Wonder of it all

As ridiculous as it is that a coin flip gives a team a chance to win a game, its mysterious power has kept it around in the NFL

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In 1845, a lawyer named Asa Lovejoy and a trader named Francis Pettygrove decided that the beautiful new land they had come upon in the American Northwest needed a name. You would think that with fantastic names like Lovejoy and Pettygrove, they would have argued for the new town to be named for themselves. But no. Lovejoy was from Boston and so wanted the name to be Boston. And Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine, so Portland was his choice.

They flipped for it — two out of three.

Yes, Portland, Oregon is a coin-flip name.

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright decided to test their newfangled flying machine. But only one could pilot the thing. They flipped for it. Wilbur won the coin toss but only managed the keep the plane in the air for three seconds. Three days later, Orville got his chance, and he kept the plane in the air for 12 seconds in what many consider the first flight.

This seems to match the NFL coin flip rule where Wilbur had to settle for a field goal and then Orville scored the game-winning touchdown.

In 1969, a woman named Penny Chenery of Meadow Stable lost a coin flip and got stuck with a still unborn foal that would be named “Secretariat.” In 1979, the Chicago Bulls — featuring the worst record in the NBA Western Conference — called heads in the NBA Draft coin flip. It came up tails, creating a flurry of activity that led Magic Johnson to the Los Angeles Lakers (the Bulls got David Greenwood). In “No Country for Old Men,” a gas station owner measured the ultra-frightening Anton Chigurh, called heads and though he could only sense it, the call saved his life.

In 2016, in one of the wildest football games in NFL history, a coin did not flip. Then it flipped for the Arizona Cardinals. Then they won the game, partly because of a great scramble by quarterback Carson Palmer, party because of the genius of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and partly because a coin landed on heads.

Sports are always trying to figure out how to deal with tie games. In baseball, they just keep playing, inning after inning, until a winner emerges. This seems fair, but if the many empty seats at the end are any indication, it is extremely boring.

The NBA plays a five-minute overtime and then another and so on … this too seems fair, though it often turns basketball games into battles of attrition.

Hockey, this year, has started deciding games with 3-on-3 overtimes. This has been almost universally celebrated because 3-on-3 hockey is such a blast. But it’s too early to call it a success. Nobody’s team had missed out on the the playoffs because of 3-on-3 hockey yet. We’ll see how fair everyone thinks it is after that happens.

Then, of course, there is the World Cup soccer shootout, designed to infuriate billions of people around the world, though nobody seems to know a better way to settle games that won’t end. In most soccer matches, of course, there is no effort at all to settle ties. Soccer fans around the world are willing to accept (and sometimes even embrace) the indefinite beauty of two teams playing so evenly that no winner or loser can be named. America has almost unanimously vetoed such ambiguity.

One thing you will notice is that none of these sports use a coin flip to decide which team gets the first opportunity to win the game. No, that system belongs to the NFL alone much in the way the iPhone is Apple’s exclusively. In many ways, the overtime coin flip perfectly fits the NFL’s bewildering blend of pinpoint precision and bizarre listlessness toward getting things right. This has been brought up countless times before, but the NFL is a league that will scrutinize the catch-no-catch conundrum with a hundred cameras and wise men pondering with rabbinical intensity, and yet it still measures the most basic of NFL things, the first down, by the eyeball of a spotter and a link chain.

So, of course, the NFL would place much of a game’s outcome on the flip of a coin.

Now, coin-flip supporters (it’s hard to believe that there are those out there) will point out that since the NFL put in its new overtime rule — where the team winning the coin flip must score a touchdown or the other team gets a possession — the winning coin-flip team is just 35-32. With that small a sample size, it is impossible to say that winning the coin flip is a decisive advantage. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago the sage of sports himself, Bill Belichick, chose to have his team kick off.

Of course, his Patriots promptly lost. But still …

The trouble is not the actual fairness, though. It is the PERCEIVED fairness. That may sound cynical, but it’s true in all of sports and most of life. When a team wins the coin toss (like Arizona did, eventually) then marches quickly down the field (like Arizona did), and then scores the touchdown (like Arizona did) and the other team doesn’t even get a chance, the coin toss seems like a terribly unfair way of starting overtime. Maybe this only happens a small percentage of the time. But every time it does happen, it smacks against the integrity of the NFL.

Then, as you know, lots of things smack against the integrity of the NFL, and we as a nation endure all those things because of games like Arizona-Green Bay. It was pure insanity from beginning to end, with bizarre deflections and weird calls and probably the greatest hail mary pass I’ve ever seen. I always thought the Flutie pass was the greatest ever but this one was crazier in its own way for three reasons:

1. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers had already won on a Hail Mary this year … and as every magician knows, you never try the same trick twice for the same audience.

2. The Cardinals decided to send a full blitz. In the instant they were doing that, I was screaming at my phone, “WHY?” I guess I can squint and see the logic. If you can break through and get to the quarterback, you might force him to throw before a receiver can get all the way to the end zone. But sending seven leaves four defenders to cover three receivers. I’m going to call it insane. It certainly didn’t end well. But it gave the play some real drama.

3. Rodgers’ throw was impossible. The Cardinals didn’t get the clean break on the blitz they wanted, but they did get through, and it forced Rodgers while falling backward, to throw the ball high in the air, 60 yards. This is a physical impossibility and as great as that Flutie throw was, this thing was like the Flutie throw while on roller skates.

It was a magical play in so many ways. With the ball in the air, you could see that receiver Jeff Janis — whoever Jeff Janis is — lining up to catch the ball so that about two seconds before the conclusion there was this jolt of excitement: “He might CATCH THE BALL!”

And then he did. Ridiculous! Incredible! Insane!

Then the NFL flipped a coin (twice) to see who would be given the best chance to win the game. There will be some outrage now, and some calls for the NFL to change systems, maybe go to something like the college system, maybe just guarantee that both teams get the ball in overtime. But the truth is there’s a mysterious power in the coin flip.That’s why it’s still around.

“Look, I got to know what I stand to win,” the gas station owner said to Anton Chigurgh.

“Everything,” he said.