Electing to Kick in Overtime Isn’t That Crazy

Belichick pulled a ballsy move Sunday, but not one without precedent.

Bill Belichick

Associated Press

Eleven years ago Sunday, Detroit Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg won the overtime coin toss and chose to kick off to the Chicago Bears with a heavy wind in his team’s favor, rather than take the first possession. Chicago promptly scored a field goal, ending the game. Mornhinweg was ridiculed. He “will forever be defined by” the decision, Deadspin.com wrote in naming him the worst NFL coach in modern history. Wikipedia calls it “his most notable moment as a head coach.” (So you know he’s not editing his own article.) It’s no wonder then that no NFL coach has since followed in his footsteps by choosing to kick off with the wind rather than take the first possession. Until yesterday, that is.

Given Mornhinweg’s poor reception, Bill Belichick’s choice to kick off after an improbable comeback agains the Denver Broncos seemed risky. “It would have been easy to scream bloody hell at Belichick for not taking the ball—and if the Broncos had scored a touchdown on the opening drive, we’d absolutely be criticizing Belichick in this space,” writes Globe columnist Ben Volin his post-game analysis.

Actually, though, taking into account not just Mornhinweg’s experience, but the entire record of NFL coaches who made the same choice, and it doesn’t look that absurd.

The blog Quirky Research has a post (whose subject lives up to the site’s name) collecting every instance in which a coach won the coin toss in overtime and decided to kick off. Almost always, weather and wind were a factor.  Five of the ten prior occasions documented by QR resulted in a win for the kicking team. Plus, most of them did not have the benefit of the new overtime rules that do not end the game if the first possession results in a field goal. (Mornhinweg sure didn’t.) That gave Belichick an extra cushion when he allowed Denver to have the ball first.

Belichick’s earning plenty of deserved praise today, but he’s not necessarily a visionary, going where no Championship-making leader has gone before. Quirky Research points out that he is, in fact, just the sixth Superbowl-winning coach to make that call. And with his choice making the record for coaches who kicked off 6 out of 11, he made it a decision that has actually pays off slightly more often than not.