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Fair Catch On a Kickoff Explained

Every time the ball is kicked off, returners have 3 options – run it out, take a knee (if they’re in the end zone), or this new one that is appearing in the college game – calling for a fair catch.

So why do teams call for a fair catch on a kickoff? In college football, calling for a fair catch will automatically start the drive on the 25-yard line. The returner must catch the football inside of the 25-yard line for it to be automatically placed on the 25-yard line.

Teams are starting to fair catch kickoffs more often for a few reasons:

  1. Decent Field Position
  2. No-Risk Of Turnovers
  3. No-Risk Of Injury

Players who run 4.3 and 4.4 40 yard dashes are often placed on the kickoff to cover the kick as fast as possible.

Higher speeds also mean higher impact. If a team can receive the football, not risk a turnover, and more importantly, not risk injury, it may be worth it to call for a fair catch and take it at the 25.

What Happens If A Player Tries To Fair Catch Outside The 25 yard Line?

Glad you asked! Please take a look at our video below!

Welcome to Episode 1 of “What’s The Call: Fair Catch On A Kickoff”! Each week we’ll walk you through unique plays from the NFL, College, High School, and even youth levels to help you better understand the complexities of football.

This week we’ll be looking at a fair catch on a kickoff!

Our goal is to make sure every player that steps in between the white lines is fully prepared for all situational gameplay.

Our ‘plays of the week’ will help athletes and parents clarify rules and referee interpretations to understand the game better.

The play of the week is from Bellingham High School (MA) and Case High School (Swansea, MA).

These special teams’ play is unique because it involves a sky kickoff from Bellingham and a fair catch on a kickoff call from Case.  Let’s take a look at the clip above.

The Sky Kickoff

The Sky Kickoff is often seen at the high school level, where the kicker will try to kick the ball as high as they can, either 10 or 15 yards downfield. This does a few things.

  • Limits a kick return
  • It gives the kickoff team a chance to recover the football
  • It puts pressure on the first or second-line player (who are often a lineman)

Coaches who opt for the sky kickoff are often aware of the field position they are giving up (compared to a regular deep kickoff) but believe that the items noted above outweigh the risk.

the football handbook

The Fair Catch Signal

The fair catch signal was put in place to protect players from being hit as they try to receive the ball. See the rules below.

Players who are signaling for a fair catch on a kickoff must put their hand high above their head and wave it back and forth. Referees need a clear distinction for when a player is calling for a fair catch.

If there’s any confusion about whether a player is waving his hand for a fair catch, the referee may miss it or, even worse, not call it. This could result in a big hit or possibly a muffed play for the returner.

As the ball is kicked in the air, a Bellingham defender jumps in front of the fair catch signaler and tips the ball to himself. So, therefore, we ask, is this play legal?

Please take a look and leave a comment below to let us know how you interpret fair catch on a kickoff rule!

Fair Catch On A Kickoff

The play is thought to be ruled legal for 2 main reasons:

  1. The play is given a 1-yard “halo,” as it’s often referred to,  to catch the ball. This ensures that anyone receiving a kick will be protected from the kickoff team.
  2. The player tried to tip the ball to himself. It’s not illegal batting (pushing or kicking the ball forward for personal gain) because he did not push the ball forward to gain an advantage on the play but rather tipped it away to try to recover it.

The one little piece missing from the video and the rulebook is that the player must be allowed to complete the catch.

As soon as the returner waves his hand over his head (signaling for the fair catch), all defenders must give way to the returner to catch the football.

As mentioned above, the player must be given a 1-yard “halo” to catch the football; this applies to punts and kickoffs.

The player (as shown above) tipped the ball but did not give the returner a full chance to catch the ball, thus resulting in a penalty for the kicking team of “Kick-Catch Interference.”

Here is a great explanation of the kick-catch interference rule from the NFL rulebook:

Section 2 Fair Catch
Article 1 A Fair Catch is an unhindered catch of an airborne scrimmage kick that has crossed the line of
scrimmage, or of an airborne free kick, by a player of the receiving team who has given a valid fair catch

Article 2
Item 1: Valid Fair-Catch SignalA fair-catch signal is valid if it is made while the kick is in flight by a
player who fully extends one arm above his helmet and waves it from side to side. A receiver is
permitted to legally raise his hand(s) to his helmet to shield his eyes from the sun, but is not permitted
to raise them above his helmet except to signal for a fair catch.

Item 2: Invalid Fair-Catch Signal. If a player raises his hand(s) above his shoulder(s) in any other
manner, it is an invalid fair-catch signal. If there is an invalid fair-catch signal, the ball is dead when
caught or recovered by any player of the receiving team, but it is not a fair catch. (The ball is not dead
if it touches an opponent before or after it strikes the ground. See Article 3b).
Note: A fair-catch signal given behind the line of scrimmage on a scrimmage kick is ignored and is neither valid
nor invalid.
Penalty: For an invalid fair-catch signal: Loss of five yards from the spot of the signal.

Item 3: Muff. After a valid fair-catch signal, the opportunity to catch a kick does not end if the ball is
muffed. The player who signaled for a fair catch must have a reasonable opportunity to catch the
muffed ball before it hits the ground without interference by members of the kicking team, and
regardless of whether the ball strikes another player or an official.
Penalty: For interference with the opportunity to make a fair catch after a muff: A fair catch is awarded at the spot of the interference even if the ball is not caught.

Item 4: Intentional Muff. An intentional muff forward prior to a catch in order to gain ground is an illegal
bat (see 12-1-8).

Item 5: Illegal Block. Until the ball touches a teammate or an opponent, a player who makes a valid or
invalid fair-catch signal is prohibited from blocking or initiating contact with a player of the kicking
Penalty: For an illegal block after a fair-catch signal: Loss of 15 yards from the spot of the foul.

By rule, this play is illegal and was properly flagged by the referees!

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Keep Learning

There are many rules like this in football, which are often confusing. We help to break down these rules in our beginner’s guide, which can be found in our learning center here.

If you want to get a step-by-step walkthrough of learning the game of football, we highly recommend you check out our football handbook.

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Roger Etter

Sunday 28th of November 2021

In the first quarter of The Game (November 27, 1021), an Ohio State return man signals for a fair catch on the kickoff following Michigan's first score. There is some confusion with another OSU return man, and he catches the football after the first bounce on the ground. The play is immediately blown dead by the referees at the four yard line. Why was the ball not advanced to the 25 yard line, under the kickoff fair catch rule? If not catching the ball before it hits the ground voids the kickoff fair catch rule, why was he not allowed to advance the ball by running before the referees blew the whistle? He could have advanced it at least another 5 yards, if the play had not been blown dead.

Will Stott

Sunday 5th of September 2021

Legal you can only fair catch within the goal line to 25 yard line.

Danny Painter

Sunday 5th of January 2020

2019 postseason game for January 4, 2020. Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans. Houston's returner catches the ball in the end zone and then throws the ball to the referee and one of the Bills players picks up the football for a touchdown. Was it a touchdown or was there a fair catch?