With a revision to the bylaws passed in March, the NFL owners have effectively ended the longstanding practice of tossing a coin to break any ties in the draft order.
Coin flips to determine draft position likely date back to the very first NFL draft in 1936, following a season in which the Chicago Bears and Cardinals tied for the 5th-worst record at 6-4-2. The Cardinals won this presumed flip and drafted 5th in the first round. As became the norm in future years, the teams involved in the coin toss swapped draft positions in even-numbered rounds.
The first coin flip that could be documented took place in the 1939 draft, when the Cardinals won the right to the first overall pick over the equally woeful Pittsburgh Pirates.
The most luckless team in a draft coin toss may have been the 1945 Brooklyn Tigers, who finished the 1944 season with a winless 0-10 record. However, the temporarily merged Cardinals–Steelers team, a necessity caused by the manpower shortages due to World War II, also finished 0-10. When both resumed as full franchises in 1945, each was considered for draft purposes to have gone winless in 1944. In the three-way coin flip, the Cardinals won, the Steelers finished second, and the unfortunate Tigers third. The Tigers draft choice, Joe Renfroe, never played a down in the NFL, opting instead to become an assistant coach at Gulf Coast Military Academy (Gulfport, Mississippi). The Brooklyn Tigers also would not play another down in the NFL, as they temporarily merged with the Boston Yanks for the 1945 season, then jumped to the new All-America Football Conference (as the New York Yankees).
Draft position ties happened occasionally in the 1940s and ’50s NFL, but their frequency would expand as the league did. When the NFL added franchises in 1960s and then agreed to a common draft with the American Football League in 1967 as part of the eventual 1970 merger, the number of teams in the draft more than doubled. The breaking point came in the 1975 draft, when a record 6-way tie was broken by an undisclosed multiple-coin-flip procedure, and 18 of the 26 teams had their ultimate position determined by a coin flip. Starting with the 1976 draft, coin flips were only used to break interconference ties that existed after considering playoff performance and strength of schedule. Division and conference tiebreakers that were used to determine playoff positioning were adapted to eliminate most of the coin flips.
Overall number-1 tossup
The overall number one was subject to a random selection four times in the common draft era — twice when the NFL added two expansion teams at once, and twice when teams tied for the worst record in the league.
The Steelers, languishing in the sub-basement of the NFL standings for their first four decades, won the first overall pick in the 1970 Draft at a Super Bowl IV press conference when Bears treasurer/George Halas son-in-law Ed McCaskey misguessed “heads”. The Steelers used the pick on a quarterback out of Louisiana Tech by the name of Terry Bradshaw; the disappointed Bears would trade the second-overall choice to the Packers for three veterans, none of whom lasted with the Bears beyond 1970.
The other coin flip involving the two worst teams was less dramatic. The 1974 Colts had finished 2-12 despite having quarterback-of-the-future Bert Jones; the 1974 Giants did the same while sending their 1975 first-rounder to the Cowboys in a disastrous trade for Craig Morton. The Colts won the flip; four days later, they traded it to the Falcons, who would take California QB Steve Bartkowski. The Cowboys selected future Hall of Famer Randy White one pick later.
The next year, the Buccaneers and Seahawks entered the league. Instead of the normal coin toss for draft position, Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse and Seattle owner Herman Sarkowsky picked envelopes out of a helmet; Culverhouse selected the one marked “college draft”, giving the Buccaneers the first overall pick in the normal draft. Sarkowsky’s “pro draft” gave the Seahawks the first overall pick in the veteran allocation draft in which the Buccaneers and Seahawks drafted unwanted players off of the other 26 teams’ rosters. With the first overall pick in the college draft, the Buccaneers took future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon.
The Panthers and Jaguars would start play in the 1995 season, but their order in that draft was determined during the 1994 draft. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue flipped a special coin minted with the two team logos. The Panthers’ logo was revealed on Tagliabue’s wrist, giving them the overall number one in the 1995 draft and leaving the Jaguars the consolation prize of the first pick in the 1995 veterans allocation draft. After pondering their choice for a year, on Draft Day 1995 the Panthers traded down with the Bengals. The Bengals then selected Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter, who would tear his ACL in his first preseason game and never fully recover.
