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The Coin Toss and Kickoff in American Football

Every American football game starts with a coin toss. Selected members of each team (called captains) come to the center of the field, where the referee holds a coin. In the NFL, the coin toss is restricted to three captains from each team. In college football, four players may participate. However, only one player from the visiting team calls heads or tails, and that player must do so before the official tosses the coin into the air (hence the name coin toss).

If that player calls the toss correctly, his team gets to choose one of three privileges:

  • Which team receives the kickoff: Generally, teams want to start the game on offense and have the opportunity to score as early as possible, so the team who wins the toss usually opts to receive. They’re known as the receiving team. The referee, swinging his leg in a kicking motion, then points to the other team’s captains as the kicking team.

  • Which goal his team will defend: Instead of receiving the kickoff, the captain may elect to kick off and choose a goal to defend. Captains sometimes take this option if they believe that weather will be a factor in the outcome of the game. For example, in choosing which goal to defend, the player believes that his team will have the wind at its back for the second quarter and the crucial final quarter of the game.

  • When to decide: The team that wins the coin flip can defer, giving it the right to choose between kicking and receiving the second-half kickoff.

The team that earns the right to receive the ball gets the ball via a kickoff. To perform this kickoff, the kicking team’s placekicker places the ball in a holder (called a tee, which is 1 inch tall in the NFL and 2 inches tall in high school and college) on his team’s 30-yard line (NFL and college) or 40-yard line (high school). The kicker then runs toward the ball and kicks it toward the other team. This figure shows how teams typically line up for a kickoff in the NFL.

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At the far end of the field from the kicker, one or more returners from the other team await the kickoff. The returner’s goal is to catch the ball and score a touchdown or run the ball as far back toward the opponent’s goal line as he can. After the return is complete, the first set of downs begins.

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