Recently, I explained procedures associated with kickoffs, including the meaning of “runback,” “touchback” and special teams. Now that you have, hopefully, seen several kickoffs, there are a few more kickoff details that are worth explaining. Kickoffs are more than a mere formality to switch possession to the other team. If you haven’t already, you will soon see that a kickoff can turn the tide for the losing team, or can help the winning team shoots itself in the foot. The game situation can also impact the strategy a team uses on its kickoff. How can this one aspect of the game mean so much? Keep reading…
Under the rules of football, the ball must go ten yards from the spot of the kick to be legal. Moreover, once the ball has gone ten yards, it’s up for grabs—either team can get possession by grabbing the ball. This brings us to the first critical kickoff situation: the onside kick.
Imagine this scenario: the Chicago Bears are trailing the Green Bay Packers in the fourth quarter by nine points, 21 to 30. There’s 1:25 left in the game when the Bears get the ball on their own 20-yard line. They manage to work their way down the field and score a touchdown with 42 seconds left in the game. The score is now Bears 28, Packers 30, but the Bears have to kick the ball to the Packers. Time for an onside kick attempt!
The Bears’ place kicker will attempt to connect with the ball in such a way that it will hit the ground and bounce very high. Hopefully, the bounce will allow at least one of his teammates to get in position to catch, or land on, the football once it goes ten yards. If this happens, the Bears will have the ball again and a final chance to score. So, why don’t teams do this every time? The risk is that, if you don’t get the ball, the receiving team gets great field position, making it easier for them to score.
The receiving team will usually know that an onside kick is coming. If the game situation (like the one I just described) doesn’t make it obvious, there are two other possible clues. First, the kicking team will usually (but not always) line up in a formation where most of its players are bunched up on one side of the field. This indicates that the ball will be kicked in that direction. Second, the kicking team will send on their “hands team”; that is, their players who are most skilled at catching and holding onto the ball. These will be their receivers, with the most reliable in the bunch in the most ideal position.
Onside kicks happen quite often, but not just in critical last-second situations. A famous example is Super Bowl XLIV, when the New Orleans Saints, only down by four points, opened the second half with an onside kick:
The returner on the receiving team might believe he can catch the ball, but that he won’t be able to make a runback for much yardage. This is usually because he can sense the cover players on the kicking team closing in on him, or closing up the route he intended to run. In such a case, the returner can protect himself and improve his chance of catching the ball safely (i.e., without dropping it or fumbling) by signaling for a fair catch.
He does this by raising one arm over his head and waving it across his body (like at the movies when you wave to your husband when he’s come into the darkened theater with your Skittles). Once the returner correctly signals a fair catch, no player on the kicking team can touch him; he must have enough space around him to catch the ball unmolested. Of course, if he muffs the catch and drops it, the ball is still fair game and can be recovered by the kicking team.
I want to tell you about a neat little quirk associated with fair catches in the NFL and high school (but not college). After a fair catch is made, the receiving team can choose to attempt a field goal from the spot of the fair catch instead of just going on offense like usual. This is called a fair catch kick. When the receiving team elects this option and tells the officials, the defense must line up ten yards away from where the kick will take place. Therefore, the place kicker has those few extra moments to kick the ball before the defense reaches him. This allows him to take a bit of a running start instead of just taking a couple of steps like a regular field goal attempt. You’re not allowed to use a tee, so a teammate has to hold the ball.
Fair catch kicks are VERY rare. The last successful attempt was accomplished by Ray Wersching for the San Diego Chargers in 1976 against the Buffalo Bills.* The last attempt was a miss by Mason Crosby for the Green Bay Packers against the Detroit Lions in 2008. Here’s Neil Rackers trying it a month before Crosby: