On coin toss, the Patriots prefer to defer

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / January 8, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Sept. 7, 2008, isn’t the most painful day in Patriots history - the Super Bowl loss to the Giants seven months earlier wins that debate - but quarterback Tom Brady might disagree. Brady’s season ended that afternoon when Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard crashed into his left knee, the injury coming on the second offensive series of the year.

But 09/07/08 is noteworthy for another reason, one that even diehard Patriots statniks might not know about. It’s the last time the Patriots won the coin toss and elected to receive the football.

Since that day, the Patriots have played 65 games, playoffs included, and won the coin toss 28 times. All 28 times, they’ve elected to defer their choice to the second half, and started the game by kicking off.

Is it purely coincidental that the last time the Patriots won the toss and took the ball, their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback suffered a season-ending knee injury? Or are there subtle superstitions involved?

“I don’t know, you’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t think so,’’ said Matthew Slater, the special teams captain who joins fellow captains Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty at midfield for the toss. (Brady is also a captain, but seldom participates.) “I guess Coach has just gotten comfortable with that. It is pretty much standard procedure at this point.’’

Bill Belichick, despite the numbers that may suggest otherwise, says the decision to kick or receive, should his team win the toss, is not set in stone. “We discuss that every week,’’ he said. “If we win the toss, if we lose the toss, what the wind is going to be, whatever the conditions are. We talk about it before every game.’’

So it’s a game-by-game decision? It’s not that you’ll always defer? “That’s right,’’ Belichick said.

Well, OK.

Beginning the game with the Patriots kicking off isn’t only the result of New England winning the toss and electing to defer, especially this season. Patriots opponents won the toss in nine games. On eight of those nine occasions, the opponent elected to receive. Only Buffalo, in a Week 3 home win, won the toss and chose to kick off to the Patriots.

Because of the Patriots’ high-powered offense, it’s understandable why opponents would be reluctant to send Brady & Co. onto the field to begin the game. One of the best ways to slow a potent offense, the popular theory goes, is by keeping it off the field.

Opponents also might want the ball first in hopes that they’ll take advantage of the Patriots’ 31st-ranked defense and put New England in an early hole. Of the 15 games this season in which the Patriots kicked off, opponents scored on their first possession seven times (five touchdowns, two field goals).

It’s been an alarming trend, with the Patriots’ last three opponents all scoring on the opening drive: Denver scored a touchdown, Miami kicked a field goal, and Buffalo scored a touchdown. Those were the first steps in each team building early leads; the Broncos were up, 16-7, the Dolphins had a 17-0 halftime lead, and the Bills raced to a 21-0 first-quarter advantage.

Because of the early deficits, perhaps the Patriots will reconsider their strategy and take the ball if they win the coin toss Saturday night, when they’ll host a divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Then again, 28 for 28 seems to be more than just a passing fad . . .

“It really doesn’t matter to me,’’ said Mayo. “Like Bill told you, anything he wants to do, depending on the conditions, that’s what we’ll do.

“If they get the ball first or we’re on the field first, it doesn’t really make a big difference.

“Starting the game off better, that’s one of the main things we’re working on.’’

When the Patriots are the visiting team and it’s their responsibility to call the toss, it’s up to either Mayo or Wilfork (“Vince calls it,’’ Mayo said. “Seniority.’’), and that’s one part of the equation where even Belichick is left in the dark. Nobody, it seems, knows whether Wilfork will call heads or tails.

“I leave that up to them. It’s a good question, though,’’ Belichick said, trying to suppress a smile as the midweek discussion veered toward this-is-bye-week-fodder. “I’ve seen a coach tell a guy what to call. Or, more important, criticize what the call was.’’

When the Patriots have elected to defer, or an opponent has won the toss and chosen to receive, it means the Patriots get the ball to start the third quarter, which seems to hold more appeal to them. They have taken advantage of that more often than not this season, scoring on eight of 15 possessions (six touchdowns, two field goals). The other seven drives resulted in five punts and two interceptions thrown by Brady.

Still, making a strong statement by scoring to open the second half - especially if it piggy-backs points at the end of the first half, for a game-changing “double score’’ - can create separation if you are nursing a halftime lead, or launch a comeback if you are trailing. Field goals by Stephen Gostkowski to open the second half against the Bills and Dolphins the past two games spurred the Patriots to come-from-behind wins.

“No matter what’s going on during the course of the game, you have a chance to come out and grab momentum in the second half and start the process of finishing the game,’’ Slater said. “Whether it’s already been in your favor or you’re trying to get it back, that’s what we try to do.’’

Said Belichick, “I think obviously if you take the ball at the beginning of the game, you have a chance to get one more possession in the first half. If you take the ball at the beginning of the second half, you have a chance to get one more possession in the second half. What’s your preference?

“In the end, you might not have a choice anyway.’’

Except for one game this season, it has worked out exactly how the Patriots like it, with Gostkowski kicking off at the start, and Brady coming out with the offense to open the third quarter.

So if the referee announces Saturday night, “New England has won the toss. What would you like to do?’’ we have a strong sense what the decision will be, for two reasons. History, for one, and Brady’s health. Why tempt fate?

Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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