It’s a simple thing: the captains from both teams gather round and a coin gets flipped. It’s one of the oldest ways to make an unbiased decision. But what actually gets decided at the coin toss?
First, the team that wins the coin toss gets to decide whether to receive or defer. If they choose to receive they will be on the receiving end of the kickoff that starts the game. The other team then gets to receive the kickoff after halftime to start the second half. If the team that wins the coin toss choses to defer they will wait to receive the kickoff until the second half and the other team will receive the kickoff that starts the game.
Quick roundup of definitions:
Receive = start on offense at the start of the game.
Defer = start on offense at the start of the second half.
Receiving team = team that receives the kickoff.
Kicking team = team that kicks the kickoff.
The team that chooses to defer gets to decide which end zone they want to defend first. It’s supposed to function as a consolation prize – if you aren’t choosing when you get the ball, you get to chose which end zone you want to defend first. (Teams switch end zones at the end of every quarter.)
I kind of wonder if the coin toss rules might change soon, because the current trend in the NFL is to defer. A team defers kickoff by choice…and then also gets their pick of the end zones. It’s a win/win for the winning team and a lose/lose for the losing team. Deferring the kickoff is advantageous for teams who believe they will have a lead at halftime and want to come back out and put points on the board asap – to “double up” on the number of scores that separates them from the other team.
However, this trend does not hold true in overtime, when the team that wins the coin toss always elects to receive. We’ll go over overtime rules in more detail soon, but it’s always advantageous to score first, so the team that wins the coin toss would want the ball first.