The fair catch kick is a rule at the professional and high school levels of American football that allows a team that has just made a fair catch to attempt a free kick[A] from the spot of the catch. The kick must be either a place kick or a drop kick, and if it passes over the crossbar and between the goalposts of the defensive team's goal, a field goal, worth three points, is scored to the offensive team.
The fair catch kick has its origins in rugby football. The rule is considered to be obscure and unusual, as most fair catches are made well out of field goal range, and in most cases a team that has a fair catch within theoretical range will attempt a normal drive to score a touchdown. The fair catch kick is generally used when a team has fair caught a ball within field goal range and there is insufficient time to score a touchdown. At the professional level, the last successful fair catch kick was made in 1976.
The fair catch kick rule states that, after a player has successfully made a fair catch or has been awarded a fair catch (as the result of a penalty such as kick catch interference), their team can attempt a kick from the spot of the catch; the NFHS also allows a kick to be made if the down following the fair catch or awarded fair catch has to be replayed. Prior to the kick, the opposing team must be lined up at least ten yards beyond the spot of the ball. The kick itself can be either a place kick or drop kick; a kicking tee cannot be used at the professional level, but use of a tee up to two inches in height is permitted at the high school level. Like other field goal attempts, the kicking team is awarded three points if the kick goes above the crossbar and between the goalposts of the opposing team's goal and did not touch a player of the offensive team after the kick. If the attempt fails, the opposing team is awarded control of the ball from the spot of the kick. The opposing team can also return the kick if it does not go out of bounds.
In the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rulebook, the fair catch kick is specifically defined as a free kick. The National Football League (NFL) rulebook specifically states that the fair catch kick is not a free kick, instead considering the fair catch kick to be a distinct type of kick. Despite this, reporters at both levels describe the fair catch kick as a free kick.
The fair catch kick found in American football originated in rugby football. A similar rule in rugby, the goal from mark, allowed a player who had fair caught a ball to attempt an uncontested free kick from the spot of the fair catch. Both major codes of rugby have eliminated the rule; rugby league abolished the goal from mark in 1922, and rugby union removed it in 1977.Australian rules football has retained the rule, and it is a vital part of the Australian game; a "fair catch" of a ball kicked more than 15 metres in the air is called a "mark", and the player making the mark is then awarded a free kick. The fair catch kick has been present in the National Football League (NFL) rulebook since the league's inception, and also remains in the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rulebook. The fair catch kick is not legal in National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) football; the NCAA abolished the fair catch in 1950, but re-added it a year later. When the fair catch returned to the rulebook, however, the option to attempt a kick after the fair catch was removed.
The fair catch kick rule is very rarely invoked, and is one of the rarest plays in football. The rule has been regarded as "obscure", "bizarre", and "quirky". A unique set of circumstances is required for a fair catch kick to be a viable option. For one, the fair catch would need to be made at a point on the field where a field goal attempt has a reasonable chance of being successful; most fair catches are made well outside of field goal range (even more so since 1974, when the goal posts were moved back to the end line, adding 10 yards to such attempts). Furthermore, for a fair catch kick to be a viable option near the end of the fourth quarter, the team attempting the kick needs to be either tied or behind by three points or fewer; even if a game is tied, a fair catch kick might be unpalatable, as it is possible the ball lands in the field of play and the opponent returns it for a touchdown (hence why, when the possibility of a 75-yard fair catch kick arose in Super Bowl LI, the idea was nixed). In exceptional circumstances a team might try the kick at the end of the first half if only a few seconds remained, but Art McNally, who led the officiating department of the National Football League from 1968 to 1990, notes that, even in the event a fair catch is made within field goal range, most teams would attempt to score a touchdown unless there is not enough time left to score one. Accordingly, most fair catch kick attempts occur when a team has fair-caught a ball from a punt from deep in their opponent's territory, and there is not enough time left in the half to go for a touchdown.
Despite its drawbacks, there are several advantages to using the fair catch kick. Because the defense is required to be ten yards beyond the spot of the kick, the kicker can take a running start before kicking as opposed to the typical two steps taken on regular field goal attempts. Similarly, the kicker does not have to worry about a low snap because the ball is not snapped. The defense is not able to block the kick, allowing the kicker to give the ball a lower trajectory than usual. The fair catch kick would also be of a shorter distance than a normal field goal attempt from the same spot, because the fair catch kick is taken from the spot of the catch, while a typical field goal is taken seven yards back from the line of scrimmage.
The following tables contain all confirmed fair catch kick attempts in the NFL; the NFL does not keep a record of fair catch kick attempts, so the true number of attempts is unknown. Out of the twenty-four recorded fair catch kick attempts in non-exhibition games, only six were successful; all five known attempts in exhibition games were unsuccessful. With the exception of the second recorded attempt, which was made in the 3rd quarter, all fair catch kick attempts were made within the last thirty seconds of either the 2nd or 4th quarter. The last successful attempt was made in 1976 by Ray Wersching of the San Diego Chargers (45 yards), and the longest successful attempt was made in 1964 by Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers (52 yards). The most recent fair catch kick attempt was by San Francisco 49ers kicker Phil Dawson, who missed a 71-yard fair catch kick on September 26, 2013. In 2017, with 3 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI, the New England Patriots declined an opportunity to attempt a 75-yard fair catch kick, which would have won the game if successful, because of the risk of a return if the kick came up short.
|Date||Kicker||Kicking team||Opponent||Yards||Result||Game time||Note(s)||Reference(s)|
|November 8, 1925||George Abramson||Green Bay Packers||Chicago Cardinals||35||Good||4th quarter||Game played in snow on a muddy field.|
|November 20, 1933||Ken Strong||New York Giants||Green Bay Packers||30||Good||3rd quarter|||
|October 23, 1955||Ben Agajanian||New York Giants||Pittsburgh Steelers||56||Missed||2nd quarter (0:30)|||
|November 2, 1958||Gordy Soltau||San Francisco 49ers||Detroit Lions||61||Missed||2nd quarter (0:15)|||
|September 13, 1964||Sam Baker||Philadelphia Eagles||New York Giants||47||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|September 13, 1964||Paul Hornung||Green Bay Packers||Chicago Bears||52||Good||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|December 4, 1966||Fred Cox||Minnesota Vikings||Atlanta Falcons||40||Good||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|November 23, 1967||Bruce Gossett||Los Angeles Rams||Detroit Lions||55||Missed||2nd quarter (0:03)|||
|November 3, 1968||Mac Percival||Chicago Bears||Green Bay Packers||43||Good||4th quarter (0:20)||Game-winning field goal|||
|December 8, 1968||Fred Cox||Minnesota Vikings||San Francisco 49ers||47||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|October 5, 1969||Curt Knight||Washington Redskins||San Francisco 49ers||56||Missed||4th quarter (0:02)||The game finished as a 17-17 tie.|||
|November 23, 1969||Tom Dempsey||New Orleans Saints||San Francisco 49ers||57||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|December 21, 1969||Sam Baker||Philadelphia Eagles||San Francisco 49ers||49||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|November 1, 1970||Curt Knight||Washington Redskins||Denver Broncos||49||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|November 8, 1971||David Ray||Los Angeles Rams||Baltimore Colts||45||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||Aired on Monday Night Football.|||
|November 21, 1976||Ray Wersching||San Diego Chargers||Buffalo Bills||45||Good||2nd quarter (0:00)||Last known successful fair catch kick in the NFL.|||
|November 25, 1979||Mark Moseley||Washington Redskins||New York Giants||74||Missed||4th quarter||Longest field goal attempt on record until 2008.|||
|September 29, 1980||Fred Steinfort||Denver Broncos||New England Patriots||73||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|November 18, 1984||Raul Allegre||Indianapolis Colts||New England Patriots||61||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||Fair catch was called off an onside kick.|||
|January 1, 1989||Mike Cofer||San Francisco 49ers'||Minnesota Vikings||60||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||NFC Divisional Playoff game|||
|October 9, 2005||Rob Bironas||Tennessee Titans||Houston Texans||58||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||
|November 23, 2008||Neil Rackers||Arizona Cardinals||New York Giants||68||Missed||2nd quarter (0:05)|||
|December 28, 2008||Mason Crosby||Green Bay Packers||Detroit Lions||69||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||Ball was on target but fell just short of the crossbar.|||
|September 26, 2013||Phil Dawson||San Francisco 49ers||St. Louis Rams||71||Missed||2nd quarter (0:04)||Thursday Night Football|||
|Date||Kicker||Kicking team||Opponent||Yards||Result||Game time||Note(s)||Reference(s)|
|January 9, 1966||Lou Michaels||Baltimore Colts||Dallas Cowboys||57||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||Playoff Bowl game[D]|||
|July 29, 1972||Chester Marcol||College All-Stars||Dallas Cowboys||68||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)||Chicago College All-Star Game|||
|August 9, 1972||Mac Percival||Chicago Bears||Houston Oilers||60||Missed||4th quarter (0:15)|||
|August 31, 1986||Rafael Septién||Dallas Cowboys||Houston Oilers||53||Missed||4th quarter (0:00)|||
|August 8, 1993||Chris Gardocki||Chicago Bears||Philadelphia Eagles||63||Missed||2nd quarter (0:00)|||