Fair Catch On a Kickoff Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: March 6, 2024

Every time the ball is kicked off, returners have three options – run it out, take a knee (if they’re in the end zone), or call for a fair catch. 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 the 25-yard line, and it will automatically be placed on the 25-yard line.

In this article, we’re going to show you why kick returners will fair catch on a kickoff.

Fair Catch On Kickoff

The fair catch rule was implemented to help protect returners. The fair catch is signaled by the kick returner waving their hand high in the air. This signals to the referee that the returner will not try to run with the football when it’s caught, and they will down the ball where they are.

Fair catches often happen on punt returns but are now more commonly seen on kickoffs.

The rule for fair catches on kickoffs states that the returner can fair catch the kickoff and if they are inside of the 25-yard line, the ball will be placed on the 25-yard line automatically.

If the fair catch is made outside of the 25-yard line, then the team will start with the football in that position.

For example, if the returner fair catches the football on the 40-yard line, they will start with the football on the 40-yard line. If the returner signals for a fair catch on the 10-yard line, the ball will be brought out to the 25-yard line.

Why Do Teams Fair Catch On A Kickoff?

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

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

Players who run 4.3 and 4.4 40-yard dashes are usually 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 calling for a fair catch and taking it at the 25.

The Fair Catch Signal

Fair Catch On Kickoff

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

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 when a player calls 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 a muffed play for the returner.

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Fair Catch On a Kickoff Rule Explained

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.

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

If the kicking team does not give the returner a chance to catch the ball, it will result in a penalty for the kicking team. This penalty is called “kick-catch interference.”

Here is an excellent 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. 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, 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 will be flagged by the referees.

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 possible, 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 players (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.

Now that you’ve learned about the fair catch, don’t stop there!

Keep Learning

The kickoff is one of the most important plays in football. It determines the offense’s starting field position. The better the field position, the easier it is for teams to score. This is why special teams such as kickoffs and punts are so important.

If you’re looking to learn more about special teams, these related articles will help you:

Onside Kick In Football: Everything You Need To Know

What Is A Punt In American Football

How To Install A Kick Return Team

Assembling An Effective Punt Team

The Fair Catch Rule Explained

Why Do Players Take A Knee On Kickoff?

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

If you want to get a step-by-step walkthrough of learning the football game, we recommend checking out our Ultimate Football Guide!

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About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.