ITP Glossary: Fair Catch

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From double move to put on skates, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Fair Catch

A fair catch allows a kickoff or punt returner to field a kick without being tackled, while giving up his opportunity to return the kick. A fair catch signal involves the returner waving one arm over his head, clearly indicating he intends to fair catch the ball. Once a fair catch is called for, the kicking team may not make contact with the returner unless he drops the ball, in which case the coverage team can make an effort to recover the fumble.

Fair catches are most often utilized on punts. A typical 45-yard punt will hang for nearly five seconds, providing ample time for the coverage unit to get downfield. While fair catch percentages can vary from punter to punter, the average NFL punter forces a fair catch on 20 to 25 percent of punts. Fair catches typically have two objectives – protect the returner, and preserve possession, avoiding a potential fumble caused by contact immediately after a catch.

Facing the Jacksonville Jaguars in early 2015, the Indianapolis Colts show the situation in which a returner will typically call for a fair catch:Jacksonville-Punt-1

Punting from the Indianapolis 46-yard line, Bryan Anger (#19) lines up to kick deep to the Colts. This is a short-field kick that gives the Jaguars a good opportunity to get downfield and prevent a return.

Anger hits a 31-yard punt to the 15-yard line, where the Indianapolis returner is surrounded by three Jaguars:


Because of the close proximity of the defenders, the Colt returner chooses to fair catch the ball, foregoing any return. The fair catch and lack of a return is an ideal situation for the punt team, who are looking to change field position.

The fair catch is almost never employed on kickoffs, as there is typically no immediate danger to the returner. The average kickoff travels nearly 70 yards over approximately four seconds, meaning the kicking team is not in close proximity when a returner catches the ball. However, on pooch kicks it is possible for a member of the return team to signal, and make, a fair catch.

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Chuck Zodda wrote this entryFollow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

One thought on “ITP Glossary: Fair Catch

  1. There is (or was some years ago) a little-used but potentially game-changing facet of making a fair catch: it gives the catching team the opportunity to make a free kick on the next play — even if there is no time left on the clock. On rare occasions, when a team ahead by fewer than 4 points chooses to punt from close to their own endzone with just a few seconds left on the clock, the receiving team may elect to make a fair catch at, say, the 45 or 50 yard line as time expires. The rules then permit that team to attempt a field goal from the spot of the catch, as on a free kick the defending team must start at least 10 yards from the ball.

    You can see a nice list of these rare plays at

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