After a fair catch, an NFL team has the right to take a free kick from the line of scrimmage on the next play. If the kick goes through the uprights, the kicking team scores 3 points. It is also known as a “free kick field goal.”
What special rules apply?
- There is no snap.
- The defense must stand at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked.
- The kicking team may not use a tee. The ball must be placed or drop-kicked.
- Even if time expired on the preceding play, the fair-catching team may still attempt the kick.
Is there a fair catch kick rule in college football?
Not since 1949. After that season, college football eliminated all fair catches, but that proved impractical. Following the 1950 season, college football restored the fair catch, but explicitly removed the fair catch kick rule. However, the rule still exists in high school football.
Why hasn’t the fair catch kick been eliminated from the NFL rulebook, when it’s clearly a remnant of pre-modern football?
I’m not sure, but inertia is the likely reason. Mac Percival’s game-winning kick in 1968 sparked the NFL to re-evaluate the rule that offseason, but no change was made.
Who was the most visible proponent of the fair catch kick?
John Madden. Whenever a team was trapped deep in its own territory near the end of a half, Madden would reference the fair catch kick, and mention that he always wanted to try one, but never had the chance. Ironically, the Madden series of video games has never included the fair catch kick, though its sister franchise, NCAA Football, contained the equally-obscure one-point safety.
How many times has a fair catch kick been attempted in an NFL game?
Art McNally, the longtime officiating boss through 1990 and institutional memory of all things officiating, admitted in 2004 that the NFL has no idea. It’s impossible to determine through box scores; a successful fair catch kick is recorded as a field goal, and an unsuccessful one is recorded as a missed field goal. The only possible way is through contemporary game reports, and some of those don’t detail the specifics of a 2nd quarter field goal. Fred Cox’s 1966 fair catch kick came in the 2nd quarter of a December game between the 1-10 Falcons and the 3-7-1 Vikings; game articles about the game in major newspapers are, understandably, one or two paragraphs long and make no mention of it. I originally found reference to it in a Cox quote after Cofer’s 1989 fair catch kick, and later found confirmation in the Atlanta Journal game report.
NFL fair-catch kicks
All games here have been fully verified. The list is likely incomplete, but is definitely complete for 1964-1968 and 1981-2022.
- Curly Lambeau, Green Bay vs. Evansville Crimson Giants, November 6, 1921.
Good from <35 in the 2nd quarter. Evansville had the ball inside the 10, and the punt “was sky high but only went about 25 yards.”
- George Abramson, Green Bay vs. Chicago Cardinals, November 8, 1925.
Wide left from 35 in the 4th quarter. (Originally, this list had this kick as good, as was reported by the Chicago Tribune. However, the Green Bay Press-Gazette from the next day included a full play-by-play of the game, which clarifies that the fair catch kick was missed, and that the Tribune had confused it with a made 35-yarder from the next Packers drive.)
- Ken Strong, New York Giants vs. Green Bay, November 26, 1933.
Good from 30 yards in the 3rd quarter.
- Ben Agajanian, New York Giants vs. Pittsburgh, October 23, 1955.
Missed from 56 yards with about 30 seconds left in the first half.
- Gordy Soltau, San Francisco vs. Detroit, November 2, 1958.
Wide right from 61 yards with 15 seconds left in the first half.
- Sam Baker, Philadelphia vs. New York Giants, September 13, 1964.
Short from 47 yards at the end of the first half.
- Paul Hornung, Green Bay vs. Chicago, September 13, 1964.
Good from 52 yards at the end of the first half.
- Fred Cox, Minnesota vs. Atlanta, December 4, 1966.
Good from 40 yards at the end of the first half.
- Bruce Gossett, Los Angeles Rams vs. Detroit, November 23, 1967.
Short from 55 yards with 3 seconds in the first half.
- Mac Percival, Chicago vs. Green Bay, November 3, 1968.
Good from 43 yards with 20 seconds left (won 13-10).
- Fred Cox, Minnesota vs. San Francisco, December 8, 1968.
Short from 47 yards at the end of the first half.
- Curt Knight, Washington vs. San Francisco, October 5, 1969.
Wide left from 56 yards with 2 seconds left (tied 17-17).
- Horst Muhlmann, Cincinnati vs. San Diego, September 21, 1969.
Short and wide from 60 yards at the end of the first half.
- Tom Dempsey, New Orleans vs. San Francisco, November 23, 1969.
Short and wide left from 57 yards, likely at the end of the first half.
- Jim Bakken, St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh, November 30, 1969.
Short from 60 yards at the end of the first half.
- Sam Baker, Philadelphia vs. San Francisco, December 21, 1969.
Wide from 46 yards near the end of the first half.
- Curt Knight, Washington vs. Denver, November 1, 1970.
Wide left from 49 yards at the end of the first half.
- David Ray, Los Angeles Rams vs. Baltimore Colts, November 8, 1971.
Missed from 45 yards at the end of the first half.
- Horst Muhlmann, Cincinnati vs. Kansas City, October 21, 1973.
Short from 57 yards at the end of the first half.
- Ray Wersching, San Diego vs. Buffalo, November 21, 1976.
Good from 45 at the end of the first half. This kick put the Chargers up 27-10, and so is missing from most brief recaps of the game. This, not Mac Percival’s game-winner in 1968, is the last known successful NFL free kick.
- Mark Moseley, Washington vs. New York Giants, November 25, 1979.
Short from 74 (yes, 74) yards with 54 seconds left (the Redskins were trailing 14-6 and hoped to score quickly & recover the onside kick; there was no 2-point conversion rule until 1994).
- Fred Steinfort, Denver vs. New England, September 29, 1980.
Short from 73 yards at the end of the first half. The game was in Foxboro.
- Raul Allegre, Indianapolis vs. New England, November 18, 1984.
Short from 61 yards at the end of the first half. This is probably the only fair catch kick after a kickoff; the Patriots, up 26-10 right before halftime, tried to onside kick.
- Rob Bironas, Tennessee vs. Houston Texans, October 9, 2005.
Short from 58 yards at the end of the first half.
- Neil Rackers, Arizona vs. New York Giants, November 23, 2008.
Short and wide left from 68 yards at the end of the first half.
- Mason Crosby, Green Bay vs. Detroit, December 29, 2008.
Just short from 69 yards at the end of the first half.
- Phil Dawson, San Francisco vs. St. Louis, September 26, 2013.
Short and wide left from 71 yards at the end of the first half.
- Joey Slye, Carolina vs. Tampa Bay in London, October 13, 2019.
Wide right from 60 yards at the end of the first half.
- Lou Michaels, Baltimore Colts vs. Dallas, January 9, 1966. NFL PLAYOFF BOWL
Wide from 57 yards at the end of the first half.
- Mike Cofer, San Francisco vs. Minnesota, January 1, 1989. NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
Short from 60 yards at the end of the first half.
- Bobby Howfield, New York Jets vs. Oakland, August 14, 1971. PRESEASON
Short from 52 yards at the end of the first half.
- Chester Marcol, College All-Stars vs. Dallas, July 28, 1972. COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME
Short from 68 yards at the end of the first half.
- Mac Percival, Chicago vs. Houston Oilers, August 9, 1972. PRESEASON
Short from 60 yards with 15 seconds left. The Bears recovered the loose ball on the Oilers’ 1 and kicked the winning conventional field goal on the next play.
- Chester Marcol, Green Bay vs. Buffalo, August 11, 1973. PRESEASON
Short from 45 yards with 20 seconds remaining in the first half. Buffalo caught the ball at the 3 and returned it to their 42.
- Horst Muhlmann, Cincinnati vs. Atlanta, September 2, 1973. PRESEASON
Wide right from 50 yards at the end of the first half.
- Pepe Guzman, San Francisco vs. San Diego, August 16, 1974. PRESEASON
Short from 60 yards with 3 seconds left in the first half.
- Rafael Septien, Dallas vs. Houston Oilers, August 30, 1986. PRESEASON
Missed from 53 yards with 24 seconds left at the end of the game (lost 17-14).
- Chris Gardocki, Chicago vs. Philadelphia, August 8, 1993. PRESEASON
Short from 63 yards at the end of the first half.
Opportunity for fair-catch kick passed up
This includes only fair catches made with no time remaining, or where the fair-catching team attempted a field goal on the next play:
- Detroit vs. Baltimore Colts, November 25, 1965.
Tied at 24, the Lions fair caught a punt on the Baltimore 42 with 24 seconds left. However, they inexplicably decided to attempt a 50-yard FG from scrimmage rather than the 42-yard free kick; Wayne Walker’s attempt was low, nearly blocked, and came up short. The game ended in a 24-24 tie.
- Kansas City vs. Miami, December 25, 1971. AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
Tied at 24, the Chiefs fair caught a punt at their own 32 near the end of regulation. Chiefs’ coach Hank Stram feared a Mercury Morris return of a short miss of the 68-yard FG, and decided not to kick.
- New England vs. New York Jets, October 12, 1986.
Down 31-24, Irving Fryar inexplicably fair caught a punt deep in his own territory with no time left. The Patriots didn’t request the kick, nor did the referees ask them if they wanted one; referee Jerry Seeman said after the game that “it’s the player’s responsibility to come and ask for the extension.” For those interested, the Patriots were favored by 7, so a successful kick would have had no impact on the spread.
- Dallas vs. Atlanta, September 20, 1999.
Wayne McGarity fair caught a punt on the Atlanta 47 with no time left in the first half. Dallas coach Chan Gailey knew of the rule, and had specifically instructed McGarity to fair catch the punt if it was inside the 50, but Gailey forgot that he would be able to attempt the kick with no time left on the clock. Instead, the Cowboys went to the locker room.
- Detroit vs. Chicago, October 30, 2005.
Tied at 13, Eddie Drummond fair caught a punt at his own 28 with no time left in regulation. The Lions reasonably declined the chance at making an 82-yard free kick, and the game went to overtime.
- Arizona vs. St. Louis Rams, September 24, 2006.
Down 16-14, Troy Walters fair caught a punt at his own 33 with no time left in regulation. Arizona’s Robert Griffith was offside on the punt, but Rams coach Scott Linehan declined the penalty, thinking the game was over. Neil Rackers and the Cardinals’ field goal unit lined up for the 77-yard free kick, but the Rams, given another chance to accept the penalty, did so, and took a knee on the final play of the game.
- Dallas vs. Green Bay, January 15, 2017. NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF
The Cowboys’ Cole Beasley fair caught a punt at his own 38 with no time left in the first half. Dallas headed straight for the locker room, and the Fox broadcast crew made no mention of the fair catch kick opportunity.