Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

10 Oct 2005

Rare Free Kick Confuses Even Bironas

Does anyone remember the last time that an NFL team took advantage of the "free kick FG attempt after fair catch of a punt" rule? By the way, the free kick also seemed to have confused Mike Patrick, because at the end of the first half of the Bengals-Jaguars game he said that the Bengals were trying one when they were actually just punting the ball on fourth down.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 10 Oct 2005

45 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2007, 1:52am by Rocco


by Kimble (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 11:49am

I thought I remembered Mike Cofer trying one. Googling for ["mike cofer" "free kick"] revealed the linked thread, from which I'll quote post 5: "According to the most recent edition of NFL Insider magazine (Feb/Mar 2003), it happened in a 1988 NFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Vikings and the 49ers. John Taylor called for a fair catch at midfield with 8 seconds left in the first half. Bill Walsh requested a free kick and Mike Cofer attempted a 60-yard FG with Barry Helton holding. The kick fell short and was downed by Joey Browner in the end zone."

by Jamie T. (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 11:58am

I'll tell you what, it confused the heck out of me. One thing that was impressive about the play was the fact that the officials apperently knew the rule. However, the most impressive thing about the play was that apperently Coach Fisher knew the damn rule also.

I've never seen this before and I can't imagine this to be a point of emphasis durring the offseason for the officials. This one play highlites just how much those guys have to know and how much they have to study so they know. I was impressed.

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:00pm

It was more common (though certainly not VERY common), when the goalposts were at the goal line.

by Russell (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:01pm

I must say I've never seen this attempted either, but have heard the rule referenced on many occasions.

What I'd like to know is what is the logic behind this rule? Why link a free kick to a fair catch? Seems like two totally unconnected events.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:13pm

Recall for a moment that gridiron evolved from Rugby. In Rugby, when you Mark a kick (same concept as a fair catch, only it has to take place within your own 22m line), you are awarded a free kick. The Mark became the Fair Catch, and the Fair Catch extended to the entire field in American Football.

by Joey (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:19pm

I've read about quite a few games in the early days of football (when scoring was a rarity) where teams would punt--sometimes even on first down--because they figured the odds of a turnover were greater than their odds of moving the ball and scoring. If you give the team the option of a free kick, it makes it less likely somebody is going to punt on first down to get the ball out of the shadow of their goal post. It essentially forces the teams to play rather than exchange punts as they wait for the one big mistake. I have no proof this was what brought the rule about, but it's one possibility.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:31pm

Also in rugby if you free kick it from inside your 22, then it is your team's throw in if it goes out of bounds.

by Shannon (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:50pm

I think the kick after a safety is a free kick as well; teams often choose to use it like a kick off, but they don't have to.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:52pm

I remember when the Pats tried one at the end of the first half in a Colts game years ago (in the early years of the HoosierDome -- put it this way, Charlie Jones was still an NBC announcer).

It was a blast. The Colts players just didn't Get The Concept(tm). The refs had to tell them at least 3-4 times that they had to stay at least ten yards from the holder until the ball was kicked. Sadly, the kick was short.

Anyone know when the last time a fair catch free kick was made?

by Shannon (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:53pm

See, for example, the Pat's intentional safety against Denver a few years ago.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 12:54pm

Re: #8

You can't score a FG on a free kick after a safety (at least that was the case in 1994 (the year of my rulebook copy) and I doubt that's changed since). Only after a fair catch.

by Dave (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:16pm

Re #11

If any kicker can pot a FG on a free kick (from his own 20) after a safety, he deserves every point ...

by James Gibson (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:30pm

Even if you were allowed to try a field goal after a safetly I don't think it would make any differnce considering you have to take that kick from your own 20.

by sublime33 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:39pm

>>>Anyone know when the last time a fair catch free kick was made? <<<

Mac Percival kicked one for the Bears against the Packers in 1967 or 1968. The Bears forced a punt late in the game as the Packers were backed up around their own 3 yard line and the punt was fielded around the 40. But the goal posts were at the goal line so it was a much easier attempt than after the rule change.

by Paul (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:39pm

Free kick after a safety:
Now if you were playing the Ravens, it might be possible. Good chance of two personal fouls, moving it to midfield. Not likely, but now in the realm of possibility.

