By Referee – November 28, 2017
One of the more common misconceptions in football is that a kick receiver must signal for a fair catch in order to be protected from team K players while trying to catch the kick. Receivers who give a valid fair catch signal do receive protection from all contact in return for a commitment on behalf of the team to not advance the ball; however, that protection applies to a player after he touches the ball and is not related to the opportunity to catch the ball which exists regardless of any signal.
A member of the receiving team on any kick play, whether a scrimmage kick beyond the neutral zone or a free kick, must be given an unimpeded opportunity to catch the ball (NFHS 6-5-6; NCAA 6-4-1a). That opportunity is more precisely defined in NCAA rules than in NFHS, but whether or not there is interference comes down to the judgment of the officials.
Before the receiver touches the ball in an NCAA game, team K players cannot enter the area defined by the width of the receiver’s shoulders and extending one yard in front of him (6-4-1b). In NFHS, team R must have an unhindered opportunity to catch the ball (6-5-6). Team K players must not obstruct the receiver’s path to the ball if, in the judgment of the covering official, he has a reasonable opportunity to catch the ball and is in a position to do so. There is no specific distance requirement (no “halo” rule).
If the opponent contacts the receiver such that the contact and the arrival of the ball are virtually simultaneous, it is a foul (6-4-1e). If the presence of an opponent causes the receiver to make any adjustment to his position or his manner of catching the ball, it is a foul. The fact the ball is caught does not excuse a foul.
In NFHS, if team K is first to touch a free kick in flight, it is a foul for interference. On a scrimmage kick, that is true only if a team R player is in position to catch the ball. Team R may decline the penalty and accept the result of the play, accept a 15-yard penalty from the previous spot and replay the down or an awarded fair catch after enforcement of a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul (6-5-6 Pen.). In NCAA, the penalty for kick-catch interference is 15 yards from the spot of the foul (6-5-5).
When a receiver gives a fair catch signal, both the rights and the prerogatives of the receiving team change. Any receiver may signal for a fair catch while any kick is in flight. This applies to both free and scrimmage kicks. When a receiver gives a fair catch signal, he is requesting protection in exchange for forfeiting the right of his team to advance.
Signaling. A valid fair catch signal is the extending and lateral waving of one arm, clearly above the head, by any member of the receiving team. NFHS specifies at full arm’s length and NCAA stipulates more than one wave. An invalid signal is any signal by team R that does not meet the requirements of a valid signal. In NFHS, it is also a signal given after a kick has touched the ground or a receiver, but before the kick is caught or recovered.
Other examples of invalid signals include a limp wave, partially extending and waving one hand in front of the face or chest and fully extending and laterally waving both arms above the head. When a receiver shades his eyes, he must do so with a bent arm so it cannot be interpreted as an invalid signal. Under NCAA philosophy, any waving motion is considered an invalid signal.
Right to advance. When any fair catch signal (valid or invalid) is given, before the ball is caught or recovered beyond the neutral zone, the ball is immediately dead when it is caught or recovered regardless of which team gains possession. It is a delay-of-game foul for any team R player to advance (taking more than two steps in any direction) once it is caught or recovered.
Protection. In return for foregoing any advance, any team R player who signals gains protection from contact. In NFHS, he loses his protection if he muffs the ball. It does not matter if he still has a chance to complete the catch after the muff; he may be legally contacted immediately. In NCAA, a receiver who signals continues to have protection after he muffs the ball if he still has a chance to complete the catch. The kicking team must allow the player who muffs the ball an unimpeded opportunity to complete the catch (AR 6-5-5 I).
If, after a receiver signals, a catch is made by a teammate, it is not a fair catch, but the ball becomes dead. That also applies if the signal is not valid. Contacting a receiver who has given an invalid signal is not a foul unless the contact is judged to be unnecessary roughness or some other type of personal foul.
Blocking. Blocking by receivers who give a valid or invalid signal is restricted. In NFHS, a receiver who has signaled may not block during the down. In NCAA, that restriction applies if the signaling player does not touch the ball. That prohibits the receiver from purposely making no attempt to catch the kick, then blocking an opponent to prevent the ball from being downed before it goes into the end zone.
Play 1: Fourth and 10 on team K’s 20 yardline. K1 punts and R1 signals for a fair catch at his 30 yardline. While the untouched ball is loose, R1 blocks K7 at team R’s 25 yardline. The ball is declared dead at team R’s 20 yardline. Ruling 1: If the 15-yard penalty is accepted, it is enforced using post-scrimmage kick enforcement. The penalty is half the distance to the goal from where the kick ended, giving team R first and 10 on its 10 yardline.
Play 2: Fourth and 10 on team K’s 40 yardline. K1’s punt is very short and linebacker R5 signals for a fair catch (R1 was back deep). The ball hits the ground in front of R5 at team K’s 45 yardline and spins back untouched behind the neutral zone to team K’s 39 yardline. K5 grabs the ball and advances to team R’s 20 yardline. Ruling 2: Under NFHS rules, although the ball crossed the expanded neutral zone, team K did not touch it there. The untouched ball is treated the same as a ball which never crossed the neutral zone. K5’s recovery and advance are legal; R5 may block any time after K5 gains possession because that ends the kick. First and 10 for team K on team R’s 20 yardline. In NCAA, once a scrimmage kick crosses the neutral zone, team K cannot legally touch it before team R. K5’s touching was illegal touching and his possession causes the ball to become dead (team K cannot advance it). It will be team R’s ball, first and 10 at team K’s 39 yardline.
Play 3: Fourth and 12 on team K’s 30 yardline. K1’s punt lands on team R’s 35 yardline and bounces high into the air. After the ball strikes the ground, R1 gives a fair catch signal, recovers the ball at his 30 yardline and is immediately tackled. Ruling 3: No fair catch and the ball is dead upon recovery. In NFHS, that is a foul for an invalid signal. If the five-yard penalty is accepted, post-scrimmage kick enfocement applies. In NCAA, the ball is dead and belongs to team R at the spot of recovery.
Play 4: Fourth and 10 on team K’s 20 yardline. K1’s punt into a stiff wind goes straight up into the air. R3 steps up and gives a fair catch signal at team K’s 18 yardline. R3 catches the ball at team K’s 15 yardline and advances for an apparent touchdown. Ruling 4: In NFHS, since R2 caught the ball behind the neutral zone, it is not a fair catch, but the ball is dead when caught. In NCAA, the ball remains live and the touchdown counts because the rules pertaining to a fair catch apply on a scrimmage kick only when the ball crosses the neutral zone.
New interp. A trick play by a North Texas University receiver led to a mid-season NCAA intepretation. The player caught a punt, then relaxed his body as if he’d made a fair catch. When players on the Arkansas coverage team let up, the receiver took off for what turned out to be a touchdown. The play was deemed legal. There is no corresponding ruling for NFHS.
Free kick. In NCAA, if a team R player makes a fair catch of a free kick behind team R’s 25 yardline, the ball belongs to team R at its own 25 yardline. The rule applies even if the player making the catch gave an invalid fair catch signal (6-5-1a, 6-5-3a).
George Demetriou has been a football official since 1968. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colo.