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NFL free kick rule, explained

The NFL free kick rule allows a return team to attempt a “free kick” field goal in lieu of the more commonly-known fair catch reception. 

NFL fans who want to get the most out of their Sundays have a basic understanding of the most pertinent rules: how offsides works, what constitutes as defensive pass interference, and why returners wave their hands in the air to signal a fair catch.

But what many NFL fans aren’t aware of is the rare secondary option to the fair catch: a free kick.

Essentially, a free kick resembles a 60-yard field goal attempt and is often taken as a last-ditch effort to score points as the clock ticks away in a half. The situation is similar to the field goal Mike McCarthy called for in a narrow Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Because of the high risk and low reward, it’s rarely attempted, which can make it confusing when it makes a surprising Sunday appearance.

How does an NFL free kick work?

In 2019, the Carolina Panthers went for a free kick against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a Week 6 game.  With one second left in the first half, Panthers kicker Joey Slye lined up at the 50 yard line and went for a 60-yard free kick. It fell by the wayside in a failed attempt, although the Panthers won 37-26.

A free kick is lined up like a kickoff rather than a field goal, as there is no snap and no kicking tee allowed. Instead, the bay must be placed or drop-kicked, and the defense must stand at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage before the ball is kicked.

In the unlikely event that a free kick comes into play this season — it’s only been attempted five times in the last 36 years — it will be when a team has no other choice but to rely on a kicker’s Hail Mary.

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