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You make the call: 4 kicks from Thursday to test your rules knowledge

Four kicks on Thursday night tested the kick/possession rules.




Week 6: Broncos at Chargers

It was an odd night for the special teams on Thursday night, as no fewer than four kicks involved some variation of the possession rules.

There are four basic principles for any kick that will help you at home make the correct call:

  1. As long as a play remains alive, a kick remains a kick until it is possessed.
  2. If the kicking team recovers any kick, the ball is dead immediately.
  3. The kicking team cannot gain possession of a scrimmage kick (punt or missed field goal) unless the receiving team touches the ball first. Every time the kicking team touches the ball before the receiving team, it is a first-touch violation spot.
  4. The kicking team may gain possession of a free kick (standard kickoff or a safety kick) after the kick has traveled 10 yards or is touched by the receiving team.

(Although this won’t apply here, punts and blocked field goals that do not cross the line of scrimmage do not have the restrictions of numbers 2 and 3 above.)

With that in mind, we review these four plays for the correct ruling.

Play #1. Muffed punt

On a Broncos punt, Chargers receiver Travis Benjamin touches the ball slightly at the 12-yard line, and Broncos safety Will Parks scoops up the ball and runs into the end zone. Initially, the officials did not rule that Benjamin touched the ball, so the play was dead as soon as Parks scooped it up, just as any other downed punt. Replay showed that Benjamin had touched it, so how would this play have been handled in real-time?

When Benjamin touches the ball, he has made it a live ball for the Broncos to recover; by the rulebook definition, it is a muffed ball, which is simply any failed attempt to recover a loose ball. However, the Chargers have not yet possessed the ball, which means the Broncos recovery makes the ball dead immediately, just as if they had downed the punt. The difference is that the Broncos are awarded possession of the muffed punt at the 11, but they cannot advance the recovery.

The fact that this was ultimately handled through replay had no effect on the final spot of the ball or the clock.

Play #2. Punt touched by both teams

A Chargers punt is first tapped away from the end zone by Trevor Williams of the Chargers at the 2½. Broncos receiver Jordan Norwood touches the ball at the 5. Then, Darrell Stuckey covers the ball for the Chargers at the 3. Who has possession, and where do you spot the ball?

When Williams touches the ball, that is a first-touch violation. There can be multiple first-touch violations during a play, and each one is mentally marked by the officials. When Norwood touches the ball, it is now a live ball, and the Chargers make the recovery.

Now that the play has concluded, the Broncos have a choice: either take the dead-ball spot or take the spot of the first-touch violation. The dead-ball spot is the more advantageous position, but the Chargers made a legal recovery of the ball. Therefore, the Broncos will take the first-touch spot, which negates the Chargers recovery.

This is why it is deemed a “free play” for the receiving team when there is a first-touch violation. The receiving team can revert back to any of the first-touch spots, with one exception. If the receiving team takes possession of the punt, runs it back, then fumbles and commits a penalty, they cannot go back to the first-touch spot, and the kickers will get the ball at the fumble recovery spot.

Play #3. Muffed safety kick

One play after the punt, the Broncos committed a safety. The Broncos opted to punt the kickoff after the safety, which was kicked short and attempted to be fielded by Chargers offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins. He showed why he does not catch kicks, as he muffed the ball at the 46, and Broncos special teamer Shiloh Keo recovered the muffed kick at midfield. Do the Broncos get the ball there?

A safety kick is treated just like a kickoff, except the kicking team is limited to putting the ball into play by way of a punt, dropkick, or a placekick without a tee. Most teams opt for a punt, but the standard rules for kicks going 10 yards are in play. The Broncos were free to do an onside punt as well. The Broncos get the ball at the spot of the Keo recovery.

Play #4. Onside kick

The Chargers looked like they were about to squander a fourth-quarter lead for the fifth time in their sixth game of the season. The Broncos, down by 8, attempted an onside kick. It squirted through the Chargers phalanx and went untouched for 11 yards when it was recovered by Broncos receiver Jordan Taylor. He did not attempt to advance the ball, but could he have gotten up and attempted to gain additional yardage?

We, again, go to the axiom at the top of this post: a kick is a kick until it is possessed. Because the kicking team recovered a kicked ball – as opposed to recovering a fumbled ball that was in the Chargers’ possession — the play is dead immediately; there cannot be an advance of the ball by the Broncos. On the muffed safety kick in the previous example, Keo could not advance the ball either, even though the ball was muffed by the Chargers. The fact that the ball was muffed did not create possession, and until the ball is possessed, the muffed ball remains a kick.

All four recoveries by the kicking team illustrated here are still considered kicks at the point of the kicking team’s recovery. This distinction is important not only for determining possession, but also for the proper enforcement of fouls, ball spots, whether plays are automatically reviewed, the status of the clock, and (most critically) whether a touchback or safety is ruled.

When there is confusion as to what the proper ruling is on any kicking play, the first thing that should be remembered is the kick remains a kick until possessed or declared dead. All the other components of the play are secondary until the determination is made as to when the kick ended.

Photo: Eric Bakke/Denver Broncos

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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