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52 percent of NFL teams to win coin toss win game

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New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton can't be bothered to pay attention to which of his players calls "heads" or "tails" for the coin toss before the opening kickoff of a game or overtime.

He's sure of one thing, though: "I don't know that I'd want to go to Las Vegas with them," Payton said.

Good thinking. No way would it make sense to gamble with this bunch. The Saints are 0-11 on coin flips this season, the sort of thing that might make a micromanaging NFL head coach, well, flip out.

"It's kind of ridiculous at this point," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said.

And while the Saints are 7-3 and lead the NFC South despite coming up short every single time on what should be a 50-50 proposition, coin-toss statistics - yes, they do exist - show that the NFL team that won the pregame flip wound up winning 52.1 percent of the time through Week 10 this season, according to STATS LLC.

That's about the same as the 52.6 percent that STATS shows for coin-toss "victories" matching up with game victories since the start of the 2008 season, when the NFL changed the rules to allow the team that wins the toss to defer its choice until the second half.

Like the Saints, the Cleveland Browns can't seem to make heads or tails of why they're oh-fer on coin tosses this season, going 0-9, STATS said.

Actually, Browns coach Pat Shurmur and captains Phil Dawson, Joe Thomas and Scott Fujita weren't aware of precisely how bad their luck has been until asked about it by a reporter from The Associated Press.

"Who keeps that stat? That's what I want to know," said Thomas, a Pro Bowl tackle.

He and players on other teams interviewed for this story all said they don't spend time figuring out which call to make - or even who will do it - until the time comes, with both teams' captains standing at midfield.

"It's kind of like, you line up and it's, `OK, you got it.' It's never a big deal," Thomas said. "All we talk about is the strategy: Do we want the ball or do we want to defer?"

For the Saints and Browns, it must feel as though other teams are saying, "Heads, we win. Tails, you lose."

The odds of a team losing 11 consecutive coin flips are about 2,000 to 1, STATS said.

"It's very unlucky for them in particular, but over the course of time, that kind of event will happen," said Susan Holmes, a professor of statistics at Stanford University. "When you're tossing a ton of coins, you could very easily have 11 heads in a row."

The Super Bowl has been host to an even longer lopsided streak: The NFC team has won the toss at each of the last 14 championship games, the odds of which are roughly 16,000 to 1. With only a 45-game sample size, the Super Bowl hasn't followed the regular-season trend of a slight edge to the team winning the toss; flip winners are only 22-23 in the big game.

In 2007, Holmes and other researchers published an academic study about flips that, she explained in a telephone interview, "proved that the coin has a tendency to come up the same way it starts. So if you start the coin on tails over your thumb, and then you flip the coin and catch it in your hand, it'll have a 51 percent chance of coming up tails."

Seems like something the Saints and Browns - and anyone else involved in coin flips for any reason all around the world - might want to think about, right? Except for this, when it comes to the NFL: Referees are told to not catch the coins; instead, they're supposed to let them land on the ground, so Holmes said her study doesn't apply at all.

It's part of a carefully choreographed ritual outlined by the league, which instructs refs to:

- show the heads and tails sides of the coin to each squad, starting with the home team;

- ask the visiting team's captains who will call the toss;

- ask what that call is;

- announce that choice before the flip (a rule added in the aftermath of the infamous 1998 Thanksgiving Day "Coin Flip Flap," when Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and official Phil Luckett disagreed about what Bettis called before overtime against the Detroit Lions, who won the game 19-16);

- announce the result of the flip;

- have the winner choose whether to receive the kickoff, or to kick off to the other team, or to pick which end of the field to defend, or to defer its choice until the second half.

The biggest coin-flip flop might have come in overtime of the blustery 1962 AFL championship game, when Dallas Texans running back Abner Haynes was ordered by coach Hank Stram to take the side of the field backed by the wind. Haynes won the toss and, apparently figuring the Houston Oilers would elect to receive if he picked a side to defend, told the referee, "We'll kick to the clock."

Because the first thing Haynes said was, "We'll kick," the referee took that to mean the Texans were choosing to give the Oilers the ball first in OT. And that meant the Oilers got to choose to have the wind at their backs. The Texans overcame Haynes' blunder, though, winning the game in the second extra period - with the wind in their favor.

Here's one thing the NFL does not regulate: the coins themselves. Other than when there are special commemorative coins, such as at the Super Bowl, the league says the referee is responsible for showing up with any ol' quarter or half-dollar and using that for the pregame flip.

As for whether there really could be a correlation - as opposed to a, um, coincidence - between the toss and how a game turns out, players and coaches point out there are some advantages to making that choice at the outset of a game. If a stadium is particularly windy, say, or if you really want to get the ball at the beginning of the second half.

"You want to be able to dictate what you put out on the field first, whether it's your offense that's feeling good or your defense that's feeling good," said Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who lamented that he "used to win `em all" but hasn't been doing as well lately on his coin calls (Washington is 4-5 on flips this season).

"It doesn't really matter much," Hall concluded, unless the flip comes in overtime.

"Sure got to win that one, you know? You really want to win that one," he said.

One would think so, anyway. After all, the NFL altered its postseason OT rules because of concerns the coin toss has an unfairly large role in determining outcomes of games that go past regulation. Now in the playoffs, if a team that wins the overtime toss receives the ball and kicks a field goal, the other team gets a possession, too.

Surprisingly, teams winning the overtime coin toss this season are only 1-5.

One of those losses was by the Atlanta Falcons last weekend against the Saints. The Falcons won the toss, got the ball - and then turned it over on downs by failing to convert a fourth-and-less-than-a-yard at their 29. Moments later, the Saints kicked the winning field goal.

"The funny thing was, (linebacker) Jo-Lonn Dunbar was honorary captain. He called `heads' (at the pregame toss), and it was tails," Brees recounted. "And then when I got out there for overtime, I called `tails' - and it was heads. So go figure, you know what I'm saying?"

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins, who are tied for the league lead at 8-2 - in coin-flip Ws and Ls, that is.

The similarities end once the game actually begins, of course: The 49ers lead the NFC West with an 8-1 record; the Dolphins are last in the AFC East at 2-7.

"It's just luck. We don't have a system or anything," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "If we do, they haven't told me."

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AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans; Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif.; Steven Wine in Davie, Fla.; and Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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Follow Howard Fendrich at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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