NFL Coaches Prefer To Defer...But Doug Marrone May Change Soon For Jaguars' Sake
One of the unwritten rules of football over the past decade is the defer. If a team wins a coin toss and elects to receive the opening kick, it’s notable, since it rarely happens any longer.
When the NFL first introduced the option in a 2008 rule change, teams were skeptical to begin with. It took time, with only Bill Belichick—unsurprisingly—embracing the new option in gamesmanship.
As time has evolved though, the option to defer has become the option of choice for all 32 NFL teams the majority of the time and the only choice for the majority of NFL teams all the time.
During the 2018 NFL season, teams who won the coin toss at the beginning of the game elected to defer receiving the ball to the 2nd half, 92% of the time. According to ESPN, there is no statistical advantage to deferring, yet five out of six coaches are still likely to do so? Why, in this game that requires preparation for every possible outcome, do coaches defer just for the sake of doing so?
There is somewhat of a “herd mentality.” From 2008-2018, the Patriots elected to defer more than any other team in the league, at 95% of the time. The Cowboys had the lowest percentage, deferring after winning the toss only 26% of the time. It’s hard to argue with the Patriots success versus the Cowboys over the past decade, so if Belichick is doing it, why wouldn’t we?
There’s also the mentality that if you defer, drive differentials will give you the ball at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. If capitalized upon, that’s a two score swing. It also allows the defense an opportunity to set their tone early and (theoretically) control the pace of the game.
But, what if your defense isn’t fully prepared? What if they are susceptible to a slow start and didn’t have tape for the opposing offenses scripted plays to begin the game? When that happens, the offense takes the field already down in a hole.
And that is exactly what has happened the past three weeks for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Versus the Indianapolis Colts, the Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars won the toss and elected to defer, all three times. In all three occasions, by the time Gardner Minshew and company took the field, they were in a 7-0 hole.
“Obviously we’re not executing well,” said Head Coach Doug Marrone, when asked about the defensive start to games.
"I think that’s the first thing you’ve got to look at. I think we have to see what we can do to help. I mean, [Thursday], we pressured more than we have, first, second and third downs, trying to get the team off track, trying to get them off the field. That’s something that—it’s disappointing. It’s something that we’re going to be working on and obviously, that puts you in a bind. Like you said, you never feel like you’re in a rhythm of the game and I think we all understand that. It’s not something that we’re looking at and trying to defend. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get better at it.”
The rhythm of the game that Marrone mentioned can be the toughest thing to fix. As such, one of the ways they can “get better at it” may just be tweaking the pre-game strategy.
“I think that what I am looking at potentially [is] taking the ball first,” explained Marrone following the Thursday night loss to the Dolphins.
"I think I’m trying to get a peak at what’s going on and how we can settle these guys down more. So, I think we’re going to have these discussions, but it’s not anything that I’m looking at going, ‘No, I would never do that’, so it’s definitely something that’s on the table.
"Before I ever make a decision like that, I want to learn more about it. Even when I do make the decision, I always still talk about game day winds and things like that come into play. Where before I’ve always been [one to] defer, I think now whatever can help our football team, we’ll do.”
The "game day winds” are in relation to which endzone teams are working out of in the first quarter, but more importantly in the fourth quarter. If you lose the toss, the opposing team can choose to receive or defer then you are allowed to choose which endzone you want to defend. Since that changes every quarter, the decision is more about which endzone you’re defending in the fourth quarter. That is based on which way the winds are blowing since you want to give your kicker the best opportunity for success should the game come down to a field goal.
Suffice to say, coaches—especially over the last decade—have become set in their ways in relation to the coin toss. Simply changing the decision is about more than just breaking a habit. It’s changing a philosophy. But the bigger philosophy is to, well, win. And chasing that might mean a change for the Jacksonville Jaguars the next time they win a coin toss.
Said Marrone, “I think that’s something that I’ll look at. I think, just from a standpoint of trying an overall philosophy of trying to put the defense out on the field first and make the offense execute. It’s kind of been a philosophy, but obviously, it’s something that we’ll look at and see if we have to change it.”