Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Nov 2012

Officiating: Bad Options

Saturday's game between UCLA and Arizona State University proved that half of success really is just being there. During the coin toss, UCLA's team was in the locker room, with only the punter on the field to call the toss. UCLA won, but the punter apparently (reports are sketchy at best) said something to the effect of "we want to kick." The officials were perfectly happy to oblige him, and the end result is UCLA kicking off to start both halves.

When UCLA won the toss, they were given a first-half option to kick or receive, an option which a team can defer until the second half. If a team exercises any option in the first half, their opponent has the option for the second half. The hapless punter believed he was deferring UCLA's option to the second half, but in reality he was exercising their option to kick in the first half. Arizona State happily opted to receive using their second-half option.

There are a lot of small things about a football game that people overlook. Granted, losing one possession did not prove fatal for the Bruins, but considering UCLA won the game by two points on a field goal as time expired, perhaps Jim Mora should make sure his actual captains are on the field in time for the coin toss next time.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 01 Nov 2012

47 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2012, 10:50pm by MJK


by Theo :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:06pm

I never got why the options are like this. Of course the punter means he wanted to kick so they could receive in the second half; that's because no team would choose to kick because they want to kick twice.
If no team wants it - then why have a rule that's both confusing to the people involved but also to the fans?
Just ask "do you want to receive in the first or second half?" and have the other team choose the endzone to defend.

by rengewnad (not verified) :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:29pm

i agree with your approach to simplify what should be a pretty simple part of the game ritual.

is this the same rule in the NFL? I recall seeing something like this happen in a Nebraska Huskers game within the last couple years where I watched them kickoff to start the game, left the room, and came back later to see them kickoff to start the 2nd half. The announcers never explained why, and no-one on the field seemed to notice that Nebraska kicked off both times, i was expecting to see Bo Pelini blow vein or something because it was a mistake... the lack of response or explanation has made me confused about that game ever since.

that is, confused until now when FO sets me straight. Apparnetly my Huskers can screw that part of the game up too... :(

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:34pm

It's only been recently that you could defer in the NFL.

You could either choose to kick or receive, and the other team got the choice in the 2nd half. So both teams obviously chose to receive when they had the chance.

2-3 years ago they changed the rule so that you could defer and elect to receive in the 2nd half. I don't know they removed the choice of kicking.

by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:53pm

Teams can still choose to kick off, but never do outright. If the wind is blowing strong in one direction, they'll choose to defend the upwind goal before making a choice to receive or kick. The other team almost always then chooses to receive.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:55pm

I think you could also choose which end zone to defend instead of choosing whether to kick or receive. I don't think anybody chose to kick....they would choose to receive, or choose a strategic direction after which the other captain would choose to kick or receive.

by Chappy (not verified) :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:37pm

Yeah, bottom line this for me. So a team that would like to kick in the first half but receive in the second has no option other than to say "defer," which then forces the other team to receive because they know they will have no option in the second? I agree, seems like a ridiculous option when there is really no other viable option. The game theory of the situation is pretty obvious. Of course, I'm a Detroit Lions fan so I still remember when Marty Mornhinweg famously "took the wind."

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:25pm

Not quite sure what you're saying there Chappy with:

"Yeah, bottom line this for me. So a team that would like to kick in the first half but receive in the second has no option other than to say "defer," which then forces the other team to receive because they know they will have no option in the second? I agree, seems like a ridiculous option when there is really no other viable option"

Why is it ridiculous?

The team that wins the coin toss does get some sort of advantage that's the benefit of winning the toss. But in your stated scenario, if it's that important to kick in the 1st half, the losing team could elect to kickoff after the winner has elected to defer.

I believe that deferring just gives the cointoss winner the choice of whether to kick/receive OR ends at the beginning of the 2nd half. Whichever option they don't choose the losing team still gets to pick from.

So it's not that ridiculously unfair that I can see ...

by evenchunkiermonkey :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 7:14am

to clarify: this setup only presents an opportunity for the ridiculous. lets examine some possible outcomes...

Ridiculously Hilarious Outcome 1:
team A wins the toss, elects to defer.
team B elects to kick
team A chooses to receive to start the 2nd half.
Result is that team A gets an extra possession because of team B's terrible decision.

Ridiculously Hilarious Outcome 2:
Team A wins the toss and elects to kick.
Team B then has the option to kick or receive to start the 2nd half
Team B chooses to receive to start the second half.
Result: Team B gets an extra possession because of a hilariously bad choice by Team A (which is what happened in the UCLA/AZST game this article is about.)

