Funniest shit ever.


  2. The coin toss is an aspect of the history of our sport. Football derives from rugby, which in turn derives from soccer, both of which utilizes a coin toss to determine first possession and ends.

    I noted that you stipulate only the big 4. I want to point out other sports that are to note. Volleyball uses the coin to determine who serves first. Cricket flips to determine who bats first, with field conditions playing a huge factor in that decision. Australian rules football uses a similar toss to football. And fencing does a coin toss prior to golden touch (not the right sport to use the term sudden death in), with the winner automatically winning the match if no one scores. So, yeah, it's not just football.

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