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Cerebral Football: Why Teams Should Defer To The Second Half

Mike McCarthy

Mike likes to defer...

I’ve read some comments from Green Bay Packers fans saying coach Mike McCarthy made a mistake in choosing to defer after winning the coin toss against Carolina last Sunday.

The argument is the strategy backfired because the Packers found themselves down two scores on the road to the lowly Carolina Panthers.

In fact, the strategy didn’t backfire. It worked like a charm.

Deferring the decision to the second half after winning the coin toss is the correct decision about 95 percent of the time for any team. The reason is simple: knowing that you get the ball first in the second half is a tremendous psychological edge. It calms the nerves when you’re behind and it makes a small lead seem even larger.

Imagine being on the Packers’ sideline when the Panthers were putting up a 13-0 lead. What were players on the bench hearing from their position coaches? “Settle down everyone. We’re okay. It’s only two scores and they got the ball first. Everyone relax and do your job. Let’s go!”

See what happened there? Getting the ball in the second half emotionally and psychologically turns a big deficit into a one-score game. Suddenly a 13-0 (even 17-0 or 21-0) debacle seems much more manageable. When you get the ball in the second half, in your own mind, you’re never really out of the game.

What was being said on the Carolina sideline when they were up 13?

“Hey guys, these are the world champs and they get the ball first in the second half. Let’s keep our foot on the gas!”

The Panthers’ lead just shriveled up. Some might argue that this simply provides motivation for the Panthers to keep working hard and not get complacent with a 13-0 lead, but I argue this.

When you receive the opening kickoff, no matter what situation your team is in during the first half, emotionally and psychologically, it always seems worse than it is.

When you receive in the second half, no matter what situation your team is in during the first half, emotionally and psychologically it always seems better than it is.

We all know the feeling as fans and to think the players and coaches are any different is ridiculous. I don’t believe for a minute McCarthy thought it was impossible for Cam Newton to drive the field and get up 7-0 on his team, he just realized that deferring offers much more upside than receiving.

In 2009 the Packers won a remarkable 13 coin tosses out of 17 tries and McCarthy never deferred once. What made him change his mind?

I’m convinced it was Rex Ryan.

Since 2008, when deferring was introduced to the NFL, McCarthy had never deferred after winning the coin toss, but after the Jets deferred against the Packers in week eight of 2010, McCarthy used the tactic five of the next six times he won the toss, including the Super Bowl.

Is there any scenario where getting the ball first is better?

Sure, but they’re rare.

McCarthy chose to receive in week one versus the Saints, capitalizing on the energy of the evening and knowing full well that his team had no interest in ever being behind a potent offensive team like New Orleans. That was a special night in front of a massive audience and under those heightened circumstances, you feed off that energy and try to get up on a team you know will have offensive success.

I would guess the Packers will defer almost every chance they get the rest of the season.

In extreme weather conditions, one might argue that having the wind at your back in the fourth quarter could be a big enough advantage to warrant receiving the opening kickoff and choosing which goal to defend in the second half.

Even then I think the advantages of deferring are very hard to ignore.

We could go deeper and talk about teams that play better with the lead, better from behind, good defense, good offense, better versus adversity etc., but as a general rule, I’d say it’s correct to take all the positive energy that comes with kicking off in the first half and ride that wave until halftime.

Wouldn’t you rather have positivity and upside as opposed to negativity and downside? Isn’t this conversation akin to the home team in baseball batting last?

If you get the ball first and score that’s what you’re supposed to do. It seems like a huge deal as it’s happening and you’ll hear announcers say, “Wow what a statement that is!” But at the end of the day, how much does it really matter who scores first?

Not much.

If you didn’t know any better — like ESPN’s John Clayton — you’d base your assumption on the idea that determining how often the receiving team goes down the field and scores, determines whether or not it’s proper to receive or defer. That’s a complete fallacy.

Here’s Clayton’s reasoning.

The surprising note is that deferred kickoffs were reasonably frequent. Coaches deferred on 77 of the 256 coin tosses, a stunning 30 percent. Obviously, we’re not debating deferring kickoffs when the weather conditions are bad. That definitely can be a smart strategy to find the favorable weather conditions for critical parts of games.

