Other than surprise punts (erroneously called “quick kicks”), no high school or pro football team should ever have punted in the history of football. No college team should ever have punted in history prior to the adoption of Rule 8-4-2-b and the simultaneous addition of the exception to Rule 6-3-7 in 1978. Except for surprise punts, no high school (that plays under the National Federation of State High School Associations rules—Massachusetts and Texas high schools reportedly use NCAA rules) or NFL team ever should punt again. NFL teams should eliminate the punter from their rosters.
The rules at all levels: high school, college, and pro, say that a punt is a type of scrimmage kick. At all three levels, three types of scrimmage kick are permitted:
- place kick
- drop kick
Here are the actual rules:
- High school (NFSHSA) Rule 6-2-1 A team may punt, drop kick, or place kick from in or behind the neutral zone before any team possession has changed.
- College (NCAA) Rule 6-3-10. a. A legal scrimmage kick is a punt, drop kick, or place kick made according to rule.
- Pro (NFL) Rule 9-1-1 The kicking team, behind the line of scrimmage, may:
- dropkick; or
- place kick.
In other words, there is no rule that requires a team to use the punt style of kick on fourth down. They can go for it, punt, place kick, or drop kick. Nor is there any rule in high school or the NFL that says all place kicks and drop kicks are field-goal attempts. There is such a rule at the NCAA level: Rule 2-15-9 which says,
“A field goal attempt is any place kick or drop kick from scrimmage.”
It’s a lie
I must state here that I do not like the wording of Rule 2-15-9. In any context other than the NCAA rule book, it would be a barefaced lie to say that all place kicks from scrimmage are field-goal attempts. Let’s say I am on my own 20-yard line and have fourth and seven and I have my place kicker kick the ball out of bounds at the opponent’s 25. If you say I just attempted a field goal, you’re a damned liar. A 97-yard field goal?! The NFL record is 63 yards.
That is not to say the NCAA cannot change the wording of their other Rule 6-3-7 to say “punts” instead of “scrimmage kicks.” Indeed, they should do just that if they want the place-kick “punt” to be illegal. But saying that all place kicks and drop kicks are field-goal attempts is like saying all dogs weigh less than fifteen pounds. It’s simply not true. You may have the right to say such a thing in your rule book because it’s your rule book, but defining down as up or left as right or all place kicks as field-goal attempts is a dishonest way to word a rule. Since most people would not expect a false statement in a rule book, the rule is less likely to be found by those researching the question through the table of contents or index of the rule book.
NFSHSA has no rule about putting the ball back where the ball was kicked from after a missed field goal. NFL does have such a rule (see below), but NFL does not seem to have a counterpart to NCAA rule 2-15-9 that says all place kicks from scrimmage are automatically defined as field-goal attempts.
Advantages of place kicks over punts
Place kicks have the following advantages over punts:
- travel about 15 yards farther (when the kicker is above age 12)
- always bounce the correct direction
- long snap only has to go about 7 yards rather than 12 to 18
- time to protect and kick is only 1.4 seconds instead of 2.0
- never backed up against end line (back of end zone)
- far more accurate thereby permitting coffin-corner kicks
- standard place kick formation (double wing) facilitates kick coverage better than tight punt formations
It is insanity for high school and pro coaches to settle for punts of 30 to 40 yards that are likely to be fair caught or returned when they can more easily have place kicks that go 45 to 55 yards and are not likely to be either fair caught or returned. It was insanity for college coaches to do the same before 1978.
Because they travel farther and at a lower trajectory, place kicks hit the ground at a lower angle. One law of physics is that the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence. That means, the ball tends to bounce at the same angle as it arrived. That can be changed by the shape of the football and by old-time, original Astroturf, but on natural grass or modern artificial turf, the place kick will almost always bounce the same direction it was kicked. Punts, on the other hand, often bounce backward.
Place kick long snaps only have to travel 7 yards. Punt long snaps go back 12 to 18 yards depending upon the level and the coaching. Obviously, the punt long snap is harder than the place kick long snap. Equally obviously, the long-snap distance is part of why place kicks go farther beyond the line of scrimmage than punts.
