Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Fair Catch Kick

Saturday against UGA, North Texas lined up to punt with ten seconds left in the half. The ball was on the five yard line. UGA had called timeouts after both second and third down so there might be time remaining when they got the ball back. The punter lined up near the back of his own end zone and was able to get off a poor punt. Georgia punt returner had to race forward to catch the ball. The punt returner caught the ball on the move, at the 40 yard line. He immediately took a knee to stop the clock, at the 37 yard line. With 3 seconds on the clock, Georgia tried a 55 yard field goal. It barely missed.

Had this been a pro or high school game, the returner could’ve called for a fair catch. If the free kick rule were legal in college football the returner could have fair caught the punt, then Georgia could have attempted a rarely-used “free kick”. The kicker could have kicked the ball from the 40 yard line, without a rush. If the kick goes through the goal posts it counts as a 50 yard field goal. A rare play that should be used more often, especially at the end of games or the first half. A few years ago a high school used the play to win the game.

As a kid I had read about the free kick…perhaps the successful free kick made by Minnesota’s Fred Cox against the Falcons in 1966. Once in a blue moon a free kick is taken, or at least mentioned by an announcer. Many coaches have no idea about this rule. The kicker comes in and kick off the ground, with a holder holding the ball like a field goal. But there are no opposing players trying to block the kick, which can be taken from the middle of the field.

Wikipedia refers to it as a “Fair Catch Kick” NFL teams tried it more when the goal posts were located on the goal line. Only four successful free kicks have been recorded in NFL history, out of 21 attempts. The low success rate is due to several factors: most free kicks are from long distance, fewer short punts, and field goal success rates were much lower in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s.  

A list of “known” Free Kicks attempted in the NFL regular season:

11.20.33…30 G 3 Ken Strong – Giants vs. Packers
10.23.55…56 M 2 Ben Agajanian – Giants vs. Steelers
11.02.58…61 M 2 Gordy Soltau – 49ers vs. Lions
09.13.64…47 M 2 Sam Baker – Eagles vs. Giants
09.13.64…52 G 2 Paul Hornung – Packers vs. Bears
12.04.66…40 G 2 Fred Cox – Vikings vs. Falcons
11.23.67…55 M 2 Bruce Gossett – Rams vs. Lions
11.03.68…43 G 4 Mac Percival – Bears vs. Packers
12.08.68…47 M 2 Fred Cox – Vikings vs. 49ers
10.05.69…56 M 4 Curt Knight – Redskins vs. 49ers
11.23.69…57 M 2 Tom Dempsey – Saints vs. 49ers
11.01.70…49 M 2 Curt Knight – Redskins vs. Broncos
11.08.71…45 M 2 David Ray – Rams vs. Colts (MNF)
11.21.76…45 G 2 Ray Wersching – Chargers vs. Bills
11.25.79…74 M 4 Mark Moseley – Redskins vs. Giants
09.29.80…73 M 2 Fred Steinfort – Broncos vs. Patriots
11.18.84…61 M 2 Raul Allegre – Colts vs. Patriots
01.01.89…60 M 2 Mike Cofer – 49ers vs. Vikings (playoffs)
10.09.05…58 M 2 Rob Bironas – Titans vs. Texans
11.23.08…68 M 2 Neil Rackers – Cardinals vs. Giants
12.28.08…69 M 2 Mason Crosby – Packers vs. Lions

Percival’s kick won the game. Link 

Interesting that two of the 21 free kicks took place on the same day. Many were taken at the end of the first half.

There have been five free kicks attempted in NFL preseason games, all unsuccessful. Chester Marcol attempted a 68 yard free kick just before halftime in the 1972 College All Star Game against the Dallas Cowboys. The four other preseason kickers were Lou Michaels (57), Percival (60), Rafael Septien (53), and Stone Mountain’s Chris Gardocki (63).  
The free kick can be attempted after any fair catch of a punt or kickoff. You’d think more teams would use free kicks at the end of the half or game.

A free kick is also taken after a safety. The team that gets tackled in their own end zone lines up and kicks (or punts) from its own 20 yards line. Since this is 90 yards away from the goalposts, the other team catches the kick and returns the ball.

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