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The coin toss: What could go wrong?



NFL flipping coin (Dallas Cowboys)

It is a simple procedure. The game can’t begin without it. Before any football game starts the referee has to decide who gets the ball first. For generations, that question has been decided by the coin toss. The procedure is the same from pee-wee games to the NFL.

First of all, it is important for the referee to choose a coin that is heavy and is easily read. Most of the time, the coin is the size of a silver dollar — in fact that’s what many officials choose to use. Some college conferences give the referee a coin to use all season, or the referee chooses to use different commemorative coins. This year, the NFL has provided a special coin commemorating the 50th Super Bowl to be used in all games. Since it is a nonstandard coin, the letter “T” is on the tails side to alleviate confusion.

The visiting team always gets to call “heads” or “tails.” The winner of the toss gets to choose to kick, receive, defend a goal, or defer until the second half. The loser of the toss chooses the remaining options. The “defer” option has been in amateur football for decades — the NFL adopted that rule in 2008. The loser of the toss gets the first option to start the second half (unless the coin toss winner deferred).

Referee Jerome Boger shows the coin to the Packers captains. (San Francisco 49ers photo)

Nothing can really go wrong during the toss — until it does. At the amateur levels, many young kids (possibly influenced by the Madden video game) say they will “kick” when they win the coin toss. That means the team will kick off to start both halves. The referee usually asked the captain if he is sure that is what he wants to do. Usually the light comes on and the captain makes the right choice. Most referees, from the JV level on down, give the captain the chance make the right choice. At the college and pro level, the referee takes the captain’s first choice (video).

For many years, referees at all levels asked the visiting captain to call the toss as the referee tossed the coin in the air. That protocol changed forever on Thanksgiving Day in 1998. Although referee Phil Luckett was exonerated in that incident, the NFL adopted an immediate change in mechanics where the captain announced his choice of heads or tails before the referee flips the coin and amateur-level football officials adopted that new procedure as well.

There are a few ways the referee can toss the coin. He can let the coin hit the ground, catch it and turn in over on the back of his hand and show the winner, or simply catch it and show the winner. NFL referees and most college referees have the coin hit the ground. In high school, the fields may be muddy, full of divots or the coin may get lost in tall grass, so the referee usually catches the coin. If the referee drops the coin, he will re-flip it — an embarrassment for the referee but nothing too terrible.

The real fun happens when the coin does funny things mid toss. Sometimes the coin lands sideways in the mud or snow, or the coin can even bounce off of a player (video). The key is the coin landing on the ground indicating a clear winner. If the coin lands on an angle in the snow or mud, the referee will re-flip it. Ed Hochuli did this during a heavy snow game in Philadelphia a few years ago.

Which brings us to last week’s non-flip coin flip. Clete Blakeman tossed the coin and it didn’t rotate in the air. The Packers protested and Blakeman nipped all the yelling in the bud by saying the coin didn’t turn over and he’d toss it again. Blakeman did this out of fairness and the NFL backed him in his decision, despite Aaron Rodgers’ grumbling that he did not have the chance to re-call heads or tails.

The referee needs to concentrate and not get confused. The most infamous coin toss brain fade happened in Super Bowl XVII, when Jerry Markbreit blanked out on what side of the commemorative coin was heads and what side was tails.

In the Super Bowl, the coin toss layers on several bells and whistles. The first Super Bowl coin toss featured five people — two captains from each team and referee Norm Schachter. Now, the coin toss features several celebrities, an honorary person to toss the coin, and dozens of camera people all vying for about three feet of prime space to get the best shot. The crush of people has, in my opinion, gotten ridiculous. The day before the Super Bowl, there is a rehearsal for the coin toss, where the referee and others get to practice the most-viewed coin toss of the season. Even then, something can go wrong. In Super Bowl XLVIII, referee Terry McAulay handed the coin to Joe Namath to toss. McAulay either forgot to ask the captain to call heads or tails or Namath tossed the coin without McAulay’s cue. McAulay caught the coin out of the air, smiled and then got the call. Everyone had a laugh about it and the rest of the toss went off without a hitch.

All that too say, it is a simple procedure. Really. Usually.

Images: Dallas Cowboys photo; San Francisco 49ers photo

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"