Draft position coin flips, common draft era (1967-present)
Since 2010, these coin flips have once again become public events, broadcast live from the NFL Combine and with special coins minted for the occasion.
The 2019 Draft is the final time that a coin flip is near the top of the tiebreaking procedures; it will now be buried in a long list in the divisional, conference, and now interconference tiebreakers. It ends in a whimper, as there were no such coin flips in its last draft.
The table below shows how the teams involved in a coin toss were ordered in the first-round and the player chosen, with trades shown in superscript.
First overall pick awarded to expansion team. Hall of Fame inductee.
|2018||9||SF||Mike McGlinchey||OT||Minted coin (photo) (video)|
|10||OAK →ARI||Josh Rosen||QB|
|2017||14||MIN →PHI||Derek Barnett||DE||Minted coin, MIN had already traded pick to PHI for Sam Bradford|
|2014||16||DAL||Zack Martin||G||Minted coin (video)|
|2012||8||MIA||Ryan Tannehill||QB||Minted coin|
|2012||11||KC||Dontari Poe||DT||Minted coin|
|12||SEA →PHI||Fletcher Cox||DT|
|2010||10||JAX||Tyson Alualu||DT||Minted coin|
|11||CHI →SF||Anthony Davis||T|
|2010||16||TEN||Derrick Morgan||DE||Minted coin|
|17||CAR →SF||Mike Iupati||G|
|2010||19||ATL||Sean Weatherspoon||LB||Minted coin|
|2008||3||ATL||Matt Ryan||QB||Super Bowl XLII coin, ATL called toss vs OAK and OAK-KC tie resolved by divisional tiebreakers; 2nd flip would have been needed had OAK won|
|2007||3||CLE||Joe Thomas||T||Gift coin from MacDill AFB, TB called toss|
|2006||6||SF||Vernon Davis||TE||SF called toss|
|2004||7||CLE →DET||Roy Williams||WR|
|2003||10||BAL||Terrell Suggs||LB||2 coin flips: BAL called first toss and won the right to call the second toss|
|2002||14||TEN →NYG||Jeremy Shockey||TE||NYG traded with TEN, effectively reversing the coin flip result|
|15||NYG →TEN||Albert Haynesworth||DT|
|17||ATL →OAK||Phillip Buchanon||DB|
|15||BAL →DEN||Deltha O’Neal||DB|
|1997||9||ARI||Tom Knight||DB||Quarter from reporter (kept by Bill Bidwill), ARI called toss|
|10||OAK →NO||Chris Naeole||G|
|9||HOU Oilers →OAK||Rickey Dudley||TE|
|1995||1||CAR →CIN||Ki-Jana Carter||RB||Minted coin, toss conducted at previous year’s draft (photo); JAX picked first in allocation draft|
|1995||7||TB →PHI||Mike Mamula||DE|
|5||LA Rams||Todd Lyght||DB|
|1991||8||GB →PHI||Antone Davis||T|
|8||HOU Oilers||Mike Munchak||G|
|1976||1||TB||Lee Roy Selmon||DE||Drew envelopes from helmet: “college draft” and “pro draft”|
|1975||1||BAL Colts →ATL||Steve Bartkowski||QB||Commissioner Pete Rozelle flipped a silver dollar with BAL and DAL; NYG traded draft choice in 1974 to acquire QB Craig Morton. BAL traded after determined to be 1st overall|
|2||NYG →DAL||Randy White||DT|
|1975||6||KC →HOU Oilers||Robert Brazile||LB|
|1975||9||GB →LA Rams||Mike Fanning||DT|
|1975||11||PHI →LA Rams||Dennis Harrah||G||A 6-team tie is the record for the most teams placed by coin flips|
