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.
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.
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 entry. Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.