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The very rare fair catch kick may be something that wins you a game. Many coaches aren’t aware of this rule, but it does exist in high school football and the NFL. The rule does not apply in college football.
Article 10.2.4(a) of the NFL rule book spells it out: “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.”
Here’s the last time it was attempted in the NFL in 2008. According to the announcer, the last time it was successful was Chicago in 1968 against Green Bay, though I have found another source saying the last successful attempt was in 1976 by Ray Wersching of San Diego against the Buffalo Bills. Either way, it’s a rare play.
Go to the youtube link here to see Chicago’s attempt in 1968 for the win. It’s at 3:40 into the video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq9VxGpyreI
As you can see Rackers shanked the kick and the Giants could return it. For this reason, the team that is attempting the free kick must cover in order to prevent a return. More on this later.
Here is the section of the NFHS Rule Book that defines the free kick situation:
SECTION 24 KICKS
ART. 3 . . . A free kick is any legal kick which puts the ball in play to start a free kick down. After the ready-for-play signal and before the kick, each player other than the kicker and holder for a place kick must be behind his free-kick line. A free kick is used for a kickoff, for a kick following a safety, and is used if a free kick is chosen following a fair catch or awarded fair catch.
ART. 7 . . . A place kick is a legal kick made while the ball is in a fixed position on the ground or on a kicking tee. No material or device may be placed on the ground to improve the kicker’s footing. The ball also may be held in position on the ground or on a kicking tee by a place-kick holder who shall be a teammate of the kicker. A place kick may be used for a scrimmage kick, a kickoff, a free kick following a safety or for a free kick following a fair catch or awarded fair catch.
This is a situation that I had my teams practice every week. In my second year as a head coach, I almost called for it, but we determined that we would be out of range. Though it is something you may never use, it’s best to have your team prepared for this in case you do decide to use it.
The following video is a good example of what needs to be covered with your team in order to pull it off. Each point will be discussed in detail.
Obviously, the first thing that needs to happen is that you pin your opponent deep and force them to punt. This is where you probably should have a specific play call for this on the return. We simply called it “fair catch for free kick.” From a strategy standpoint, you will still want to have at least one rusher in the case of a bad snap. You will also want to consider putting two returners back.
You should have an idea of what type of punter the opposing team has and where to place your returners. You will want your returners to be spaced properly so at least one of them can make the fair catch. If the punter you are facing likes to kick it straight away, then you may want a returner deep and a returner short. Again, this is where some special teams scouting and game planning is important.
After you have successfully executed the fair catch, now you have the opportunity to align for a free kick. The ball may be placed anywhere across the line of scrimmage, so your kicker does have the opportunity to line his kick up wherever he wants it on the line of scrimmage. You will want to use your kick off unit to do this because the ball is live after the kick and can be returned by the opposing team.
In high school, the kicking team is allowed to use any legal tee including the tee used for kick offs. The point we always stressed with the rest of the unit was to not go offside. Because the distance they were covering was less than a typical kick off we had them stay back and see the kick instead of trying to time it up to be as close to the line as possible. The “receiving team” must be at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage exactly like a kick off.
If you are on the opposite side of a free kick, the important thing to remember is the ball is live. If for some reason it is short or is shanked, the kicking team can recover and get the ball at the spot they recovered. Obviously with time left on the clock this is something you do not want to happen, so be sure to recover all free kicks. Any ball caught or recovered in the end zone by the receiving team will be ruled a touch back in high school.
If the ball goes through the uprights, it is worth the same as a field goal, 3 points.
Here’s something to be sure you cover with your team if you are punting. Be absolutely sure you do not interfere with the fair catch. If the team fair catching is interfered with, they will march off 15 yards and the fair catch is still awarded which means they may attempt a free kick. You don’t want to make the kick any easier.
Strategy on Using the Fair Catch Kick
1. The end of the half is an obvious place to use this. Many teams look to get good field position when they force the opponent to punt from their end zone at the end of the half. Based on your timeouts and the time left, you may be better off attempting to fair catch the punt and take the free kick opportunity. Three points on the board at the half can make a difference later in the game. It’s much easier and probably higher percentage than running a shot at the end zone and then aligning for a long field goal. In this situation if you are unsure, you could call for the fair catch attempt and make the decision after.
2. If you have at least one time out left, put your offense out on the field and attempt to draw them offsides with a freeze play. If they don’t jump you can call timeout and align your free kick. If they do jump you can get the free five yards and be closer for your free kick.
3. If you are up at least seven points with under two minutes left, but they have all of their timeouts, you may want to put the extra three points on the board with a free kick.
4. At the end of the game, this is a consideration as well. This is where being a great game manager comes into play. Has this been a tight defensive battle? What is the other team’s ability like in running a two minute or uptempo pace? Do you feel confident about coming out and stopping them after going up by a few points? If the situation warrants taking the lead and playing defense, then when you execute this play may be with more time left than just a last second kick.
Good luck this season, and remember that you can only expect your players to be competent in situations which they understand and work in practice.
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