Oct 2015: Reprinted from the Bonus Morsels chapter of Football Morsels: The Supporting Cast
FAIR CATCH KICKS
Even more quirky than the missed FG return for touchdown stands another obscure NFL rule – the fair catch kick. In the event of a fair catch after a punt, kickoff or a free kick (after a safety), the receiving team has the option to attempt a FG from the spot of the ball. According to article 10.2.4(a) of the NFL rulebook:
“After a fair catch is made, or is awarded as the result of fair catch interference, the receiving team has the option of putting the ball in play by a fair-catch kick (drop kick or placekick without a tee) from the spot of the catch.”
The defensive team must line up their team 10-yard from the free kick attempt and cannot rush the kicker. Without any pressure coming from the other team, the kicker can take a running start like on kickoffs, instead of the 2-step approach on a regular FG attempt, and kick the ball on a lower trajectory allowing for potentially longer attempts.
But the fair catch kick rarely happens for a couple of reasons. First, in the case of a kickoff or even a free kick punt from the 20-yard line after a safety, the fair catch would typically take place deep within their own territory and the FG attempt would be absurdly long. Even if the receiving team made the fair catch at the 35-yard line, it would result in a 75-yard FG attempt. Outside of whacko Sebastian Janikowski and the Oakland Raiders’ outlandish 76-yard FG attempt in 2008, no coach in his right mind would consider such a low percentage play. Second, in the rare case that the fair catch yielded decent field position, say near the 50-yard line, the fair catch kick would only result in an attempt if it occurred at the end of the first half of regulation. Otherwise, the receiving team’s offense would take over and attempt to drive down field from decent field position. Typically, these rare plays have occurred after stopping the opposing team forcing a punt from deep in their own territory, or if a kicking team drew a 15-yard penalty during an extra point, pushing back the kicking team to kick-off from the 20.
However, it turns out that in the modern era, four teams have invoked the fair catch rule successfully. Ray Wershing of the Chargers last negotiated a fair catch kick in 1976. All four of these attempts occurred after woeful punts that left the spot of the ball on the short side of the field. Only Mac Percival’s kick came in the 4th quarter, grasping an assured overtime away from the Packers, and handing the Bears a 13-10 win.
The last unsuccessful attempt came in 2013 when Phil Dawson of the 49ers pulled a Janikowski and talked his coach into attempting the fair catch kick from their 39-yard line. Like Sebastian, he also came up ridiculously short on a 71-yard attempt at the end of the first half.
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