A fair catch is a feature of American football and several other codes of football, in which a player attempting to catch a ball kicked by the opposing team – either on a kickoff or punt – is entitled to catch the ball without interference from any member of the kicking team.A ball caught in this manner becomes dead once caught, i.e., the player catching the ball is not entitled to advance the ball, and the receiving team begins its drive at the spot where the ball was caught. Under NFL and NFHS rules, a team awarded a fair catch is also entitled to attempt a fair catch kick from the spot of the catch; however, this is rarely done. A player wishing to make a fair catch signals his intent by extending one arm above his head and waving it while the kicked ball is in flight.
The main reason for a fair catch is to protect the receiver. Because the receiver has to direct his attention toward catching the airborne ball, he cannot focus on opponents running towards him and is usually not in a position to protect himself immediately when he catches the ball, and is therefore particularly vulnerable to injury from being hit by an opponent. He is also at risk for fumbling or muffing the kicked ball if the punter intentionally makes a high short kick to allow defenders time to hit the receiver. A second reason for a fair catch, on a punted ball, is to prevent the ball from rolling toward the receiving team's goal and being downed deep in the team's own territory.
Both the 2001 and 2020 versions of the XFL removed the fair catch in an effort to attract fans who disliked the rule. Canadian football and arena football also do not have fair catch rules, with the XFL and Canadian football preferring a five-yard "no-yards" rule instead.
In rugby union and Australian rules football, a loose equivalent to a fair catch is called a mark; see mark (rugby) and mark (Australian football) for more information (however in Australian Rules Football the player is not protected from the opposition team while attempting a mark). Fair catches featured in some extinct forms of football, and they have been abolished in other modern codes. In Rugby league the defensive player attempting to catch the ball cannot be tackled whilst in the air, though the attacking players can contest the ball by attempting to catch it themselves. A player who successfully catches the ball is able to be tackled only once they have landed on the ground. A player who does not leave the ground in attempting to catch the ball is able to be tackled as soon as the ball is caught.
The receiving team on a kickoff or punt is always entitled to an unobstructed attempt to catch the ball in its initial flight, before it is touched by a player or it hits the ground. However, unless a fair catch is called, the player catching the ball may legally be hit or tackled once he catches the ball, and is thus prone to injury and/or liable to fumble the ball, particularly if he has not had a chance to protect his body or the ball.
A member of the team attempting to catch a punt or kickoff may signal for a fair catch. To request a fair catch, the receiver must raise one arm fully above their head and wave it from side to side while the ball is in flight. Once the signal is given, the kicking team may not interfere with the receiver's attempt to catch the ball. If the ball is caught, the ball is dead and, barring any penalties, the receiving team begins their drive from that spot, or they may attempt a fair catch kick from that spot. If the ball is not caught, then the fair catch is void and all other rules on kicked balls apply.
NCAA rules on fair catches are similar to NFL and NFHS rules, except it does not have the fair catch kick option, and a fair catch from a kickoff that is caught between the receiving team's goal line and its 25-yard line is a touchback.
The NCAA abolished the fair catch in 1950 but reinstated it in 1951 without the fair catch kick option. In 2018, the additional touchback provision was added.
If a member of the kicking team interferes with a fair catch attempt after the receiver gives a proper signal, the kicking team is penalized 15 yards from the spot of the foul, and a fair catch is awarded even if the ball is not caught. In the NFL, the receiving team has the option to attempt a fair catch kick from the location where the ball is spotted after the penalty is assessed.
If the receiver fails to give a proper signal (hand raised above helmet but not waved side to side), the receiving team is penalized 5 yards from the spot of the signal for an invalid fair catch signal, a fair catch is not awarded, and the receiver is not protected from being tackled.
If the receiver initiates contact with any member of the kicking team after giving a fair catch signal but before the ball is touched by another player, the receiving team is penalized 15 yards.
Various forms of football descended from certain English school football games of the 19th century have had a fair catch. It was abolished early in the development of soccer, then in the middle of the 20th century by Canadian football, and slightly later by rugby league. Forms of football retaining a form of fair catch (also called "mark") include American (outdoor), rugby union, and Australian rules. The American-invented intramural games speedball and speed-a-way have some of the flavor of the original fair catch, which was to allow handling of the ball in games where handling was otherwise forbidden. Australian rules, speedball, and speed-a-way do not require that the kick be from an opponent. American football requires that the catcher signal in advance, as did Canadian football before that game abolished the fair catch. Rugby union requires a player to signal a fair catch by catching the ball and shouting "Mark!".
In some forms of football a player fielding an opponent's kick must be given a certain circular unobstructed space around him in which to do so by either some or all opponents. In rugby union, rugby league, and Canadian football this applies only against members of the kicking team who are offside, and applies whether the ball is in the air, bouncing, or rolling. In Arena Football, there is no fair catch; however all members of the kicking team must refrain from penetrating the five-yard line in coverage, but only while the ball is in the air.
The various games differ as to the conditions under which a fair catch will be awarded — for example, whether the ball must be caught "cleanly", i.e. without juggling. Rugby union requires a clean catch. American football allows the ball to be juggled, but not to be intentionally batted forward to improve the position of the catch (as for a free kick at goal). Australian rules is most generous, allowing unlimited hand play with the ball before it is caught, and allowing the kick to be from any other player, regardless of team (however, the ball must have travelled 15 metres) and the ball can even be dropped so long as the player is deemed to have sufficient control of its fall. In the 19th century in rugby, and into the 20th in American and Canadian football, a fair catch was allowed from certain kicks of a teammate—a punt-out or punt-on.
