What Is a Free Kick in Football? Everything You Need to Know

A college football player attempts a free kick.

The kicking game in football is significantly different from the offensive and defensive phases of the game. Although different, many of these phases are well-known to viewers and participants alike. However, the “free kick”, or “fair-catch kick”, is an obscure play.

So, what is a free kick in football?

A free kick is an optional play where the receiving team, after a fair catch of a punt, can attempt a place kick or drop kick from where the ball was caught to score three points. The place kick option looks like a field goal, but is rarely used because it removes the chance of scoring a touchdown.

While that’s a general overview of what a free kick is, the defining characteristics of a free kick, the rules, and when it is an opportune time to attempt one will be discussed throughout this article.

NFL Free Kick Rules

There are four distinct rules to free kicks in the NFL:

  1. The free kick does not start with a snap as is commonly done on a typical offensive or special teams play.
  2. The defense must line up 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage and cannot advance forward until the ball is kicked.
  3. The kicking team is not allowed to use a tee if it chooses to take a place kick.
  4. The kicking team is not allowed to use a tee if it chooses to take a place kick.

How Do Free Kicks Work in the NFL?

The receiving team has the option to take a free kick after they fair-catch a punt from the other team. Most of the time, on fourth down, teams will punt the ball away to the other team in order to gain field position.

The receiving team will then call for a fair catch to catch the ball without interference. The implication is the receiving team cannot advance the ball. The receiving team will take over from the spot the catch was made.

Most of the time, teams will send their offense out to try and score a touchdown when they gain possession of the ball. But, they can choose to take a free kick from where the ball was caught instead.

There are two choices when it comes to free kicks. One option is to drop kick the ball. A drop kick is when a player drops the ball from their hands, lets the ball hit the ground, and then kicks the ball afterward.

The second option is to take a place kick. The place kick for the free kick mimics the holder and snapper concept on a field goal or point after attempt.

The place kick is more consistent and predictable than the drop kick. In fact, the place kick on a free kick is less pressured because of rules pertaining to the defense’s alignment prior to the play starting.

The defense may line up no closer than 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage on a free kick. They cannot advance forward until the beginning of the play when the ball is kicked.

There is virtually no opportunity for the defense to rush and block the kick. This makes it, as mentioned, a less pressured kick compared to field goals and point after attempts. On these aforementioned kicks, the defense can line up at the line of scrimmage and rush to block.

Just like a field goal, the offensive team is awarded three points if they successfully kick the ball through the uprights, or goal posts.

The receiving team can also fair-catch the punt on the preceding play with no time left on the game clock and still be allowed to attempt a free kick. It’s exceedingly rare to start a play with zero seconds on the clock.

Why Are Free Kicks So Rare in Football?

A look at Levi Stadium.

Free kicks are rare in football because it is almost always a greater priority for a team to put their offense on the field and try to score a touchdown. There is an opportunity cost of scoring a touchdown (6 points), compared to that of a free kick (only worth 3 points). Teams also rarely have good enough field position to attempt a free kick after fair-catching a punt.

It makes more sense to give your offense multiple plays and opportunities to advance the ball to score. If the team is unable to score, and are close enough, they can kick a field goal.

Basically, the offense can end with the same result as a free kick with the opportunity to score a touchdown.

Field position should be considered, too. Consider this situation – the receiving team makes a fair catch on the 50-yard line. In this scenario, they would be attempting a 67-yard field goal.

The higher-end range for most NFL kickers is close to 60 yards. However, why would the offense forgo an attempt to advance the ball and score a touchdown, when they ultimately can kick a field goal later on?

Let’s consider the other end of the field position spectrum – the receiving team makes a fair catch on the opponent’s 40-yard line side of the field. Once again, why would the offense forego a chance to score a touchdown and attempt a long field goal?

We can see that the opportunity to score a touchdown is more favorable especially when the offense has the opportunity to attempt a field goal at the end of their drive.

Can You Kick a Field Goal On A Free Kick?

Yes, you can kick a field goal on a free kick. It is one of the options given to the receiving team. The holder can hold the ball on the ground (without a tee) and the kicker attempts to kick the ball through the uprights.

As mentioned, the alignment on the free kick is different from a field goal. The defense must line up 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage. There is no need for the offense to hold up a rush of defenders.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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