A fair catch sounds like a pretty simple concept. In general, a valid fair catch signal by the receiver of a kick gives that receiver protection against getting creamed after the reception (excuse the technical jargon), as well as a choice to free kick or snap. An invalid or illegal signal gives no such protection (2-9-1; 6-5-3; 6-5-4). However, what may appear to be a simple concept can have a few twists and turns that are always worth a review.
The valid signal affords protection that is only for a signaler (or signalers; 6-5-3); Team K players are prohibited from touching any signaler, and neither the Team R player making the signal, nor any of his teammates may advance the ball. Further, the Team R player making the signal cannot block after making the signal (6-5-5, -1). Note that there is a difference between invalid and illegal fair catch signals. Simply stated, an invalid signal can occur until a kicked ball touches the ground or R, or is recovered. An illegal signal can only occur after the catch or recovery.
The following situations are not considered fair catches, even though the ball becomes dead on being caught because of an attempted fair catch signal: a non-signaler, an invalid-signaler, an illegal signaler, or a signaler who recovers (as opposed to catches since it cannot be a fair catch once the ball hits the ground) (6-5-3, -7, -8). These players are not entitled to fair-catch protection.
After any valid or invalid fair-catch signal, the ball is dead when it is caught or recovered—not where it is muffed (C-6-5-1; C-6-5-2-A). Again, an illegal fair catch signal is given after a reception or recovery, so it’s not a fair catch, it is a live-ball foul.
After a fair catch or an awarded fair catch, the choice of a free kick or snap remains in two situations: (1) if a dead-ball foul occurs before the next down, or (2) if the down following the fair catch choice is replayed due to a foul, or one of those dreaded inadvertent whistles (6-5-4).
A fair catch is a valid fair catch only if a signaler gives a valid signal and catches the kick in an allowable area. A valid
signal is one that is properly executed and occurs during a kick until the point where the ball touches the ground or a receiver. A properly executed signal means that the arm is fully extended, and there is a clear lateral waving motion. Just prior to the snap, it’s a good idea for the back judge to remind potential receivers to give a clear signal if they want a fair catch (2-9-3, -4).
Invalid signals can only occur from the point that the ball was kicked to the point when the ball either touches the ground or R, or is recovered. This means that the signal could be improperly executed before a kick is caught or recovered, or that it occurred from the point the kicked ball touched the ground or a receiver, to possession or recovery. Blow the whistle–the ball is dead. A 5-yard invalid signal penalty occurs during loose-ball play, so absent a decline, it is enforced from the previous spot of the kick, with a rekick (2-9-4; 6-5-1).
Illegal signals occur after the catch or recovery, i.e., the catcher-turned-runner gives a signal after the kick is caught or recovered. Don't blow the whistle–let the play run—R can still fumble and K can still recover and gain. A 5-yard illegal signal penalty occurs during a running play, and so is thus enforced from the spot of illegal signal (which is the all-but-one spot behind the end of the run). If someone who is not a receiver or runner gives an illegal fair-catch signal, it is not a foul; only a receiver can do this (2-9-5; C-2-9-5).
A kicked ball cannot be fair caught behind the line of scrimmage, in the end zone, or out of bounds. Free kicks must be fair caught by R from in or beyond the neutral zone to Rs' goal line, and scrimmage kicks must be fair caught by R from beyond the neutral zone to Rs' goal line (2-9-1; 6-5-2). This means that if a kick is short and winds up close to the scrimmage line, the only team that can lose by signaling a fair catch is R since it’s not a fair catch if caught behind the neutral zone, and R has no protection there.
A non-signaler or invalid/illegal signaler is not entitled to protection (6-5-3). Contacting non-signalers or those signaling in a non-fair-catch area is not a foul unless it’s personal foul. Thus, a Team R receiver, giving a valid fair catch signal, may be blocked behind the neutral zone since a catch behind the neutral zone is not a fair catch (C-6-5-2-B; C-6-5-3). K may block a signaler who muffs a catch if K is attempting to reach the ball, but not if the block prevents R from catching the muff (C-6-5-2-A).
A fair catch signaler can't block until the kick ends. If a Team R receiver signaling for a fair catch catches or recovers the ball, the kick ends and the ball will be dead. Once K recovers, however, the player giving the fair catch signal can block since the kick is now ended. Once R muffs, K may block a signaler who muffs a catch if K is attempting to reach ball, but not if the block prevents R from catching the muff (6-5-1; C-6-5-2-A).
a. there is no foul if K tackles a non-signaler or signaler in non-fair catch area. (C-6-5-3);
b. five yards for an invalid/illegal signal (6-5-Penalties);
c. 10 yards for holding by K tackling signaler trying to reach a muffed catch attempt (C-6-5-2-A);
d. 15 yards for an illegal block by a signaler (6-5-Penalties).
An awarded fair catch represents R’s option to take the ball at the spot of kick-catching interference by K rather than accepting a 15-yard penalty and rekicking. If K touches the ball beyond the scrimmage line, it is first touching and kick-catching interference unless K was blocked into it or R was not in the area to catch it. R can take the ball at the spot of the infraction as an awarded fair catch, or take a 15-yard penalty and rekick (2-9-2; 6-5-6).