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NFL - Sudden-Death By Coin Toss?

By Jeff Zaginailoff
Wednesday, February 5th, 2003
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Jim Nantz of CBS is leading the charge for changing the NFL's overtime format. He doesn't like the fact that some of the time the team that loses never has possession of the ball during OT, and therefore the team that wins the toss has an unfair advantage.

But "unfair" is not a strong enough word for Mr. Nantz. Here's a quote. "It was a disgrace seeing yet another team win the coin flip, and score off the first drive ... It's getting to the point that if you lose the toss, you lose the game."

It would seem that Mr. Nantz is decrying a gross injustice. But is he right? Is it unjust?

Other critics of the format complain particularly about games that end, not just on the first drive, with the loser of the coin toss never possessing the ball, but on a field goal. A cheap, chintzy, field goal.

And these critics would have you believe that this is how OT usually ends.

The facts indicate otherwise.

With the aid of the "NFL Record & Fact Book" (a reference I suggest these critics peruse), your humble correspondent has reviewed every single regular season and postseason overtime game ever played in the NFL (or the pre-merger AFL). Some interesting things can be observed.

Conscious of the fact that these very-sudden sudden-death games were more frequent this season (leading to the outcry), I divided the history into two periods: the 2002 season just ended, and from the beginning of time through 2001. As I compiled my unofficial tally, I classified each outcome into groups of my own definition, with the intent to test this idea that winning the toss virtually guarantees an easy and undeserved victory. (Such an outrage!)

For every overtime game, there is a coin toss, and somebody wins that coin toss. That is itself a random outcome, and there is nothing more fair than random, especially given that the two teams have played to a standoff. That's why lotteries are random (or supposed to be). Critics argue that a team and its coaches have worked all week toward a goal that is now to be determined by a silly coin toss. Well, that may seem a bit capricious, but it's not unfair. And as we shall see, it does not determine the outcome of the overtime game all that often. The question is, I think, not whether the winning of the toss is fair, but whether to do so provides a significant advantage.

Once the toss has been won, the winner may choose to receive the ball, or may choose which goal to defend. Over the years, a few teams have opted to kick-off. We had an example of that this season. If that works (because of a wind advantage) the coach is a genius. If not, he's a dolt, but at least we don't have to listen to any whining about an injustice.

Once in a while, an overtime game ends in a tie. We had one of those this year. No injustice there.

So here are the categories: 1) games in which the coin toss winner kicks off; 2) games that end in a tie; 3) games in which the team that wins the toss loses the game; 4) games won by the coin toss winner, but not on their first possession; 5) games won by the coin toss winner, and on their first possession, but by scoring a touchdown; 6) the nightmare scenario: team wins toss, drives for FG, loser never gets offense on field, winner never penetrates end zone.

Outcomes No. 1 and No. 2 are rare. In OTs through 2001, they constitute only 1% and 4% of the outcomes, respectively. But here's a good one: the team that wins the toss loses the game 45% of the time! So where's that Nantzian outrage now? Not only does winning the toss not mean your team will win immediately; almost half the time, it won't win at all. What's so unjust about that?

The team that wins the toss and receives the ball wins the game in the other 50% of cases.

Fifty percent sounds pretty equitable to me.

Of those games won by the lucky kick-receiving team, about half (or 23% of all OTs) are won by that team later, after both teams have had the ball at least once each. Nothing unjust about that. The remaining games won by the lucky kick-receiving team, (about half of them, or 27% of all OTs) are won on the first drive. However, not all of the first-drive wins end with a field goal. That means a team must allow a TD from scrimmage, or the kickoff was returned all the way (we saw both of those this year, too). But these outcomes represent failures to tackle, not miscarriages of justice.

Finally, a subset of that subset, the nightmare scenario, occurs 20% of the time.

So now we know that only one-in-five OT contests ends with the nightmare scenario. That's not a particularly likely outcome, and don't forget, both teams have a 50-50 chance of being that lucky team in the first place.

If 20% is such a sure thing, consider this proposition: I'm thinking of a number between one and five. If you guess it, I give you $10,000. If you're wrong, you give me $10,000. Wanna play? Why not?

Because assuming I would even admit if your guess is correct, you have only a 20% chance of winning. Not enough on which to rely, is it? Not that good a deal for you, is it?

Now, failing to score on the first possession doesn't cost a team the game (or $10,000), but the point is that winning the toss and having the first possession doesn't win the game for them either, does it?

And if there's one thing I want readers to take away from this, it is that the team that loses the toss, and kicks off, wins the game 45% of the time.

That's not 45-55, either, it's 45-50-4-1, because we have to include ties and cases where the coin toss winner kicks. Another way to put it is that the team that loses the toss has a 49.5% chance of not losing. (That's 45% wins + 4% ties + wins in half of the games where the toss was lost, but the ball was received anyway.)

Everything I have said so far is based on OT games through 2001. Will I conveniently omit stats from 2002? No. We know that occurrences of the nightmare scenario were up. Thus the controversy.

Still, it's not that bad. They comprised just over one-third of the OT games (35%). Winning the toss led to winning the game in 62% of 2002's OTs, which is definitely up from 50%, but still only five of every eight.

As for those times when the nightmare scenario occurs, it has to mean that some part of your team failed.

Football is offense, defense, and special teams. If you kick off, and the other team scores before you gain possession, that must mean that either your special teams or defense (or both) failed.

If the kickoff went out of bounds (spot that ball at the 40), or the cover team allowed the returner as far as the 40, that's a special teams failure, is it not? Assuming your coverage holds them to the 35 or 30, they have to drive 32-37 yards to get in range for a 50-yard field goal, and more for a closer shot. Shouldn't your defense perform better than to allow three or four first downs (or a big play) when the game is on the line?

If not, haven't they failed? Any team that pays attention only to its offense, and does not expect its defense, (or special teams), to perform has bigger problems than worrying about the overtime format.

Isn't it a pretty serious problem if your team allows a scoring drive after the opening kickoff, the second-half kickoff, or a kickoff following one of your own scores? Of course it is. So why this "victimization" if your team allows it in OT?

It is not unreasonable to expect to kickoff, suppress the returner between the 20 and 30, and force a punt. Since the punting team will be facing into the wind (they elected to receive), now you are receiving a wind-hampered punt, and returning it. Shouldn't that provide the team that kicked off with a big edge in field position? (For example, first team started at own 25, second team starts at own 40.) Wind, if present, will be the ally of the team that kicked off in all subsequent punts, for and against, and all subsequent field goal attempts, for and against.

Those are some of the reasons they win 45% of the time.

In summary, there are several possible outcomes in OT games, only one of which could possibly be labeled an injustice. The winner and loser in all other scenarios can not look to the coin toss as the determinant. Even in the one scenario thought by some to be unjust, the coin toss winner enjoys this outcome in only one-fifth of the games, and it is, in this writer's opinion, unbecoming to ignore a failure on defense and/or special teams, and attribute a loss to a format known to all in advance.

A coin toss is a random event, and unto itself, as fair as fair can be. If the stakes are too high to be decided by such a frivolous undertaking, don't leave matters at such risk. If you have the better team, win the damned game in regulation!

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