Explaining the NFL's fair catch rule

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs
Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs / David Eulitt/GettyImages

Few roles in football can be as dangerous as that of the returner, a player often left vulnerable waiting for the ball to arrive while nearly a dozen opposing players come charging at him at full speed. Fortunately, there's a sort of escape clause known as a fair catch.

The NFL's fair catch rule is a vital element on special teams that ensures player safety. The rule allows a player receiving a punt to catch the ball without the threat of being tackled immediately upon catching it.

How to signal a fair catch

To signal a fair catch, the receiver must wave one arm above their head while the ball is in the air. Once the fair catch signal is made, opposing players must give the receiver an opportunity to catch the ball without interference—which for many gunners means pulling up at the last second when preparing to make a downfield tackle.

The primary purpose of the fair catch rule is to prevent injuries. Punt returns are among the most dangerous plays in football, but by allowing a fair catch, the rule reduces the risk of such violent impact or potential injury.

What happens after a fair catch

Upon executing a fair catch, the receiving team takes possession of the ball at the spot where the catch was made. While a fair catch stops the play immediately, it also forfeits the chance for a return, meaning the receiving team cannot advance the ball any further—a real trade-off depending on hte dynamism of a team's return specialists. A team is giving up any potential yards gained for the sake of ball protection.

Fair catch vs. potential return

There's a very real strategy involved when it comes to calling a fair catch. The decision can impact field position and the overall momentum of the game. If the opposing team can force a turnover with a critical hit, it might alter the course of a game at a critical juncture. Then again, if a team has a weapon like the Chiefs have had with Dante Hall or Tyreek Hill, the potential for a significant return makes it a risk worth taking.

Coaches and players need to analyze various factors, including field position, the kicker's hang time, and the coverage team's speed, to make the best decision in each situation.