To Defer or Not to Defer?

by Owen Tedford


In 2008, the NFL added a rule that allowed teams that won the coin toss to defer their choice of receiving or kicking to the second half. When this rule was first introduced, it was used only 7.8% of the time. But, it has become an increasingly used option in today’s NFL with the toss getting deferred over 78% of the time now. Why are teams doing this? Well, coaches, like Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, claim that by deferring you have the chance to get an extra possession. Now, if true, this would provide teams a clear advantage by giving them an extra chance to score.

Using data from Sporting Charts [1], I’ve compiled the time of possession in minutes, the total number of drives, and time per drive for each NFL team (table at the end). The average time of possession this past year was 2.65 minutes or 2 minutes 39 seconds. But, looking at the data, there are a few outliers, and so for the rest of my analysis, I chose to use the median of 2.695 or 2 minutes 41.7 seconds.

By dividing the time of an NFL half, 30 minutes, by the median time of possession, I was able to find that there should be, on average, 11.13 possessions per half. This would imply that, while unlikely, it is possible for the deferring team to have what would be a 6th possession in the first half. Now, the same could be said for the team who receives the first half kickoff as they could get that 6th possession in the second half.

However, the advantage to deferring is that if you’re able to get that 6th possession in the first half as the deferring team, then you have the chance to double up your opponent by having possession to end the first half as well as to start the second half, which could worth up to a fourteen-point swing.

In the second half, I would think teams are slightly more conscious of the clock, especially the leading team, which inclines me to believe that the odds of the team who received the first half kickoff are not the same as the deferring team to get an extra possession in the second half. More work would need to be done to see whether this is true or not by looking to see if drives get longer in the second half or if there are fewer possessions in the second half.

But, what this elementary investigation seems to reveal is that the coaches who believe there is a chance, though small, of that extra possession are correct. So it would seem that teams aren’t necessarily gaining a big advantage by choosing to receive or defer. However, the potential upside of a fourteen-point swing in the middle of a game is something that coaches will absolutely look at as an advantage and a reason to defer, as well as, the hope to prevent your opponent from having this opportunity. If you can’t have it, why give them the chance?

With the Super Bowl coming up, I thought it would be fun to look at the Falcons’s and Patriots’s time per drive. Both are above average with the Falcons edging out the Patriots by 1.2 seconds. Now, with them being above average, this would mean that there should be fewer possessions in a half than in the average NFL game. To be exact, there should be just under 11 possessions (10.8) in a half, which is about 0.33 possessions less than the average game. This would mean that there is a clearer advantage if the team winning the toss chooses to defer as they would be more likely to have the last possession of the first half and first possession of the second half than in a typical game with more drives.

Both teams will have to give this some serious thought, as both have explosive offenses making it a serious concern to put their opponent’s offense on the field and give them the momentum of scoring on the first possession. But, if the deferring team’s defense was able to get a stop, this would be a big mental victory for them. Therefore, I would expect both teams to elect to defer hoping that their defense can get a stop on the opening possession and that they could get either an extra possession or a chance to double up their opponent in the middle of the game.


Time of Poss.(min) Drives Time per Drive (m:s)   Team Time of Poss. (min) Drives

Time per Drive (m:s)


481 156 3:04.8 BUF 476 177 2:41.4


510 173 2:57 NYJ 491 184 2:40.2
PHI 520 178 2:55.2 TEN 488 184



499 176 2:50.4 CHI 449 171 2:37.8


489 173 2:49.8 OAK 507 194 2:36.6


486 175 2:46.8 SEA 480 185 2:35.4


489 177 2:45.6 BAL 492 192



499 181 2:45.6 CAR 493 193


CIN 485 176 2:45.6 CLE 452 180


WAS 481 175 2:45 ARI 494 197



493 180 2:44.4 MIA 463 188 2:27.6


495 181 2:43.8 JAX 466 190 2:27
HOU 504 185 2:43.2 LA 469 193


TB 495 183 2:42 NYG 453 193



492 182 2:42 DEN 464 198


SD 488 181 2:42 SF 430 197


Data Source:

[1] SportingCharts NFL (2016-2017 season)


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