I know of no statistics on the subject, but one would expect that there are far more bad punt snaps than bad field-goal snaps.
Time to protect
Place kicks are kicked about 1.4 seconds after the ball begins to move in the long snappers hands; punts, 2.0 seconds. In sports, .6 seconds is an eternity.
I know of no statistics on the subject, but one would expect that there are far more blocked punts than blocked field-goal attempts.
Never backed up
When the line of scrimmage is closer to the end line (back of the end zone) behind you than your long snappers normal punt-snap distance, you are backed up and your punter is crowded. There is a danger he may step on the end line, which is a safety. While a bad long snap at a non-backed-up field position can sometimes be converted to a first down using a fire drill play, a bad punt long snap in a backed-up situation almost always results in either a safety (if the punt goes out of bounds in the end zone or the punter is tackled in the end zone) or a touchdown if a defender recovers the ball in the end zone. There is also increased danger of a blocked punt because the punter is closer to the blockers than normal.
However, a place kicker can never be backed up. Even if the ball is at your own one-yard line, the long snapper still does his normal seven-yard snap and the place kicker still has four yards for his normal three-step approach to the kick.
If a coach is reluctant to use the place-kick punt, he should at least use it in backed-up situations.
Punters today do not work on accuracy. Rather, they work on accurate distances with regard to pooch punts and maximum distance on regular punts.
Place kickers, on the other hand, have always focused on accuracy. They are aided by the hold and the constant spot. Punters are somewhat distracted by the need to catch the snap, take their steps, and drop the ball. In their field of vision is the chaos of the protection.
Place kickers take the exact same steps every time and have their head down looking at the tee (high school) or spot on the ground where the ball will be spotted (pro).
In my experience, high school freshmen place kickers can consistently place kick the ball out of bounds around the five-yard line from around midfield. Older place kickers should be able to do the same from their own end of the football field.
Why coaches would not take advantage of that is beyond my comprehension. I suspect its because they are congenitally timid about doing anything new due to the lack of job security in the profession. If you punt like everyone else and still lose, you can blame the players, e.g., The best team won or Somebody needed to make a play and no one did.
But if you do something different, like a place-kick punt, and it fails, the blame is all yours.
Other than the wideouts, the place-kick double-wing formation makes it easier to cover the kick than the tight punt formation which has double tight ends and two upbacks behind the A gaps.
Where does the receive team get the ball?
Again, the rules at the high school and pro levels are the same. The receive team gets the ball where it goes out of bounds or on their 20-yard line if it goes into the end zone and, at the pro level, they choose not to return it out of the end zone. At the high school level, a kicked ball is dead as soon as it crosses the plane of the goal line and cannot be returned out of the end zone. Here are the actual rules:
- High school (NFHS) Rule 6-3-7 When any scrimmage kick is out of bounds between the goal lines or becomes dead inbounds between the goal lines while no player is in possession, or inbounds anywhere while opponents are in joint possession, the ball is awarded to [the receiving team]. Following an out-of-bounds kick, the ball is put in play at the inbounds spot [hash]
- Pro (NFL) Rule 7-5-1 If any legal kick, except for a free kick [kickoff or kickoff after a safety], is out of bounds between the goal lines, ball is next put in play at inbounds spot by receivers .
What about missed field goals?
At the high school level, missed field goals generally go into the end zone, in which case, it is a touchback and the receiving team gets the ball on their own 20-yard line.
However, at the college and pro levels, there is a special rule. The NFL version says that if the spot of the kick was outside the receive teams 20-yard line, the receive team gets the ball at the spot of the kick. For example, if you attempt a field goal from the fifty-yard line and miss at the pro level, the receive team gets the ball at the fifty-yard line. In college, they use the line of scrimmage rather than the spot of the kick. The line of scrimmage is typically seven yards closer to the goal posts than the spot of the kick.
Here are the actual rules:
- College (NCAA) Rule 8-4-2 b. After an unsuccessful field goal attempt that crosses the neutral zone, the ball, untouched by [the receiving team] beyond the neutral zone and subsequently declared dead beyond the neutral zone, will next be put in play at the previous spot, or [overtime] rules govern. If the previous spot was between [the receiving teams] 20-yard line and the goal line, the ball shall next be put in play at [the receiving teams] 20-yard line
- Pro (NFL) Rule 11-5-2 All field goals attempted and missed when the spot of the kick is beyond the 20-yard line will result in the defensive team taking possession of the ball at the spot of the kick. On any field goal attempted and missed when the spot of the kick is on or inside the 20-yard line, the ball will revert to the defensive team at the 20-yard line.
