The Fair Catch Rule In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

The fair catch rule in football was made to protect the punt returner. Multiple scenarios may occur once the player. What is a fair catch in football?

The fair catch in football protects the returner when catching a high kick on both kickoff and punt return. When a player signals for a fair catch, he can’t be touched or tackled.

Let’s learn what a fair catch is and what else can happen when a player calls for a fair catch.

The Fair Catch Rule

We often see a player on a punt return wave his hand above his head for a fair catch – to protect himself from contact.

Many coaches and players are under the impression that the ball is dead, and both the offenses and defenses come on the field.

There are, however, more options that may occur once a fair catch is signaled.

  • The Offense and Defense of each team come on the field
  • The Kickoff and Kickoff Return teams take the field

Let’s first look at the most common option.

Why Players Fair Catch

As shown in the video above, the punt returner is signaling a fair catch. We often see returners signal for a fair catch for many reasons:

  • Protect themselves from contact
  • Secure the ball
  • To ensure the Punt Team will not gain any more yards on the kick

The first reason is the most common. The punt team has ten players running at you (often with 40 yards, full head of steam). The best way to protect yourself is to signal a fair catch, catch the football, and end the play.

However, the fair catch rule puts pressure on the returner – as he more than likely will have 4-5 players surrounding him (most of the time yelling for him to mess up).

Players under pressure will often misjudge the ball and muff the punt due to the pressure of the players surrounding them.

Poor punt returners will let the ball roll behind them and give up an extra 10-15 yards.

This is crucial for teams, as they’re giving up potential first downs and valuable field positions.

Securing the football and ending the play can help the field position for the offense.

What Is The Fair Catch Kick?

First, take a look at the video below to understand the rule and the situation we describe fully.

Fair Catch Kick

Let’s dive into the ruling above.

The other option after a fair catch rule is the fair-catch kick. Brace yourself for this ruling cause. I guarantee you’ve never seen it before.

The Fair Catch rule, according to the NFL rulebook:

A Kick is intentionally striking the ball with the knee, lower leg, or foot. A kick ends when a player of either team possesses the ball, or when the ball is dead.

Item 1. Drop Kick. A Drop Kick is a kick by a player who drops the ball and kicks it as, or immediately after, it touches the ground.

Item 2. Placekick. A Placekick is a kick made by a player while the ball is in a fixed position on the ground. The ball may be held in position by a teammate. If it is a kickoff, it is permissible to use an approved manufactured tee.

Item 3. Punt. A Punt is a kick made by a player who drops the ball and kicks it before it strikes the ground.


A Fair Catch Kick is a drop kick or placekick without a tee from the spot of a Fair Catch in an attempt to score a Field Goal.

The game clock operator shall start the game clock for a fair-catch kick down when the ball is kicked.

This ruling can happen after a punt or after a kickoff. These rules are rarely known by the average coach, so if you read below you can see how to successfully make a fair catch signal and give your team an advantage.

Uncover your opponent’s offensive and defensive tendencies so you can easily build a game plan.

Inside You’ll Find:

  • Strategies to pick apart defenses
  • How to identify player weaknesses
  • How to save time in your weekly breakdowns

How To Initiate a Fair Catch Kick


Rule in football you may not know! Fair catch Kick!

♬ original sound – vIQtory Sports

The player must wave their hand in the air above their head. The special teams coaches (or head coach) must then tell the referee he will attempt a fair-catch kick. If they do not go above their head, it can be an invalid fair catch signal.

This will prompt both coaches to put out their kickoff and kickoff return teams.

The fair catch rule (for kicking) is a bit different. Here’s why:

  • The Defense can’t rush or attempt to block the kick
  • The kicking team has to cover the kick after it’s kicked

The defense will stand still and wait until the ball is kicked. It’s similar to a kickoff return but with no movement. It seems awkward and unfair when the kicking team has a free try at points.

This rule is similar to football’s ancestor – Rugby, where the kicker attempts to make an extra point with no rushers. This means they get a free kick.

Second, the kicking team needs to cover the kick. In both clips shown above, the kick was well short.

The kicking team needs to treat it as a kickoff now and tackle the returner.

How Many Points Is A Fair Catch Kick Worth?

Fair Catch Kick

The fair-catch kick is worth 3 points, similar to a field goal.

If the return team returns the fair-catch kick for a touchdown, 6 points are awarded (similar to a standard kick return)

The reason teams should be aware of this ruling is for field position sake with limited time left on the clock. Here’s a scenario that you may see this situation play out in.

Team A has to punt from their end zone. Ten seconds left on the clock, and the game is tied 14-14. Team A’s punter can punt the ball 25-30 yards.

Depending on the field goal kicker of Team B, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fair catch the punt and try to kick a 40-yard field goal.

This gives the team better odds than throwing a Hail Mary and hoping for the best.

Keep Learning

The fair catch kick is a rule that you can instantly impress your friends with by knowing how it’s set up.

We’ve included rules like these as well as other in depth strategies in our Ultimate Football Guide. Check it out below to greatly increase your football IQ.

More special teams articles to help you learn:

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

Why Do Players Take A Knee On Kickoff?

Fair Catch On a Kickoff Explained

If you’re a kicker, do you think you could hit a deep field goal with no one rushing? Let’s hear your answers in the comment section below.

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.