|12||NYJ →NO||Kurt Schumacher||G|
|15||HOU Oilers||Don Hardeman||RB|
|1975||20||LA Rams||Doug France||T|
|21||STL Cards||Tim Gray||DB|
|22||WAS →SD||Mike Williams||DB|
|1974||5||BAL Colts||John Dutton||DT|
|1974||8||NO →DET||Ed O’Neil||LB|
|9||NE →SF||Wilbur Jackson||RB|
|15||CLE →SD||Don Goode||LB|
|1974||17||ATL →MIN||Fred McNeill||LB|
|1974||20||WAS →CHI||Dave Gallagher||DE|
|1973||2||NO →BAL Colts||Bert Jones||QB|
|1973||5||STL Cards||Dave Butz||DT|
|6||SD →PHI||Charle Young||TE|
|10||BAL Colts||Joe Ehrmann||DT|
|14||ATL →HOU Oilers||George Amundson||RB|
|16||NYG →CLE||Steve Holden||WR|
|17||KC →DET||Earnest Price||DE|
|19||DET →NE||Darryl Stingley||WR|
|1973||20||DAL||Billy Joe Dupree||TE|
|3||NYG →CHI||Lionel Antoine||T|
|1972||4||STL Cards||Bobby Moore (Ahmad Rashad)||WR|
|6||HOU Oilers||Greg Sampson||T|
|10||NE →MIN||Jeff Siemon||LB|
|11||SD →GB||Jerry Tagge||QB|
|1972||20||WAS →NYJ||Mike Taylor||LB|
|1971||3||HOU Oilers||Dan Pastorini||QB|
|1971||10||WAS →LA Rams||Isiah Robertson||LB|
|12||GB →DEN||Marv Montgomery||T|
|22||MIA →BAL Colts||Don McCauley||RB|
|1970||1||PIT||Terry Bradshaw||QB||1921 silver dollar at Super Bowl press conference, CHI called toss (other 1970 Draft ties conducted earlier in private), CHI traded its pick ten days later|
|2||CHI →GB||Mike McCoy||DT|
|1970||4||BOS Patriots||Phil Olsen||DT|
|5||BUF||Al “AC Dammit” Cowlings||DE|
|8||STL Cards||Larry Stegent||RB|
|1969||9||DEN →SD||Marty Domres||QB|
|10||WAS →LA Rams||Jim Seymour||WR|
|1969||13||CHI →NYG||Fred Dryer||DE||NYG traded with CHI, effectively reversing the positions established by the flip|
|14||NYG →CHI||Rufus Mayes||T|
|15||HOU Oilers||Ron Pritchard||LB|
|1968||4||DEN →SD||Russ Washington||T|
|5||NO →GB||Fred Carr||LB|
|1968||13||STL Cards||MacArthur Lane||RB|
|1968||23||BAL Colts||John Williams||T|
|24||LA Rams →DET||Earl McCullouch||WR|
|1967||3||ATL →SF||Steve Spurrier||QB|
|5||HOU Oilers||George Webster||LB|
|1967||16||STL Cards||Dave Williams||WR|
|1967||18||CLE||Bob Matheson||LB||Detwiler, who injured his knee in training camp, is the most recent 1st round pick to never play a regular season game in the NFL|
|20||BAL Colts||Jim Detwiler||HB|
- In what was the first-ever trade involving a future draft pick, the Pirates had during the 1938 season sent their upcoming first-round selection to the Bears for veteran end Eggs Manske; the Bears took future Hall of Famer Sid Luckman with the second-overall pick.↩
- How exactly the 3-way coin toss took place is unknown. Unbiased methods would include having three simultaneous flips, with the coin landing with the opposite result of the other two winning, as was done for the 1988 Texas high school playoffs; spinning a three-sided top; or flipping a Toblerone bar.↩
- Exactly who the Seahawks took first in the allocation draft is unknown, which may have been a deliberate decision by the league.↩
- In a lost marketing opportunity, Webb did not attend Wichita State.↩