If all place kicks that did not go through the uprights were put back at the kicking team’s line of scrimmage in the pros, you would never do the place-kick punt play. But thats not what the rules say.
Two kinds of place kicks
In effect, there are two kinds of place kicks at the pro level:
- attempted field goals
- place kicks that were not attempted field goals
When you do the place-kick punt, you are doing the latter, so the ball should be awarded to the receiving team where it went out of bounds in accordance with the rules listed above.
How do I know this? Because if all place kicks that did not go through the uprights had to go back to the prior line of scrimmage, the pro rules would say “place kick” rather than “field goals attempted and missed.”
If I am overlooking anything, I would like to hear what it is. I have discussed this with a number of pro coaches and they were unable to find a flaw in it. They were also unable to find the guts to do it during the 2005 season. In June of 2006, a bunch of officials jumped on me for overlooking NCAA Rule 2-15-9. Sorry. The rule book could be worded more clearly. For example, NCAA rule 6-3-7 could and should use the word “punt” rather than “scrimmage kick” since the rule does not apply to any of the three types of scrimmage kick other than punts.
My thanks to Mike Wise, a Texas official, for directing my attention to section 2-15 of the NCAA rule book where I found that Rule 2-15-9 negated my prior advice to also use the place-kick “punt” in NCAA.
Our experience with this play in 2004 and 2005
My 2004 freshman high school football team (Monte Vista of Danville, CA) did this. We started to do it in 2005, but were ordered to stop by the varsity head coach after a slightly high snap was tipped over the kickers head by the holder and resulted in a loss play.
The play worked as expected other than the 2005 bad snap (or holder muff) which was not a function of the distance from the goal line, but was simply a bad field-goal snap that could have happened on a P.A.T. or within-field-goal-range kicktwo situations in which the varsity head coach did not ban us from using the place-kick.
We discussed this play with officials before each game. One said he had seen it done before. All agreed it was legal.
Unexpected opponent reactions
There were a number of unexpected opponent reactions. Most seemed to think it was a fake and lined up in a normal defense with no one deep. When I saw that, I yelled out to my kicker to kick it down the middle rather than out of bounds, which he did. I did not note the distance, but I would guess such kicks rolled dead about 50 yards or more from our line of scrimmage.
A number of teams reacted to the kick as if it were a free kick, that is, a kickoff. That is, they frantically scrambled after trying to get it before we did. In the event, none touched it and let us recover, but they came close because of their panicked mind set and their failure to recognize that the place-kick punt is the same as a punt in that you should get away from it if you do not plan to return it.
Away-game public address announcers would say, in a very skeptical tone of voice, The Mustang field-goal team is coming onto the field. I expected one to say something like, This will be an 82-yard attempt, but no one ever did.
John Madden’s son was head coach of one of our opponents: Foothill High School. He commented afterward along the lines that we were getting 50 yards or so out of our fourth-down kicks and he was only getting 25. I dont think we were doing quite that well, but our opponents did typically get about 20 or 25 yards net out of their punts.
40-yard net ‘punt’ at freshman level
Our best kick was in our final 2004 game. We had 4th and too many at California Highs 43-yard line. We snapped the ball back to the 50-yard line and place kicked it out of bounds at the three-yard line. This was the right hash and right side line of the field and the kicker was right footed. Soccer-stlyle kickers can kick farther when they kick away from their kicking foot.
In 2005, we belatedly got a new kicker from India who had spent the summer on the Indian Junior National Soccer Team. In practice, he was consistently kicking the ball out of bounds at the one- or two-yard line from around midfield. I told him to stop being so close to the goal line to avoid a touchback. He said he could hit the one or two and he was right. The holder and I kept looking at each other and laughing about how great this was going to be in our games. That week was the one when our varsity head coach ordered us to stop using the place-kick punt so we never got to see him do it in a game.
