What is a Fair Catch in Football?

what is a fair catch in football

When watching a football game on TV or in person, you might see the receiving team on a kick waive their arm before catching it. The art of waiving your hand signals that the receiving unit is making a fair catch. So what is a fair catch, why do teams use it, what if there is a penalty and more? Find out the answers to these questions below.


What is a Fair Catch in American Football?

A fair catch in American football occurs during a punt or kickoff where the receiving team elects not to run the ball back upon catching it. Once the returner signals a fair catch by waving his arm before catching the ball, the play becomes dead upon the catch. Even if the receiver muffs the ball and recovers it before it hits the ground, the play is still dead. That means that the offense starts their first down where the catch was made on the next play.


Why Have a Fair Catch in Football?

There are two purposes to having a fair catch rule in the NFL. The first reason is to protect the punt returner or kick returner from a potential injury. For example, the punt from the kicker might be short, so the receiver won’t have enough time to catch and react to an oncoming tackle. Not reacting quick enough on a punt could lead to an injury due to how fast members of the kicking team crash a receiver.


The second reason for a fair catch pertains to securing field position and not fumbling the ball on contact. For example, a punt from a punter might result in a fumble if the receiver catches the ball and immediately gets hit by a special team’s defender. Since the receiver is looking up in the air to see the ball, they might not react quick enough to a defender and ultimately lose the ball on direct contact. Calling the fair catch and securing the catch at least gives your offense a chance to try and score when they take the field.


What is the Fair Catch Signal in the National Football League?

The fair catch signal occurs when the receiver extends and waves his arm above their head while the ball is up in the air. The motion by the receiver needs to be precise enough for the referees to signal the fair catch and blow the whistle alerting the kicking team that the play is dead upon a catch. 


What is an Illegal Fair Catch?

An invalid fair catch signal occurs when a player does not fully raise their arm over their head to call for the fair catch. If an invalid fair-catch movement occurs, the referees move the ball five yards back to where the player made the signal. However, referees generally give players a bit of slack if the motion was not 100% clear if the intent seemed obvious.


The reason for the illegal fair catch call is to protect players on offense and defense. For example, not making it clear you are calling a fair catch could lead to an injury if the kicking team tackles the receiver who is not expecting a tackle. Second, calling an illegal fair catch prevents the fair catch interference penalty against the kicking team if they were unaware of the receiver’s intent.


When Was the Fair Catch Rule Implemented in the NFL?

The Green Bay Packers back in 1921 made the first successful fair catch in NFL. The opponent against the Packers was the Evansville Crimson Giants


Where Do you Start on Offense after a Fair Catch Kick?

The offense starts their first down after a successful fair catch where they called and caught the ball. That means calling a fair kick on the eight-yard line means your offense will begin playing on the eight-yard line.


What Happens if you Call a Fair Catch and Drop It?

If a player calls for a fair catch and then drops the ball, the ball is up for grabs by either side. For example, if the kicked ball bounces off a receiver’s chest when they call a fair catch and hits the ground, and the receiving team recovers the ball on the ground, they now have possession of the ball for their offense. Recovering the ball on a punt by the defense can be a big game-time momentum changer, so everyone needs to be ready if there is a fumble. 


What Happens if a Defensive Player Hits You on a Fair Catch?

If the punting team tackles you (or even runs into you) after correctly calling for a fair, the kicking team receives a fifteen-yard penalty. The return team now gets to automatically move up fifteen yards upon the spot of the signal to begin their offensive drive. Likewise, the receiver can’t make contact with the kicking team after calling for the fair catch, or else they will be penalized via fifteen yards going backward.



In summary, the fair catch in American Football is a way to protect players from injury and or a fumble upon contact. To encourage safety in the National Football League, the kicking team can no longer get a running start before the kick takes place during a kickoff. Limiting how quick the defense can get to the receiver also allows better judgment on using the fair catch or not. 


Also, a receiver can kneel after catching a ball in the end zone on a kick. The offense team receives a touchback by kneeling in the end zone on a catch via a kick or punt. By taking a knee in the end zone on a catch, the offense starts their play on the twenty-five-yard line. 


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