So while the rule is not unfair it is indeed overly complicated and can yield ridiculous results. Theo's post to start this comment thread nailed it. Why not simplify the rule and the team that recieves to start the first half kicks off to start the 2nd? (although it shouldn't be necessary because there's only one bad choice available after the coin toss and that's to kick. It's like having the choice of a meatball sub, a garden salad, chicken wings and a turd sandwich. Who the hell would pick the turd sandwich and why is it even on the menu?)

by Independent George :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:38pm

I vaguely remember Parcells choosing to take the wind in one game (obviously before you could defer), reasoning (correctly, as it turns out) that getting the first score would be a decisive advantage, and that nobody was going to score against the wind that day.

by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:57pm

It definitely happened in the 1986 NFC Championship, for one.

NY Times, 1/12/1987: Parcells had reminded Carson: ''The wording is very important. If we win the toss, we're going to defend that goal,'' meaning the east goal. Naturally, the Redskins then chose to receive. But the Giants kicked off with the wind and when their offense got the ball, it had the wind at its back.

Parcells also chose to do so to start overtime in a 1987 game against the Eagles.

by buzzorhowl (not verified) :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 1:49am

I was going to say, as a Redskins fan I can remember VERY clearly a time when this exact thing happened.

My god, that game was a nightmare.

by Pottsville Maro... :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:39pm

The options are like this as a vestige from much more defense-oriented times. On a day with poor conditions and dominant defenses, you might want to kick off to pin your opponent deep in their own end.

by PatsFan :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:53pm

Anyone know if in the 2008 NE@BUF game (i.e. the Completely Insane Wind Game) the team with the choice chose which goal to defend rather than choosing to kick or receive?

by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:56pm

Both teams with the choice decided to receive to start each half.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:01pm

I don't recall the wind going in one particular direction. I think it was more like a swirling, cyclonic wind, so there was no advantage to choose which end zone to defend.

by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:34pm

From what I remember, the Patriots had the advantage in the 1st and 4th quarters and the Bills in the 2nd and 3rd, and the wind was stronger in the first half than the second.

Indicators in the play-by-play:
- The opening kickoffs of both halves went through the end zone.
- The Bills' punt to end their first drive went 13 yards.
- Neither team going against the wind in the first half passed at all.

by dryheat :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:48pm

Your memory may be better than mine. I do remember watching the warmups, and punters were missing their foot on their drops.

by buzzorhowl (not verified) :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 1:51am

Hah, I remember Rian Lindell of the Bills going for a field goal and pushing it so far left that on any other day he'd have missed it wide left.

On that day, he missed it wide RIGHT.

by Dean :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:28pm

The most famous example actually happened in overtime of the championship game. AFL, 1962, the unfortunately nicknamed "Abner's Boner"


by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:06pm

The Raiders similarly botched the coin toss in last year's preseason against the Cardinals.

Raiders won the toss. One captain told the ref after the coin toss he wanted to defer. Another captain said he wanted to kick off. The ref heard the "we want to kick off'' more prominently, and so he said the Raiders have chosen to kick off. That meant at the start of the second half, Arizona would get the choice.

by Travis :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:27pm

Jimmy Johnson intentionally kicked off to start a 1989 game against the Cardinals. The Cowboys were 0-7 at the time.

"We talked in the dressing room," Johnson said. "Our players wanted to play defense right off the bat and kick. I think at times that can be a positive."

The Cardinals drove down the field, kicked a field goal, and led for the rest of the game.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:15pm

I seem to recall the Lions recently choosing to kickoff against the Bears in overtime much to the criticism of commentators.

Edit: when I say recently it turns out to have been 2002 under Marty Morhinweg ... http://www.rantsports.com/nfl/2012/09/24/detroit-lions-add-to-strange-bu...

by Marko :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 4:58pm

Yes, that's what Chappy is referring to in post #4 above.

by Dean :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:30pm

Theoretically, Team A could win the toss, elect to defer, then Team B could choose which goal line they want to defend (for, say, reasons of wind) and Team A could then actually get the ball to start both halves without anyone actually screwing up.

by BigCheese :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 11:21pm

That could also happen without the first team deferring. They choose to recieve. The other team chooses the wind in the next half.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by Roy G (not verified) :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 3:53pm

I officiate high school football in Ohio and we are told to NEVER let this happen. In the pre-game talk with each head coach, we ask what they want if they win the toss. Then, when I'm walking the captains out I'll ask them what they want, and I make sure they want to "RECEIVE" or "DEFER". If they say something different than the coach, I'll ask "are you sure"? We will never allow the captain to say they want to "KICK".

by DenverCheeze (not verified) :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 4:33pm

High school football is much different than NFL. I would think that grown men with years of football experience should be able to communicate with their coach and teammates (as they are already identified as CAPTAINS and LEADERS of the team) and be educated enough to make the correct decision.

