The Steelers’ Tragic Coin Flip Debacle Changed NFL Protocol Forever

An NFL game has so many components. Offenses call complex plays to evade defenders. Defenses execute precise schemes to stop playmakers. Referees watch every play to ensure the rules are followed. Broadcasters analyze the action for NFL fans at home. One activity involved in every game is the coin flip

With this move, the winning team may take the ball or defer. This doesn’t get the level of scrutiny as the other strategies — unless something goes wrong. In a 1998 Thanksgiving Day game between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers, something did go horribly wrong. Let’s look at how one coin flip changed NFL protocol forever. 

The NFL’s old approach to overtime

Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers
The Lions and Steelers collide in 1998 | JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

The rules have since changed. But at one time, the process for NFL overtime games was simple. If the score was tied at the end of regulation, the two teams got an additional 15 minutes to score. The game was sudden death, meaning the victory would be awarded to the first team to score a point.

To determine who got first possession, the refs would stage a coin flip at mid-field featuring both sets of team captains. Whoever won the toss got the first chance to score. For many teams, this meant they simply had to get into field goal range and kick a field goal for the victory. Things are different these days.

The current overtime rules in the NFL

According to NFL Operations, here’s how the current overtime rules function:

  • The ref tosses a coin to determine possession. 
  • After a three-minute break, the teams begin play on a 10-minute period. 
  • If the first team to possess the ball scores a touchdown, the game is over. Otherwise, each team gets the opportunity to have the ball at least once. After both teams have possession without scoring, the game becomes sudden death.

Those rules are a modified version of the old system, which simply awarded the game to the first team to score. So what caused the change? 

The Steelers’ tragic coin flip that changed NFL protocol forever


How Tom Coughlin Built and Dismantled the NFL’s Best Young Defense

Flashback to Thanksgiving Day, 1998. As SB Nation reports, the Steelers and Lions played head-to-head in Detroit. The teams were knotted up at 16 as regulation ended. The Steelers, because they were the visiting team, got to call heads or tails on the coin flip. Jerome Bettis, the Steelers’ running back and captain, called tails. The referee thought he heard heads.

The Lions got the ball despite the Steelers’ protests. Soon after, the Lions kicked a field goal to win the game. It was one of the most unforgettable moments in NFL history: A referee had found a way to blow a coin toss.

Then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher was incensed by the injustice: “What makes me mad is when you fight and scratch for 60 minutes out there, and the game is decided by guys who wear striped shirts…There’s something wrong about that.”

It’s hard to imagine an easier call to get right, and the ref blew it. Not only did the call lead to criticism, but it also led to the league challenging the way it handles overtime games. After that game, there was more discussion over the perception of unfairness.

After all, if all you had to do to win the game was essentially win the coin toss and then travel a few yards downfield, it didn’t seem equitable. While today’s current rules aren’t perfect, they’re fairer than the previous ones. They also mean the game will not come down to a coin flip to decide a winner.