The Feasibility of the Fair Catch Kick Before Halftime

dawson

We’ve already taken a look at some of the innovative play calling Eagles Coach Chip Kelly can bring to the NFL, but now let’s take a look at one of the recent decisions made by one of Kelly’s former Pac-12 competitors, current 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh. While Harbaugh was not known for the same sort of deception that Kelly made famous as head coach at Oregon, he is still unafraid to make choices that some of his NFL colleagues would shy away from.

If you aren’t a 49ers or Rams fan and didn’t watch SportsCenter last Thursday night, you might not have seen Harbaugh take advantage of a little-known rule to attempt a 71-yard “field goal” at the end of the first half. 49ers kicker Phil Dawson was unsuccessful, but it left me to wonder whether or not this decision was a good one in the long run.

At the end of the half, the Rams punted to the 49ers, resulting in a Kyle Williams fair catch at the 39-yard line of San Francisco with four seconds to go. In this situation, we can treat the ensuing play as a 4th down since there would realistically be only enough time to attempt one play down the field to score a touchdown.

In this situation, the Expected Points for the 49ers was a frightening -0.53, and teams will almost never attempt to score a touchdown from this distance under normal circumstances. In most cases, the offense will simply take a knee and go to halftime to avoid injury and minimize risk. However, the free kick can give teams a shot at three points that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are two potential downsides to attempting the free kick: the aforementioned chance of injury and the potential for a kick return for a touchdown. While it is certainly more likely for an injury to occur on a kickoff (there are reasons the NFL has changed its rules on these plays), the players on a kickoff coverage team are often less critical to the team’s success than those on the offense. You generally won’t see Colin Kaepernick or Frank Gore out at gunner on special teams, so it is less likely that a valuable player would get injured and the risk is not all that high in terms of potential lost value for the team.

The possibility of a kick return touchdown is much more important, and is something that we need to look into. Looking at the kick return data from the past ten years, I found that the frequency of a kick return touchdown, not accounting for personnel, is 0.78%. After the increase in touchbacks as a result of moving the kickoff from the 30 to the 35-yard line, the frequency of kick return touchdowns on returned kicks (i.e. not touchbacks) remained essentially the same at 0.79%.

So the likelihood of a kick return coming all the way back in the NFL is very small, but with how long the kick is, it is important to see how the risk stacks up against the reward of successfully making the kick. Using 7 points as the value of a kick return touchdown for the returning team, we can find the break-even point for teams to attempt these types of long kicks at the end of the first half, when the goal of a team should be to put as many points on the board as possible.

KRTD Value

KRTD Frequency

FCK Value

FCK Frequency

7

0.78

3

x

 7*(0.0078)(1-x) = 3x

0.0185 = x

 x = 1.85%

A kicker only has to be able to make the fair catch kick more than 1.85% of the time to outweigh the potential negative of the kickoff return for a touchdown. It would obviously be important to take into account the game conditions and the returner waiting for the kick from game to game; for example, a player like Devin Hester would certainly be more of a deterrent than the average returner, and attempting the kick in the thin air of Denver might be more successful than doing so in Pittsburgh.

Additionally, you would have consider the leg strength of the kicker involved. Attempting the fair catch kick is definitely feasible for a kicker like Sebastian Janikowski or Mason Crosby, but a kicker like, say, Rian Lindell who did not have the requisite leg strength would probably not be physically able to make the kick and would come in far below the break-even point of 1.85%. Given the power of Janikowski and Crosby’s legs, they would probably be able to connect from that distance at least one out of 50 times under the right circumstances.

Given the potential upside of kicking the field goal and essentially stealing three points at the end of the half, it makes sense for teams to at least attempt the fair catch kick because the break-even point is at such a low number. The risk of injury to a starter is minimal, and there is very little downside to opting to kick. Potentially playing for this sort of end-of-half situation would also change the way teams used timeouts at the very end of a half, which could lead to some interesting clock management (and mismanagement) from coaches.

Some people might say that it is almost impossible for a kicker to make such a long kick, but it is important to remember how short of a run up to the ball NFL kickers have on standard field goals. On the free kick, the kicker would not have to worry about getting the ball over defenders at the line and would essentially be taking a kickoff. When the NFL changed the rules so that teams would kick off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line, there was a significant increase in touchbacks because it became much easier for kickers to put the ball deep in the endzone.

One can imagine that being just a few yards closer to the endzone, as the 49ers were in that situation, would increase the likelihood of kickers getting the necessary distance on their attempts. Being accurate would be tough because of how small the margin of error is on a kick of that length, but one would imagine that kickers would be able to succeed more than once out of every 50 attempts.

So while Dawson may have missed his kick this time, it is not out of the question for kickers with strong legs to be given the chance to bomb away at the uprights from 70 yards out. Unfortunately, due to the likely infrequency of a made kick from that distance and the rarity with which teams encounter this specific situation, we probably will not be seeing this coaching tactic much in the NFL.

Data courtesy of advancednflstats.com and Pro-Football-Reference

Image courtesy of the Sporting News

Carl Yedor

Georgetown University Class of 2016

Follow Carl on Twitter: @CarlYedor61

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