Canadian football is a sport played in Canada in which two teams of 12 players each compete for territorial control of a field of play 110 yards (101 m) long and 65 yards (59 m) wide attempting to advance a pointed oval-shaped ball into the opposing team's scoring area.
A drop kick is a type of kick in various codes of football. It involves a player dropping the ball and then kicking it as it touches the ground.
A touchdown is a scoring play in gridiron football. Whether running, passing, returning a kickoff or punt, or recovering a turnover, a team scores a touchdown by advancing the ball into the opponent's end zone.
A free kick is an action used in several codes of football to restart play with the kicking of a ball into the field of play.
Gridiron football, also known as North American football or, in North America, simply football, is a family of football team sports primarily played in the United States and Canada. American football, which uses 11-player teams, is the form played in the United States and the best known form of gridiron football worldwide, while Canadian football, featuring 12-player teams, predominates in Canada. Other derivative varieties include indoor football and Arena football, football for smaller teams, and informal games such as touch and flag football. Football is played at professional, collegiate, high school, semi-professional, and amateur levels.
In gridiron football, an onside kick is a kickoff deliberately kicked short in an attempt by the kicking team to regain possession of the ball. This is in contrast with a typical kickoff, in which the kicking team intends to give the ball to the other team and thus kicks the ball far downfield in order to maximize the distance the receiving team has to advance the ball in order to score. The risk to the team attempting an onside kick is that if it is unsuccessful and the receiving team gets the ball, the receiving team usually has a much better field position than it might have with a normal kickoff. Rules and procedures for onside kicks differ between the different codes and leagues of gridiron football.
In American football, a touchback is a ruling which is made and signaled by an official when the ball becomes dead on or behind a team's own goal line and the opposing team gave the ball the momentum, or impetus, to travel over or across the goal line. Since the 2018 season, touchbacks have also been awarded in college football on kickoffs that end in a fair catch by the receiving team between its own 25-yard line and goal line. Such impetus may be imparted by a kick, pass, fumble, or in certain instances by batting the ball. A touchback is not a play, but a result of events that may occur during a play. A touchback is the opposite of a safety with regard to impetus since a safety is scored when the ball becomes dead in a team's end zone after that team — the team whose end zone it is — caused the ball to cross the goal line.
American and Canadian football are gridiron codes of football that are very similar; both have their origins in rugby football, but some key differences exist.
Strategy forms a major part of American football. Both teams plan many aspects of their plays (offense) and response to plays (defense), such as what formations they take, who they put on the field, and the roles and instructions each player are given. Throughout a game, each team adapts to the other's apparent strengths and weaknesses, trying various approaches to outmaneuver or overpower their opponent in order to win the game.
Gameplay in American football consists of a series of downs, individual plays of short duration, outside of which the ball is dead or not in play. These can be plays from scrimmage – passes, runs, punts, or field goal attempts – or free kicks such as kickoffs and fair catch kicks. Substitutions can be made between downs, which allows for a great deal of specialization as coaches choose the players best suited for each particular situation. During a play, each team should have no more than 11 players on the field, and each of them has specific tasks assigned for that specific play.
In gridiron football, clock management is the manipulation of a game clock and play clock to achieve a desired result, typically near the end of a match. It is analogous to "running out the clock" seen in many sports, and the act of trying to hasten the game's end is often referred to by this term. Clock management strategies are a significant part of American football, where an elaborate set of rules dictates when the game clock stops between downs, and when it continues to run.
A kickoff is a method of starting a drive in gridiron football. Typically, a kickoff consists of one team – the "kicking team" – kicking the ball to the opposing team – the "receiving team". The receiving team is then entitled to return the ball, i.e., attempt to advance it towards the kicking team's end zone, until the player with the ball is tackled by the kicking team, goes out of bounds, or scores a touchdown. Kickoffs take place at the start of each half of play, the beginning of overtime in some overtime formats, and after scoring plays.
In American football, a gunner, also known as a shooter, flyer, headhunter, or kamikaze, is a player on kickoffs and punts who specializes in running down the sideline very quickly in an attempt to tackle the kick or punt returner. Gunners must have several techniques in order to break away or "shed" blockers, and have good agility in order to change their running direction quickly. Gunners on the punt team also must be able to block or catch.
In American football, the specific role that a player takes on the field is referred to as their "position." Under the modern rules of American football, both teams are allowed 11 players on the field at one time and have "unlimited free substitutions," meaning that they may change any number of players during any "dead ball" situation. This has resulted in the development of three task-specific "platoons" of players within any single team: the offense, the defense, and the so-called 'special teams'. Within these three separate "platoons", various positions exist depending on the jobs that the players are doing.
A comparison of American football and rugby union is possible because of the games' shared origins, despite their dissimilarities.
A comparison between American football and rugby league is possible because of their shared origins and similar game concepts. Rugby league is arguably the most similar sport to American football after Canadian football: both sports involve the concept of a limited number of downs/tackles and scoring touchdowns/tries takes clear precedence over goal-kicking.
A return specialist or kick returner is a player on the special teams unit of a gridiron football team who specializes in returning punts and kickoffs. There are few players who are exclusively return specialists; most also play another position such as wide receiver, defensive back, or running back. The special teams counterpart of a return specialist is a kicking specialist.
The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.
In gridiron football, a punt is a kick performed by dropping the ball from the hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground. The most common use of this tactic is to punt the ball downfield to the opposing team, usually on the final down, with the hope of giving the receiving team a field position that is more advantageous to the kicking team when possession changes. The result of a typical punt, barring any penalties or extraordinary circumstances, is a first down for the receiving team. A punt is not to be confused with a drop kick, a kick after the ball hits the ground, now rare in both American and Canadian football.