My son's Pop Warner team captains make this decision on their own...they are not in High School yet. Shouldn't an adult making more $ than 99.9% of the world be able to make a decision without the referee prompting him?

by tuluse :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 4:43pm

While your first statement is true, this happened in college football.

by Sancho (not verified) :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 4:45pm

In soccer, the options are: "field or ball" (I am translating directly from Portuguese, so I do not know the exactly English words for this).

If your answer is "ball", than the other team must select the field they want.

If your answer is "field", the other team gets the ball in the first half, but you necessarily gets the ball in the second.

It is so much simple, clear and just.

by Mr Shush :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 8:00am

"Kick off or choose ends". But yes, simpler.

by Jeremy Billones :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 8:32am

It's even simpler than that under FIFA rules; you win the toss, you choose first half direction and the other team kicks off first half. You don't even have the option to choose to kick off the first half.

by OmicronPersei8 :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 5:50pm

I actually prefer the scenario where a team can kick both halves.What if you have Robo-Kicker and the 85 Bears defense ,but you also have the 92 Seahawks offense?

by Richie :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 6:21pm

If I remember correctly, The Hidden Game of Football discusses how kicking was much more important part of the game in the early days (20s-40s I think). I believe it even mentioned that teams would sometimes punt on 1st or 2nd down, because field position was so critical and difficult to achieve.

I assume this coin toss option is one of the things that is left over for a different time. There are so many crazy things in football that are no longer really used, but yet still in the rulebook. Even the PAT. Do we really need it? Can't we just automatically give the team a point, and a team would have the option of going for 2 instead?

There's some penalties that are still called, that I wonder why they are penalties. I'm drawing a blank on them at the moment.

by turbohappy :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 6:39pm

I've seen a few games decided by a blocked PAT, but in general I agree.

by Richie :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 7:32pm

Yeah, blocked or missed PATs happen every once in awhile. But they are so rare, that the whole PAT process is a waste of time.

by MJK :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 10:43pm

Interestingly, if I recall correctly, the PAT was at one time the only way to actually score points. I believe in the original football rules, scoring a TD was worth no points but gave you a "try" -- the opportunity to try to kick the ball through the goalposts, which was worth one point if you succeeded. So final scores were something like 3-1 or so (instead of 21 to 7). If there was a tie in the actual score, then the team with more "trys" (i.e. that scored more TD's) would win the game.

At some point (probably when PATs started becoming almost automatic) someone must have decided to just go ahead and make the TD itself worth the bulk of the points...

by BigCheese :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 11:25pm

I don't know if the TD itself was eer worth 0, but yes, in early football, the kick after a TD was worth more points (and the TD itself less). This then gradually went th way of the TD being worth more and the kick less. So making it 7-0 with a chance for two wouldn't be exactly an unprecedented move.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by BigCheese :: Thu, 11/01/2012 - 11:34pm

Seems I was misremembering. The fact is a FG used to be worth 5 points. And a TD 4. Yes. Field Goals were worth more than TDs. Then it went to 5 and 5. Then 4 and 5. Then 3 and 5. Then 3 and 6. No mention of PATs is made though.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

by PatsFan :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 9:26am

I don't think that was ever true in American football. But I believe it was (maybe is?) true in rugby. You had to literally touch the ball down to the ground in the endzone to have the chance for a try, which is where the points were from.

by MJK :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 10:50pm

OK, I researched it a little more, and we're all kind of right.

* What I described is indeed the way rugby was originally scored. Scoring a "try" in rugby originally gave you no points but did give you the opportunity to try to kick a goal. Under current rules, it's similar to American football, where the try is now worth more points than the goal, but the goal is still worth something.

* Whether or not football ever used this rule depends on your definition of "football". In the early 1880's, the game as we know it was invented by Walter Camp, by the introduction of things like the line of scrimmage, the snap, and the downs system. At this time, initially, a TD was worth 2, an XP was worth 4, and a FG was worth 5. However, this was very quickly changed to a TD being worth 4, an XP worth 2, and a FG worth 5. The scoring system would continue to evolve until 1912, when the system we (mostly) have today was adopted.

