MINNEAPOLIS -- You remember Matt Hasselbeck in the 2004 NFC wild-card round, don't you? When the Seattle Seahawks won the overtime coin toss at Lambeau Field, and Hasselbeck -- full of excitement after Seattle's fourth-quarter comeback -- chirped into the official's microphone and told the 71,457 in attendance, "We want the ball and we're gonna score"?
If Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer were given the opportunity to turn the game's opening coin toss into a chance for a public statement, his mantra might be, "We don't want the ball, and you're not going to score."
Zimmer is among the legion of head coaches that has turned kicking off after winning the opening coin toss from strategic novelty to something approaching standard practice. When the league first gave NFL teams the option to defer their choice until the second half in 2008, only 7.8 percent of coin toss winners took the option. That number has grown every season, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and this year, teams that won the coin toss have deferred their decision in 91 of 119 games, or 76.4 percent of the time. (The New England Patriots, one of the pioneers of deferring, chose to be unconventional in Week 3 when they opted to defend the north goal after winning the coin toss at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars).
It's working, too; according to ESPN Stats and Information, teams who defer are winning 54.9 percent of their games this year, compared to teams that win 51.9 percent of the time who take the ball after winning the toss.
"You have a chance to score at the end of the half and then get the ball back again," said Zimmer, who has instructed his captains to defer on nine of the 10 coin tosses the Vikings have won since he became head coach. "You have a chance to get an extra possession somewhere in there."
That's the biggest reason teams choose to defer; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has often said how fond he is of the chance to "double up" by scoring at the end of the first half and getting points on the opening drive in the second. Browns coach Mike Pettine said last year that the first possession of the second half is more valuable because of how much more information coaches have about an opponent's game plan by then, adding, "It would take an extreme circumstance for us not to defer." And even Cowboys coach Jason Garrett -- who has taken the ball on 10 of the 13 coin tosses the Cowboys have won this year -- has deferred the past two weeks, pointing out the chance to steal a possession on the road when fans are still in concession or restroom lines after halftime, rather than at full throat after the opening kickoff.
"All the factors that you would think would go into it, go into it," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Sometimes we withhold that decision until we actually see what the field conditions are for that particular game, like Thursday night [against Miami], a game like that. Obviously if you’re playing in a dome in Indianapolis, we don’t need to get that information. But games that are weather games, that could affect that decision, too. How you want to start the game, what your offensive or defensive game plan is -- here’s how we want to try to start the game -- maybe that affects it. There could be a lot of factors, so we try to consider them all and do what we think is best."
There are still a few take-the-ball-and-go proponents, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, teams with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who have taken the ball 81 and 71 percent of the time, respectively, the past two years. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has taken the ball on 14 of the 15 coin tosses Arizona has won the past two years. "I’m an offensive coach," Arians said. "A defensive coach is going to put his defense out there or defer. We want the ball. We want the ball to start every game. We take pride in scoring points with our first possession.”
But the chance to score in back-to-back possessions in the middle of the game has been too tantalizing for most coaches to pass up, and for teams like the Vikings -- who are breaking in a young quarterback while building their identity around Zimmer's physical defense -- the chance to steal momentum with an early stop is appealing, too. In the nine games in which the Vikings have deferred under Zimmer, they've come away with seven stops on those opening possessions.
History suggests they'll put their defense on to start the game if they win the coin toss in Sunday's key matchup with the St. Louis Rams. Increasingly around the league, the prized possession is the one that comes later in the game.
"To defer, there's a couple elements to it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in 2013. "No. 1, you obviously look at the first drive but hopefully have the opportunity to score going [into halftime] and you obviously have the ball coming out [for the second half]."
ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, Packers reporter Rob Demovsky, Browns reporter Pat McManamon, Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher, Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss contributed to this report.