by sublime33 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:42pm

Mac Percival made one for the Bears against the Packers around 1967 or 1968. The Bears forced a punt late in the game as the Packers were backed up around their own 3 and the punt was fielded around the 40. But the goal posts were at the goal line, which made the kick much easier than after the rule change.

by Shannon (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:43pm

You're right -

2. On a safety kick, the team scored upon puts ball in play by a punt, dropkick, or placekick without tee. No score can be made on a free kick following a safety, even if a series of penalties places team in position. (A field goal can be scored only on a play from scrimmage or a free kick after a fair catch.)

Another question: When was the last dropkick in the NFL? We used to practice them in highschool, but I don't think we ever actually used them in a game.

by Shannon (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 1:45pm

Sorry, forgot to cite; the last (2. ...) was a quote from the NFL.com rules digest. Linked to my name.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 2:45pm

Something else I've wondered about on a FC-FK -- let's say a team punts with a few seconds left on the clock. Time expires while the ball is in the air. Receiving team fair catches. Is the half/game over, or can the receiving team attempt a free kick? (not an issue with a kickoff, since in the waning minutes of a half the clock doesn't start on the kickoff).

by Fnor (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 3:21pm

Re: the refs
They know all the rules because they're all lawyers! Represent!

by Clod (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 3:51pm

Any one see Kasay's 62 yard attempt yesterday? was it close? I just saw the game trax.

by sublime33 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 3:55pm

Here is some details on two verified free kicks coverted to field goals:


The Packers converted one before halftime against the Bears in 1964 and the Bears returned the favor in 1968. The article quotes referee Art McNally as saying this may have been the last successful one as far as he knows.

by Tim (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 4:02pm

I'll note that Madden brings up the possibility of a scrimmage kick from time to time on MNF when you're in a situation when it could possibly happen. He even mentioned it late in the first half in the Green Bay-Carolina game last week.

He's also one of the few announcers who correctly uses the terms "end around", "reverse", and "double reverse", though he doesn't use "double reverse" because nobody runs those anymore.

by MDS (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 4:15pm

Pats Fan, in your scenario a team would have the option of one untimed free kick. Also, if a punt ends the half and is downed by the punting team, the offense can take the field for one untimed play.

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 4:28pm

Here is some details on two verified free kicks coverted to field goals:
The Packers converted one before halftime against the Bears in 1964 and the Bears returned the favor in 1968.

Lombardi was also involved in another attempt, during his one year as coach of the Skins (1969)

as outlined in the book "Coach: A season with Lombardi", at the end of a tie game with the Iggles, Walt Roberts signalled for a fair catch at about his own 45, but he muffed it and immediately fell on it. The refs forgot that the muff negated the right to a free kick possibility, and they allowed Curt Knight to try one

He missed it and the game ended in a tie. Would have been embarassing as hell for the refs if he had made it.

by Bright_blue_shorts (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 4:32pm

Shannon - I've read that the last dropkick FG was in about 1947 IIRC. Can't tell you much more than that although something about Detroit rings bells.

Having said that I also seem to remember reading somewhere that Mick Luckhurst, the British-born kicker of the Atlanta Falcons during the 1980s, attempted one during the an exhibition game.

BBS :)

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 4:49pm

speaking of drop-kicks, the rule USED to be (and I vaguely recall that they might have changed this recently) that you could drop-kick for a FG from anywhere on the field at any time, including past the line of scrimmage.

Doug Flutie, when he played for the Bills, would try and get them to practice a play in which, if they neded a FG but were hopelessly out of range, they would pass it to him 20 or so yards downfield, he would run as far as he could and then let fly a drop kick

(little prick prolly would have made it, too)

by Browns Dude (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 5:53pm

Al Michaels, being Al Micheals, has pointed out on MNF several times, that teams have this option.

by Jim A (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 6:43pm

That was my post in #1 on the PFRA forum. Man, the internet is either very cool or a bit scary (or both).