* However, early, football-like games were played intercollegiately before the early 1880's, and some people call these early games "the first football games". IN particular, the famous first "Game" between Harvard and Yale took place in 1875, one year before the decision was made to award points for the "try" rather than the conversion. So some of these early "football" games used the rugby rules I mentioned. Of course, some didn't. It was all very confusing back then.

by In_Belichick_We... :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 9:46am

Carney/Saints/Jags 2003.

Entitled freeloader

by Danny Tuccitto :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 2:46am

Admittedly, I don't follow college football outside of the Gators whatsoever, so this is news to me. But, here's what I don't get about this kind of circumstance in general , and Mike you can correct me if I'm wrong. There are all kinds of situations in a football game where officials nudge a player/team into the obvious position the player/team thinks they're in.

As an example I know full well from officiating in the past, and watching it happen live these days, when a player is lined up offsides, either the HL or LJ will alert them because lining up offsides is usually more a matter of geometry than intentional rule-breaking. Same goes for when a receiver is lined up in a slightly too-far-off-the-line position that would produce an illegal formation -- unbeknownst to him. Again, the HL or LJ tries to alert said player, and 90% of the time there's no flag because the player heeds the warning.

So, in a situation like this, when a player chooses to kick after winning the toss, why on earth isn't the same officiating protocol observed? Why is there no, "Are you sure you want to kick? That means you're kicking both halves, ya know." advisory notice. This kind of preventative officiating happens all the time -- and is totally overlooked by fans -- but for some reason, on a coin toss, it's as if preventative officiating goes out the window: Player chose to kick when he obviously meant to defer? Oh well, f*** 'em.

by Travis :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 8:51am

Maybe because the play hasn't yet started in the case of offsides/illegal formation whereas the decision has already been stated in the case of the coin toss? Once the snap has happened, the official has no power to nudge an improperly-lined-up player into the right position or overlook his mistake; maybe it's the same here?

Comment #21 mentions a referee talking to the players before the coin has been tossed; that seems like the ideal time to make sure the player knows what to say once the "real" decision has to be made.

Also, I can't imagine the UCLA-Arizona State referees were inclined to act charitably towards UCLA on the coin toss after UCLA failed to come out of the locker room in time.

by Theo :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 12:59pm

Because the receivers check with the official whether they are on or off the line. They signal with their right hand stretched away from their body if they are off and across their chest if they're on.
Some officials call offsides (or lining up in the neutral zone) on linemen right away, and some refs don't. In dubious cases or when the weather is nice, the ref tells the captain after a play that "the right guard should line up back a bit" or "make sure your Nose doesn't line up in the neutral zone."
I've even seen an NFL game last week, don't remember wich, where the defensive linemen lined up with their helmet over the ball play after play and it wasn't called.
It's one of those grey areas where the job of the ref is to have a smooth game. In the case of the Punter calling the 'wrong' call, I guess the ref forgot his role, or just thought "screw them, they are late and this is what you get." I can imagine that.

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 12:38pm

I think the situation is an example of horrible refereeing. It's not a situation where the official needs to nudge someone to change their action (as in the case of someone lined up on or off the line); it's just a situation where the official needs to clarify exactly what someone is saying. Everybody involved -- including the referees-- in fact knew exactly what the punter was trying to do. As far as I know, there's no football rule that lays out the exact wording that a player must use to choose an option after winning the toss, so the referee can certainly use common sense to interpret the punter's words. And finally there's no rule at all that says an official can't request a player or coach to clarify a communication -- in fact I bet when something confusing comes up, say declining a penalty in a complicated situation, referees routinely say "So, coach, I want to make sure, you're choosing option?".

So bottom line in this game, the referee intentionally misunderstood what a player was saying, refused to clarify it when it was within his power to do so, and chose to interpret the player in a way that hurt his team (if the result was basically that the other team won the toss, that's OK because that should be arbitrary, but note that the referee left the punter's team worse off than if they'd lost the toss). In my book that's pretty much pointlessly and arbitrarily dicking one team over, which is the epitome of bad officiating.

by Theo :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 1:10pm

that or the ref was tired of waiting for the UCLA team to come out for the game and thought "up theirs"

by Travis :: Fri, 11/02/2012 - 1:56pm

As far as I know, there's no football rule that lays out the exact wording that a player must use to choose an option after winning the toss, so the referee can certainly use common sense to interpret the punter's words.

FWIW, NCAA Rule 3-1-d:
The winner of the toss shall choose one of the following options:
1. To designate which team shall kick off.
2. To designate which goal line his team shall defend.
3. To defer his selection to the second half.

It defies common football sense, but saying "we'll kick" or something similar would fall under #1 under any plain language interpretation.