October 11, 2007

Illegal Touching and the Fair Catch Free Kick

In my continuing series on obscure football rules, I bring to you two nuances of punting that most people do not seem to understand.

Illegal Touching

If you watch any football, you've seen players commit the foul of illegal touching many times each game. The officials do not throw any flags, though they do signify that foul by touching both hands to the tops of their shoulders. You don't think of it as illegal touching, because we call it "downing" a punt.

However, illegal touching has one fantastic effect. Once a player on the punting team touches a punted ball that has not made contact with a return team player, no matter what happens afterwards, the return team can always elect to have the ball at the spot of illegal touching. If the punting team touches and controls the ball, the official takes an "official timeout", and awards the return team the ball at the spot of the touching.

It's the other circumstance that every special teams player in the league should know by heart. If the punting team touches the ball and does not control it, there is absolutely no reason why the nearest player should not attempt to pick up the ball and run with it. Throw laterals willy-nilly down the field. Make every attempt to score. This should be done any time the punt is shanked and hits a punt team player in the back, or any time a player non-chalantly touches a ball and walks away from it. After the result of the play, the return team can elect to either take the ball at the spot of illegal touching, or decline the foul and take the result of the return.

It is important to note, however, that illegal touching does not offset ANY other foul. If a team throws a forwards lateral, flagrantly grabs a face mask, and/or spikes the ball in celebration, those fouls will be assessed.

In 2000, Ravens SS Corey Harris picked up a touched but not downed punt and returned it all the way to the other 20. The punt team had started to leave the field after one player touched the ball and stood around looking at it.

Amazingly, Jerry Markbreit addressed this too in the Chicago Tribune.

Fair Catch Kick

The holy grail for true football rules nerds, the Fair Catch Kick is so obscure that Chan Gailey (corrected, not Dave Campo surprisingly) admitted not knowing about it when provided with a perfect opportunity to use it in a Monday Night game some years back.

Here is the rule:
After a fair catch, the receiving team has the option to put the ball in play by a snap or a fair catch kick (field goal attempt), with fair catch kick lines established ten yards apart. All general rules apply as for a field goal attempt from scrimmage. The clock starts when the ball is kicked. (No tee permitted.)

Read that again. After a fair catch, the return team can elect business as usual (run normal plays from the line of scrimmage) or to attempt an uncontested field goal with a ten yard buffer zone.

Normally, fair catches are not made in field goal range. However, the rule applies even if there is no time remaining when the fair catch is made. Plus, since the kick is not contested, a fair catch made at mid-field presents the opportunity for an unblockable (as low a trajectory as you want, so long as the players ten yards away can't get a hand on it) 60-yard field goal attempt. Also, the kicker may take as many steps as he wants approaching the ball to strike it. It is conceivable that a 70+ yard field goal could be made in this manner by a strong kicker.

It would be advisable to attempt a fair catch kick with very little time left in the half or game, or even with a moderate amount of time left (:20 or so), no time outs, and a desperate need for three points. Don't forget also that fair catches can be made on kickoffs, though that is why onsides kicks are typically bounced off the ground.

Remember, however, that a fair catch free kick is a free kick, and is thus returnable by the opposing team. In addition, a fair catch free kick out of bounds gives the ball to the return team 30 yards from the kick spot (as on a kickoff). Hank Stram, according to Wikipedia, expressly declined to attempt a long fair catch free kick at the end of regulation in the tied Chiefs-Dolphins longest game ever played (ended in 2nd OT on a Kellen Winslow, Sr., TD if I remember correctly) in the playoffs because he was scared Mercury Morris would run it back for a TD. If you didn't love Hank Stram before reading that, you had better love him now.

blahblahblahblah Matriculate the ball on your own time Mercury

Jerry Markbreit is aware of two Fair Catch Free Kicks attempted in the NFL, and both were unsuccessful. Wikipedia has a list of all attempts, including an incredible 74-yard attempt by Mark Moseley of the Skins against the Giants in the era before the two-point conversion.

There is no fair catch free kick option in college. There is, apparently, in high school football under standard rules. In fact, high school rules allow the use of a tee, whereas NFL rules require the ball be drop kicked or held by a teammate. A tee is thought to add 5-10 yards to kicking distance (much like in golf).

10 Responses:

"ben" said...

Mmmkay, one question:

"However, the rule applies even if there is no time remaining when the fair catch is made."

Since the rule said you can choose to run a play or have a fair catch kick, and you say this rule applies even with no time left, does this mean that:

If 0:01 remains on the clock at the snap and team A punts to team B, time runs out when the ball is punted. However, if a fair catch is called, though there are zero seconds, team B still gets one untimed down, correct?

Naturally this would never happen as team A would obviously just take the full second to kneel down and end the game.

J-Red said...

Team B only gets one untimed down with which to make a fair catch free kick. They cannot run a normal play. That is my understanding from the official explanation during the Campo game I saw.

It is also my understanding that a fair catch free kick could prevent a quarter from ending. With the right weather conditions, three points with the wind might be better than switching sides.

J-Red said...

Wikipedia has a nice entry on the fair catch free kick, and it supports my quarter ending theory. Apparently, it was used to win a game in 1968.

Here's an interesting entry: Mark Moseley, Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants, November 25, 1979. Short from 74 yards near the end of the game (the Redskins were trailing 14-6 and hoped to score quickly & recover the onside kick; there was no 2-point conversion rule until 1994).

J-Red said...

Oops. It was Chan Gailey, not Campo.

J-Red said...

Oh, and the Vikings petitioned the NFL to rename "illegal touching" to "Mark Chmura" back in the mid-90's, but Tagliabue, himself having a fifteen year old daughter, did not see the humor.

J-Red said...

As the Wikipedia article states, the fair catch free kick takes its place from rugby's "kick from mark". It's interesting to note that a major part of Australian Rules Football is the kick from mark. A mark is a successful catch of an airborne punted ball. In Aussie Rules, a player who cleanly catches a punted ball gets a few steps to run up and attempt to kick the ball between the two tall posts (goal = 6 points) or between one of the two shorter posts and a tall post (behind = 1 point).

Russell said...

The best random part of Aussie rules football is the six-shooter signal for a successful goal.

J-Red said...

Double six-shooters for a goal. One six-shooter for a behind.

The fact that Terrell Owens hasn't adopted that as his standard post-TD celebration in Big D blows my mind.

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Layzeeboy said...

Neil Rackers of the Cardinals attempted a 68 yard Fair Catch Free Kick against the Giants today. (5 seconds remaining in the first half, down 17-12). He shanked it (looked like an on-side attempt), the Giants recovered and time expired. FOX announcers incorrectly stated that he had the option of using a tee.

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