But I can't believe nobody told the kicker he could take a running start. You'd think that would have added at least ten yards in distance. Someday, someone will kick a 70-yard FG at Mile High after a fair catch.

by Parker (not verified) :: Mon, 10/10/2005 - 10:03pm

Jim McMahon used to practice the drop kick as well and begged Ditka to let him try one.

At least that's what I've heard.

by Joey (not verified) :: Wed, 10/12/2005 - 8:51pm

Another difference between the NFL and the NBA: If it were the NBA, McMahon would have called timeout and just did it, regardless of what the coach wanted. Because there is no "I" in team but there is a "ME."

by John (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 4:11am

I did a little research on this and found the following (there could be more attempts but since the nfl does not keep stats on this, I can only go by the ones that are remembered by at least a couple people who know how to use the internet): someone speculated that Luckhurst tried one in a preseason game and that Parcells had once used it, but found no corroborating recollections or evidence.

Reverse Chronological prior to Texans-Titans game.

1) the last known attempt was Cofer for the 49ers, verified through the San Francisco Chronicle on 1/1/89 at end of 1st half (missed).

2) Dallas' Rafael Septien missed a fair catch kick attempt from 53 yards with 24 seconds left in a preseason loss to Houston on 8/31/86 (this is the only one I remember actually witnessing), verified through San Francisco Examiner.

3) I have heard of this Patriots-Colts game in 1985 (or 81-85 at least) occurring at the end of the 1st half off a free kick (either kickoff or safety free kick). the Colts made an airborne kickoff that was fair caught by Patriots and Patriots tried the kick. Just another reason why end of half kicks should be on the ground. I have not verified this one but seems several people remember it.

4) 1979 Redskins' Mosely attempted 74 yard fair catch kick in 4th quarter of 14-6 loss to Giants. Verified thru Washington Post.

5) 10/5/69 Redskins' Curt Knight attempted 56 yard fair catch kick with 2 seconds left in 17-17 tie with 49ers. Here the Redskins scrored a td to tie it with 26 seconds left, then I believe they used their timeouts to force a 49er punt and fair caught at their own 44 yard line to try the kick with 2 seconds left. Washinton Post.

6) Mac Percival, Bears 11/3/68 to beat Packers 13-10
less than minute left in 4th quarter

7) Paul Hornung, Packers 9/13/64 in 1st half of win over Bears.


The election to extend the period has never been used to my knowledge, at least from 1960 forward, although Dallas coach Chan Gailey had the opportunity to do this in a 9/20/99 Monday night game after Deion Sanders fair catch with no time remaining in 1st half versus Falcons. He later said that he knew the fair catch kick rule, but not that a team could try the kick even if the clock had expired.

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 5:58am

Searching through the New York Times archives, I found a couple more examples of fair catch kicks. I'll quote the relevant parts of some of the articles, as they show that the kicks was always infrequent.

1) Last seconds of a 1972 Bears-Oilers exhibition game. Coincidentally, Mac Percival, maker of the previous successful fair catch kick, attempted this one too.

Houston, August 9 (AP) - The Chicago Bears converted a free kick into a 7-yard field goal by Mac Percival with three seconds to play tonight for a 20-17 exhibition football victory over the Houston Oilers.

After a fair catch with 15 seconds to play at their 45-yard line, Chicago's free kick carried to the Oiler 1, where Larry Rowden covered the ball as Oiler defenders, apparently thinking the ball was to roll into the end zone, made no attempt to cover it.

2) End of the first half of the Colts-Cowboys NFL Playoff Bowl, January 9, 1966.

The Colts barely missed getting 3 additional points on the last play of the first half.

They were given a free kick from their 43-yard line when Dallas punted and Alex Hawkins got the ball on a fair catch as the gun sounded to end the half.

Lou Michaels tried a field goal from 57 yards out. The kick was long enough, but went a few feet wide of the posts.

The bands and some spectators had already begun running onto the field and the players were headed for the dressing rooms when officials called the teams back for the free-kick play.

3) Eagles-Giants, September 13, 1966 (the same day as the Hornung kick). Eagles kicker Sam Baker was short from the Giants 47 with 15 seconds left in the first half. It made little difference, as the Eagles went on to win 38-7.

