Last Night Was Probably the Closest We’ll Ever Get to a Super Bowl Fair-Catch Kick, the Rarest Play in…

The stadium scene.
Feb. 4 2013 5:00 PM

The Rarest Play in the NFL

Last night was probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Super Bowl fair-catch kick.

David Akers
David Akers of the San Francisco 49ers stands on the field in the third quarter during Super Bowl XLVII.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, Slate and Deadspin are teaming up for a season-long NFL roundtable. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries. And click here to play the latest episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

When the Ravens intentionally took a safety, to give themselves better field position and run a few seconds off the clock, it brought the 49ers to within three points. It was the smart call, but it also raised the possibility of the rarest of all football plays—the fair-catch kick. It's only been attempted a handful of times in the history of the NFL, and hasn't been done successfully since 1976, but the very unique set of circumstances put it into play. And if it didn't happen last night, it'll probably never happen.

Article 10.2.4(a) of the NFL rulebook spells it out: "After a fair catch is made, or is awarded as the result of fair catch interference, the receiving team has the option of putting the ball in play by ... a fair-catch kick (drop kick or placekick without a tee) from the spot of the catch."

Advertisement

Put simply, the 49ers could have signaled for a fair catch, and on their first play—even if there was no time remaining on the clock—attempted a field goal from that very spot. What's more, the defense cannot line up within 10 yards of the fair-catch kick, meaning the kicker can aim low and kick much farther than usual.

It's a bizarre rule, one that remains in the rulebook probably through inertia. As you may have guessed, it's a holdover from football's rugby origins. The "goal from mark" was a similar rule that allowed players to take an unmolested free kick from the spot they received a fair catch. But rugby league removed the rule in 1922, and rugby union in 1977. Only pro and high school American football retain the vestigial rule.

It comes into play on occasion, almost always at the end of a half, following a punt from deep in Team A's territory. With no time remaining, Team B's only option is to try a fair-catch kick. The blog Quirky Research counts 22 regular season and 2 playoff instances of the fair-catch kick being attempted since 1925.

Here's Neil Rackers' attempt in 2008, one that goes horribly awry:

And here's Mason Crosby, also in 2008, with 69-yard attempt that comes up just short.

The fair-catch kick wouldn't have been the best idea for San Francisco last night. As it was, Ted Ginn Jr. received the ball at his own 19 (much too far away to attempt a kick) and with four seconds left (a hail mary or a return attempt is almost always the higher percentage play). But it might have been different. Because it was coming off a safety, Baltimore wasn't allowed to use a tee to kick off. Sam Koch punted from the Ravens' 20, and if he had shanked the ball only 30 yards or so, a fair catch, followed by a fair-catch kick would absolutely have been the smart call. Not only did Koch brilliantly waste time before taking the safety, but he connected on the punt, making a Ginn return San Francisco's only hope of scoring.

And if Koch had punted short? The Super Bowl could have come down to the shaky David Akers from distance, no snap, no defenders in his face, 60-something yards to overtime. Maybe next year.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Use Facebook to Reconnect With Old Friends, Share Photos, and Serve People With Legal Papers

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?