To support my theory, the team that received the opening kickoff was first to score 59.8 percent of the time. Even more telling is the team that received the opening kickoff scored 34.8 percent of the time on that first possession, netting 53 touchdowns and 36 field goals.

If a strong offensive script can fulfill a long week of practicing and scheming and produce a lead on the opening possession 34.8 percent of the time or eventually provide field position to get the first score almost 60 percent of the time, why give that up?

For supporters of the deferred kickoffs, 55.8 percent of the teams that deferred the kickoff won games.

Clayton tells us in his limited study that 55.8 percent of teams that deferred won the game, but acts as if that stat is meaningless, when in actuality it’s the only statistic that matters.

Wins and losses determine success, not scoring first, getting a lead early, or setting up favorable first quarter field position.



  1. ThatGuy September 23, 2011

    interesting. I thought I had heard that it was Dom Capers who convinced McCarthy to defer. Don’t remember the source of it – but the theory was that offenses needed time to get into a rhythm and that defenses didn’t need that as much so there was a benefit to get the defense on the field first.

  2. Andy September 23, 2011

    No shit? I go to many a Packers website looking for info about the game, but this is real info. I always save Total Packers for last, as it is the dessert of my Packers info search. The joy of reading that others feel that the state of Mn. is nothing but a bunch of loud mouthed cunts, and that Bears fans are suffering from a case of “we have the most HOF players” but we almost never win the SB with them. Wow thank you for a very nice read about the kickoff situation.
    As a side note Bears and Viking fans feel free to Fuck yourselves you waste of space ass clowns. If there is a special place in hell for guys like Hitler and people who molest young children I hope you are all sitting right next to them getting fingered with dry hands.

    Best of luck Packers I hope you come home with the W.

    1. BuddyXLV September 23, 2011

      I agree Andy. MN fans are jealous arrogant pricks that get breastfed until they’re 40. CHI fans are elitist assholes that fuck blow up dolls with Brian Urlacher and AJ Pyrzynski’s faces on them. Yes they can get molested with a pineapple while Hitler watches.

      Go Pack!

  3. RodgerDat September 23, 2011

    Common fuckin sense if you don’t have a garbage defense. Been doing that shit since Madden 92

    1. GreenAndYellow September 23, 2011


  4. haha September 24, 2011

    Wasn’t john clayton the man who cost the steelers joe montana in ’78? I would LOVE to hear his take.

  5. joey September 24, 2011

    it works both way if we got the ball first and scored we could of took the air out of the balloon before the game got started

    1. Harry Hood September 24, 2011

      Not when your playing an NFL team. These are real men, the alfa males, 7 points aint gonna take the air out of the balloon.

  6. Pack Morris September 24, 2011

    Cool article, thanks man.

  7. Kristofer from Oshkosh September 24, 2011

    Very good article. John Clayton says it all himself: You are more likely to win the game on a deffered kickoff.

  8. Ryan September 24, 2011

    Maybe I missed something here, but what does “deferring was introduced to the NFL in 2008” mean?

  9. chitter September 24, 2011

    The rule prior to 2008 read like this:

    “The toss of coin will take place within three minutes of kickoff in center of field. The toss will be called by the visiting captain before the coin is flipped. The winner may choose one of two privileges and the loser gets the other:
    (a) Receive or kick
    (b) Goal his team will defend

    Immediately prior to the start of the second half, the captains of both teams must inform the officials of their respective choices. The loser of the original coin toss gets first choice.”

    So prior to 2008 you pretty much had to take the ball because if you won the toss and elected to kick, your opponent would get the ball to start both the first and second half.

    So interestingly under the old format, the only way you could get the ball in the second half was to lose the toss.

    After 2008 they allowed teams to defer their decision to the second half but most coaches were so used to receiving they never adjusted.

    College football has allowed deferring much longer and a high percentage defer every time.

  10. iltarion September 26, 2011

    The way this Packer offense has been starting, you should take the ball first every time.