4) Steelers-Giants, October 23, 1955. Giants' kicker Ben Agajanian missed what would have been a then-record-tying 56-yard fair catch kick with about 30 seconds left in the first half.

There was one rather extraordinary play in the pro football game at the Polo Grounds last Sunday.... Not even the oldest inhabitant could remember having seen it before.... The importing thing is that an anachronism in the rules was carefully dusted off and put on public display for the first time in heaven knows when.

This column also makes it clear that the fair catch kick rule was abandoned by the NCAA some years earlier.

5) Marquette-Michigan State, October 14, 1939. Guard xxx xxx of Marquette (then known as the Golden Avalanche) converted a fair catch kick from the Michigan State 1 at some point in the fourth quarter (the article is unclear as to the exact time that this occurred) to give Marquette a 17-14 victory. The kick came after Michigan State was flagged for fair catch interference.

6) Harvard-Yale, November 22, 1924.

Harvard kicker Erwin Gehrke converted from the Yale 31 at some point in the second quarter.

Stafford signaled for a fair catch on the 31-yard line, and on a free kick, with Yale lined up ten yards away, Gehrke kicked as pretty a field goal as any gridiron ever saw, with the rain beating down and the ball heavy with mud.

7) Princeton-Harvard, November 11, 1922. Harvard made a 29-yard kick in the first quarter.

The stage was now set for the first and last Harvard score. Forced to punt from behind his own goal line with the wind against him, Cleaves got the ball no further away than the 30-yard mark. HEre the canny Buell made a fair catch and then elected to try a free kick.

Princeton lined up ten yards away, Buell lay down with the ball in his hands and Owen prepared for a placement kick.... Owen was 29 yards away from the goal posts and the angle was formidable, if not too difficult. But the Harvard star made it.

8) Princeton scrimmage, varsity vs. "Omelettes" (ineligible students - transfers and those with "deficiences in their studies"), October 21, 1920. 38-yard drop kick.

9) Washington & Jefferson vs. Rutgers, November 30, 1916. W&J converted 36- and 32-yard free kicks in their 12-9 victory.

Washington and Jefferson tallied six points on the free kick, a possibility of the gridiron game that is seldom attempted.... Where W. & J. outclassed the Jerseyites was in knowing when to use wits to the best advantage, and this came in a rejuvenation of the famous old trick of free kicking, which has been absent from games in New York City for some years.

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 6:00am

I accidently left the dummy text in for #5. For those who really wanted to know, the Marquette guard/kicker was Bob Kemnitz.

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 6:15am

Searching through other newspapers' archives, I found one other NFL fair catch kick. Also, Unlike in college, the rule still exists in high school football.

1) Bears-Eagles exhibition game, August 8, 1993. Bears punter Chris Gardocki was short on a 63-yard fair catch kick at the end of the first half.

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 6:19am

Last correction, I swear. The Eagles-Giants game was in 1964, not 1966.

by Travis (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 6:37am

One more: the Marquette kick was from the 15, not the 1. This is why you shouldn't try to write at 5 in the morning.

by Michael David Smith :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 7:42am

Thanks for the research, guys. That's excellent.

by PatsFan (not verified) :: Sat, 10/29/2005 - 5:18pm

Re: #27

Since 1994 that scenario would be impossible. In 1994 (give or take a year) the rules governing dropkicks were changed to require them to be attempted behind the LOS.

Too bad, because I've read (pre-1994) Flutie interviews where he's talked about that, and I'd love to see it. But it won't happen now. :(

by John (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 1:50pm

Re: #33 and #39

Interesting. So then 2) would be an example of extending the period with a free kick (and the only time I have ever heard of it happening unless the 1993 Gardocki kick was an extra play) since the fair catch happened with no time remaining. On 1) (this sounded like it was a very interesting sequence), I believe the rule has changed and that if the receiving team chooses not to cover the ball, they take possession at the spot of the kick (one of the big risks of a fair catch kick attempt with too much time remaining). The rules say that the fair catch kick goes by all the same rules as a field goal attempt once kicked, so even though it is generally a great opportunity to organize a kickoff return for the receivers if the kick falls short (since the receivers can line up like a kickoff), they have no obligation to do so. This is the other big risk of a fair catch kick (kicking from too far away to have any chance and then having the kick returned for a touchdown).

