NFL team captains have a choice at every coin toss. Matthew Slater chose poorly Sunday for the New England Patriots, making a small mistake in his wording, and NFL rules prevented him from correcting it. Let's review the events and applicable rules before, during and after the overtime coin toss at MetLife Stadium -- one that played a key role in the New York Jets' 26-20 victory.
According to Slater, Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided long before the toss that he wanted to kick off. Belichick went so far as to inform referee Clete Blakeman, Slater said.
Belichick told reporters that he was "looking at field position" when he made the decision. (He followed a similar strategy in a 2013 overtime game against the Denver Broncos.) Slater said he asked "three or four times to double check" and make sure he understood Belichick correctly.
As a member of the visiting team, Slater had the right to call heads or tails. He called heads. The coin landed on heads.
At that point, Slater had two choices. Per NFL Rule 4, Section 3, Article 2, he could elect whether to receive the kick or kick off OR he could declare "the choice of goal his team will defend." As NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino noted on Twitter, he could not choose to kick off and the direction. (Obviously, the choice to defer isn't relevant in overtime.)
Having already spoken informally to Belichick, Blakeman knew what to expect. He said to Slater: "You want to kick?" And Slater said: "We want to kick, that way."
That sentiment reflected Belichick's wishes, but unfortunately the wording locked Slater into the first set of options rather than the second. The Patriots did want to kick off, but their goal in doing so was to kick off in the opposite direction than they ultimately kicked in. To do so, Slater should have told Blakeman which goal the Patriots wanted to defend and left out the part about kicking entirely.
In other words, Slater should have said, "We want to defend that goal" instead of saying, "We want to kick, that way."
You might think it's wild that such an important decision would rely on what seems to be a distinction without a difference. And it's fair to wonder if Slater was simply following Blakeman's lead in terms of the precise wording. But that's why Slater appeared confused when Blakeman asked Jets captain Antonio Cromartie to choose the goal to defend and, thus, the direction of the kickoff.
On the CBS broadcast, Slater could be heard telling Blakeman: "Hey, we won. Don't we get to choose?" And Blakeman, with his microphone off, appeared to tell Slater that he opted to kick off -- because it was the first thing Slater said after the coin toss.
There is a specific line in the NFL rule book that prohibits captains from recanting, correcting or changing their minds at the coin toss. It reads: "A captain's choice from any alternative privileges listed above is final and not subject to change."
Ultimately, the most complicated rule book in professional sports held up what should have been a simple (if unusual) strategy decision. I can see it now: NFL captains in front of mirrors, reading from a cheat sheet, practicing the right way to choose the goal to defend in overtime. So it goes.