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Ron Pexa: What About That Call? November 20, 2008
By Ron Pexa
Nov 20, 2008 - 3:26:21 PM

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One of the least known and rarely attempted plays in football was brought to my attention this past week by a reader who thought that a bit of discussion and background on this play might make an interesting column. Well, after asking a few friends and acquaintances if they were familiar with the play, only about half of them even knew it was legal or even possible. The play I’m referring to is the “fair catch kick”. In the NFL and the National Federation (high school) rules, the receiving team, after making a fair catch of an opponents kick, may elect to attempt a free kick field goal from the spot of the catch. In other words, if the receiving team elects the fair catch kick option, the kicking team lines up at the spot of the catch and the opposing team at least 10 yards down field, similar to a free kick formation that starts the first and third quarters and following a score. The kicker may then place-kick the ball from a teammates hold (or drop kick) and score three points for kicking the ball through the uprights.


In practice, a fair catch kick is indistinguishable from other free kicks, but specific rules apply that are not present during other free kick situations. It is the only free kick in which the kicking team can score a field goal, and on-side kicks are not allowed, meaning the ball cannot be recovered by the kicking team unless first touched by the receiving team. If the scoring attempt fails, the rules are the same as those applying to a missed field goal attempted from scrimmage; the opposing team has the option of fielding the ball and attempting a run back or taking possession at the spot of the kick. As in successful field goal attempts and touchdowns, a successful fair catch kick is followed by a normal kick off.

An ideal combination of circumstances must be present to make it advantageous for a team to elect a fair catch kick, thereby making it a play that is rarely attempted. The preceding kick would have to be fair-caught at a point where a kicker had a reasonable chance to kick the ball the necessary distance to split the uprights, and normally with insufficient time to run more than one play from scrimmage. However, if the circumstances are favorable, there are several reasons to prefer a fair catch kick to one attempted from scrimmage. The fair catch kick is attempted from the yard-line of the catch, as opposed to the seven yards back during a field goal try. As the opposing team must remain at least ten yards down field until the ball is kicked, the kicker can take a running start rather than the usual two steps when executing the kick. Any concerns about a bad snap or a low kick being blocked by the defenders are also eliminated during a fair catch kick.

There have only been eighteen fair catch kicks attempted in the National Football League since it’s inception in 1920, with only four of those being successful. The last successful fair catch kick occurred on November 3, 1968 when a 43 yard attempt by the Bears Max Percival was good with 20 seconds remaining in the game to give the Bears an improbable 13-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The last fair catch kick attempted in the NFL was on October 9, 2005, when a kick from 58 yards by Tennessee’s Rob Bironas in a game against the Houston Texans fell short.

This weeks question is from Don in Cedar Rapids. “When is the ball carrier actually considered down or tackled? In a game I was watching, the offense was running a sweep and the ball carrier lost his footing and was falling to the ground. While falling forward, he was able to regain his balance by pushing the ball in his hand to the ground and pushing himself back up. No part of the ball carriers body other than his feet touched the ground. One of the officials blew the play dead pointing at the ground saying the ball touched the ground. Was the official correct? I did not think the play was over just because the ball touched the ground.”

As Don describes this play, the official ruling the play dead was incorrect. NCAA rule 4-1, Article 3 states: “A live ball becomes dead and an official shall sound his whistle or declare it dead: (b)When any part of the ball carriers body except his hand or his foot, touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body, except his hand or foot”. Therefore, the act of touching a ball to the ground alone does not cause the ball to become dead.

During an game a few years back, former NFL referee Art Holst called a facemask penalty. The offending player ran up to Holst and before he could complain, Holst shouted at the player telling him to “get back in there and play football before I bite your head off.” Properly chastised, the player simply looked down at Holst and replyed, “If you do sir, you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you have in your head.”

Send your questions to ref@eiherald.com or write to P.O. Box 336, Victor, IA, 52347.

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