#39 - I wonder why this rule was eliminated. Sounds like fun! What even caused them to waste time thinking about whether or not to eliminate non-scrimmage drop-kicks? It's not like anyone had attempted one recently (like in the last 50 years). I assume the point was to eliminate all non-scrimmage kicks - I think prior to this, you could punt, placekick, or dropkick from anywhere on the field, although in my 1986 rulebook it wasn't very clear whether you could get points for a non-scrimmage ground kick - apparently, according to Jerry Seeman, ground-ball (non-punts) kicks from anywhere used to be eligible for points - the rules are pretty clear now that all kicks must be behind the line of scrimmage. What an odd thing for the competition committee to waste time on! Too bad! Did something happen in a game in the early 90s that caused them to think such kicks unfair and change the rule? The rule now says that any kick not from behind the line of scrimmage is a 10 yard penalty and that a field goal can only be scored by the offense on a ground kick from behind scrimmage line.

by John (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 2:17pm

Checked rule book and it says specifically that fair catch kick cannot be recovered by kicking team unless first touched by receivers.

Since we are on strange rules, does anyone know if the offense on an extra point can give up a safety to the defense. Since the play ends with a blocked field goal or change of possession, and because the defense can "never score", this eliminates a touchdown by the defense resulting in a two-point defensive conversion. However, if you read the wording in the rules, it says "what would ordinarily be a safety by the defense, one point is awarded to the offense" (this happened in the Texas-Texas A&M game in 2004). In other words the defense scored a safety, which results in 1 point awarded to the offense. If you turned this around, couldn't the offensive player (with brain trauma) run backwards 98 yards through his own end zone accidentally without there being any change in possession or kick (even if defense recovered a fumble in offense end zone, change of possession still happens first and defense would be the scorer). Thus the offense "scores" a safety (safety by offense) and the defense is awarded one point. Final score of game would be 6-1. This definitely can happen in college (never has), although defense is allowed to score in college. Not sure about nfl. A longtime former nfl asst told me in 1987 that a team could get one point this way as a trivia question over dinner. I was astonished as I had never considered it and I would think he was well informed.

I was an assistant coach on a youth football team years ago and we were leading 37-0 in the fourth quarter after scoring a touchdown. I suggested we do this (since the nfl and high school rules are the same on this subject I believe), just to make news with a 37-1 victory, but was overruled by the other coaches who thought we would be showing up the other team. They were probably right.

by John (not verified) :: Sat, 11/12/2005 - 2:27pm

The section reads "defense can never score. When it gains possession, ball is dead immediately." The point of this seems to be possession and that the defense does not get to attempt THEIR OWN TRY once gaining possession. A safety is a score caused by offense, and does not allow defense to make their own attempt at Try.

I actually think that only an official could answer this question. Any officials out there? If such a play happened in nfl or high school, what would you announce to the crowd? I do not think the high school rules say "defense can never score" so maybe the rule is different in high school.

by Jason (not verified) :: Mon, 01/02/2006 - 8:51pm

Doug flutie did it!!! drop extra point!

by Rocco (not verified) :: Sun, 01/07/2007 - 1:46am

THe Baltimore Colts kicked a free kick way back before they left Baltimore.
Not sure of game, but may have been vs Cleveland in a playoff game in the 60's?
It was near half time and the Baltimore Colts fair caught a short kick off and elected to free kick the ball back. The ensuing kick scored 3 points by crossing the uprights.
Kicker may have been Lou Michaels?
I watched the game on TV and this was an away game for the Baltimore Colts.

by Rocco (not verified) :: Sun, 01/07/2007 - 1:52am

I believe I witnessed a succesful free kick by the Baltimore Colts in an away game during the 60's. May have been Lou Michaels, or the previous kicker to him?
I was young and don't have the facts, but could have been vs Clevland in a playoff game, or in a game which could propel them to the playoffs?
Near halftime the opposing team kicked a short kick off, which was fair caught by the Baltimore Colts.
They lined up for a free kick and kicked it throught the uprights for three points just before the halftime clock ran out.
I remember this hapening, but not sure of all the facts.