Scholastic Coach article
I wrote an article about this in the February 2005 Scholastic Coach magazine. One varsity high school head coach who read it said his team was doing it as a result of my article and that it was working as advertised. I got no feedback indicating any problems with it.
NFL players react
I had lunch with four former Oakland Raiders in March of 2006 and asked them about this idea. They said you would have to be sure to kick it out of bounds in the NFL or it would be returned for a touchdown. They were sure that the field-goal team could not cover the kick.
I would agree but I would add that my field-goal “punt” team was not the same as my P.A.T. team. My P.A.T. team had a 260-pound 14-year old who was great at protection, but not coverage. So for the place-kick punt, he was replaced. At the NFL level, you would have to use coverage guys rather than normal offensive linemen. Fortunately, the protection is simple (everyone take one step to the inside) and quick. But the main thing is to make sure the kick goes out of bounds which is certainly doable.
Here is an email I got from a reader on 7/26/06:
Actually, I heard an interview with Coach Stram of the Chiefs many years ago . In the interview he said that the record for the longest field goal ever attempted was 97 yards by Jan Stenerud In fact Stram used it like a punt because they were backed up so far and he mentioned the exact reasons you discussed. He chuckled as he recalled it won the game for them. So referees in the 60s were aware of this.
Former Raider Steve Wisniewski told me he did not think the field-goal kicking formationa double wingwas viable for a place kick “punt” that is returned in the NFL because the formation has no gunners and it would be too easy to keep the wings or lineman from getting downfield to cover the punt. Again, if that’s correct, the kicker needs to kick the ball out of bounds, which should be no problem.
When I discussed this with the late Bob Carroll, the executive Director of the Professional Football Researchers Association and co-author of the Hidden Game of Football, he dismissed it as a trick play that would be outlawed within a week of being used by an NFL coach.
My son also said it would be outlawed at all levels as soon as coaches started to do it. Maybe. And I really do not have a position on whether or not it should be outlawed. If I were on the rule-making committee, I might vote to outlaw it. But I’m not and until it is outlawed you’re nuts to punt in high school or the pros.
I disagree that it is a trick play. If I were an NFL coach, I would start using it during the exhibition season. I would no doubt be asked about it subsequently by the press and would explain the reasons for it and my plan to continue doing it. If there were no unforeseen problems with it, I would continue to use it in every “punt” situation thereafter. No one would be surprised or tricked by it.
I would also add that neither I nor any other coach I know of is opposed to trick plays. What little debate there is pertains to how often you employ them. Most coaches seem to have at least one ready for each game. Important games have been won with them, like the kick return lateral pass that got the Titans into the Super Bowl a few years back.
Like the switch to soccer-style place kicks
I think adoption of the place-kick punt is analogous to the switch from the toe-punch place kick to the soccer-style place kick that occurred in the 1960’s in football. No one rose up to outlaw that and it is now the almost universal style used (some youth and high school kickers still use the toe-punch). Or, if you want to go back farther, it is analogous to the switch from the drop kick to the place kick before that or the greatly increased use of the forward pass, which was initially denounced as, “not real football.”
Carroll also said that place kicking the ball out of bounds on every fourth down would be boring. Not as boring as deliberately throwing a pass out of bounds, or kicking a P.A.T., or taking a knee. Current fair caught or coffin-corner or touchback punts are not much more exciting than a place-kick coffin-corner “punt.” Indeed, when coffin-corner punts were more common, they were greatly appreciated by the crowd and the media. The current pooch punt that is occasionally downed at the one or two is also greatly admiredon the rare occasion when it works. Why wouldn’t place kicking it out of bounds on the one- or two-yard line get the same response?
If we are going to eliminate all the boring plays in football, which I would support, the sequence in which we should outlaw them would put the place-kick “punt” well down the list.
I am available to testify at the coaching-malpractice trial of any coach at any post-12-year-old, non-college level who punts.
There is also the whole issue of whether a coach should be doing a kick of any kindwhether field-goal attempt or place-kick “punt” or punton most fourth downs. Those who have studied the matter say coaches should go for the first down far more often on fourth down. See Going for it on fourth down for more information on that.