Prescott, one of Dallas’s captains, told Anderson the Cowboys wanted to kick. Taking that option would give the Rams the ball to start the game and the option to receive to start the second half, too. The Cowboys would have to defer their choice to the second half to receive the ball in the second half.
Anderson sensed the Cowboys didn’t really want to do that, of course, so he asked Prescott to clarify. Prescott said, “Kick” again and then, crucially, he said, “We want to defer to the second half.”
Despite Prescott correcting himself, and the obvious interpretation being the Cowboys wanting the ball to start the second half, Anderson ruled the Cowboys would kick off to start the game and the Rams would get to choose at the start of the second half, too. It was a huge advantage for Los Angeles. (Adding to the fiasco, Dallas kicker Kai Forbath booted the opening kickoff out of bounds.)
It turned into a disadvantage. At halftime, the league office phoned the officiating crew and informed them a review of Prescott’s words showed he had said “defer.” As in a replay challenge, the league office reversed the call, and the Cowboys received the opening kick of the second half.
Under the Game Administration section, the NFL rule book reads: “The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department may consult with on-field officials, or conduct a replay review, of game administration issues.” When the NFL reviewed the play, it determined Anderson had simply not heard Prescott say “defer” and believed the call needed to be overturned.
“If you look at what happened and you see that the Cowboys actually say three different things, and then we hear at the end where they say ‘defer,’ ” NFL head of officiating Al Riveron said. “So we go ahead and look at it. We pulled up the audio. We knew that I was going to have a conversation with Walt Anderson at halftime to make it right.”
Even in righting one wrong, the decision shifted unfairness. The Rams played the entire first half with the understanding they would start the second half with the ball, which could have affected Coach Sean McVay’s strategy. The Cowboys entered halftime ahead, 28-7, so it’s hard to full great sympathy for the Rams. Still, it would have been far more fair to inform both teams of the ruling well before halftime.
The entire episode should have been avoided. In Anderson’s defense, this scenario is covered in the NFL rule book under Section 2, Article 2. “The captain’s original call may not be changed,” the rule reads.
Still, it was a confusing performance from Anderson. If only the letter of the law mattered, why did he ask Prescott again? It was clear to all involved that Prescott’s intent was not to have the Cowboys kick off to start both halves. Once Prescott said the Cowboys wanted to defer, it would have seemed logical for Anderson to accept it. Instead, he inserted himself in a routine manner in a controversial way.
Could Prescott have been clearer? Sure. Should Coach Jason Garrett take a stronger role in making sure his captains communicate the right way at the coin toss? Probably. But punishing the Cowboys for it was needless and intrusive.
The incident shows the NFL should change the coin toss procedure. The idea of kicking for field position hasn’t been a viable strategy in decades. Once every three seasons, Bill Belichick will elect to kick off in bad weather, but that’s an anomaly. There’s no reason the choices can’t simply be “kick” and “receive,” with the opposite automatically being what happens in the second half, so this doesn’t happen.
The Cowboys entered halftime up three touchdowns, and then received the second-half kickoff. It was a win for them, and another loss for the NFL in a tough season for officials.