At the start of every game, coaches have to make a decision that can dictate strategy throughout the contest. However, this specific decision is hardly noticed and rarely scrutinized by anyone. The decision to defer or receive the opening kickoff might not seem like a major decision, but it can have some interesting ramifications. Most notably it can lead to a chance to steal a possession, where the deferring team can hope to score right before the end of the first half and then get the ball at the start of the second half with another chance to score. But, what are the other advantages to receiving or deferring?
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Getting the Ball First
The first question that should be asked here is what type of advantage, if any, does getting the ball to start a half provide? Well, on average, receiving the kickoff at the start of either half gives a team about three extra plays or an extra half-drive.
Advantages from Receiving to Start Each Half
Half Extra Drives Extra Plays Extra Points 1st 0.6 2.9 0.6 2nd 0.6 3.4 1.6
Here we see those three plays result in an extra 0.6 points in the first half for teams that receive the opening kickoff. Teams that receive the second half kickoff end up seeing even more of an advantage on the scoreboard, as they score 1.6 points more in the second half than their opponents.
Even though the initial analysis points to a larger advantage for teams who receive the second half kickoff, an argument can be made that teams should want to receive the opening kickoff for a chance to jump out to an early lead. Playing with an early lead allows for an offense to stay balanced and not worry about pressing to get back into the game.
If we look at winning percentage we see there are some numbers to back up this idea. In the 778 games since the start of 2016 in which both team’s offenses scored at least one touchdown, the team that scored a touchdown first won 66% of the time. We used games in which both offenses scored a touchdown so that we limit the bias that normally comes with stats that assume one team scores.
Receiving the opening kickoff obviously helps a team’s chances of scoring first, but not by as much as you might think. Within those same 778 games, the team that received the opening kick only scored the first touchdown 56% of the time. They also only scored on their opening possession 40% of the time. In fact, in both the first and second halves, the team that gets the ball second is more likely to score on their first possession
Score% and TD% on the 1st and 2nd Drive of Each Half
Half Drive Score% TD% 1 1st 40% 26% 1 2nd 42% 27% 2 1st 38% 24% 2 2nd 41% 25%
This can be explained by the fact that the opening drive of each half as the lowest average starting field position of any drive. Teams that receive the kickoff to start a half begin that drive an average of three yards further back than the second drive of the half.
Stealing a Possession
One of the arguments for deferring the opening kickoff is that it allows for the opportunity to “steal a possession” by scoring at the end of the first half and then also receiving the second half kickoff. In theory, this makes a lot of sense and it turns out it also makes sense in practice. Over the 778 games in our sample, the team that receives the second half kickoff was able to score in the last minute of the first half and on their opening second half drive 12% of the time. When compared to the 0% chance of stealing a possession if you receive the opening kickoff, this becomes a small built-in advantage to deferring to the second half.
Deciding whether to receive or defer the opening kickoff is a decision that can influence the outcome of games on the margins. These margins might not seem like a lot, but in a game of inches, they become the difference between a close win and a loss. Receiving the ball to start the second half results, on average, in an extra point on the scoreboard and a 12% chance of stealing a possession. A lot of factors play into how different coaches prefer to start out each game, but teams will generally receive a slight advantage by deferring to the second half when given the chance.