Seahawks punter Michael Dickson grew up playing Australian rules football in his hometown of Sydney, and he imported some of the kick-heavy game to Seattle on Thursday night.
Dickson’s third quarter punt was blocked with enough backspin to have it skittering in the open backfield. Because the ball is behind the line of scrimmage, we all know the kicking team may pick up the ball and advance. But then Dickson did the unthinkable.
He punted it again.
Both Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the Fox Sports/NFL Network/Amazon Prime Video booth interjected, “That’s coming back.” Their rules analyst, the typically infallible Mike Pereira backed up their assessment, “No, you can’t kick it again.”
The double punt rule
However, Dickson was able to take advantage on a block one, punt one free offer. Punts that do not cross the line of scrimmage may still be played by the kicking team, and there is no distinction whether the ball is blocked, shanked, or whiffed. Field goals attempts are in the same classification as punts: scrimmage kicks. So, while it is still legally a kicked ball, and a recovery by the kicking team beyond the line of scrimmage would be a dead ball, it is a live ball behind the line, and the kicking team has not lost any of its options.
To put it another way, the kicking team is deemed to have surrendered possession of the ball when the scrimmage kick goes beyond the line of scrimmage. In this case, they may still legally possess and advance the ball, and it includes the ability to punt the ball a second time or to pass or run for the first down.
This is actually not a new rule, and it was one I covered in my book So You Think You Know Football. A hypothetical example was given for a real-life play in the 1985 playoffs when Giants punter Sean Landeta actually punted the ball backwards without it being touched by another player.
If one of the Giants players recovered the ball at the 5-yard line, which of these could he do?
A. Run for a first down
B. Pass it
C. Punt it again
D. None of the above; the ball is dead immediately.
A punt that has not crossed the line of scrimmage is a live ball for either team to recover. This applies equally to blocked punts and the very, very short variety that Landeta and few others have accomplished. The Giants would be able to recover the ball and run for the first down. Interestingly, the Giants have not forfeited the ability to pass the ball or punt it again as long as the ball remains behind the line of scrimmage.
In a case where the ball crosses the line of scrimmage but there is enough backspin on the ball to return it behind the line of scrimmage, the kicking team may recover and advance. However, once the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage, the options to kick a second time or to pass are no longer available. The penalties in this case are 5 yards for the pass and 10 yards for the kick.So You Think You Know Football?, p. 91
The book was published in 2015, and this tweet from 2018 also demonstrates this is not a new rule.
Dickson was standing on the line of scrimmage when he punted the ball, so this second kick was legal. In determining if the ball is “beyond the line” when in a player’s possession, the entire body of the ball carrier must be beyond the line. Referee Ron Torbert announced that the Dickson’s heel was on the line (plus his torso was behind his heel while kicking). Replay didn’t have anything to look at, because there is no definitive angle that shows Dickson beyond the line of scrimmage. Had the line of scrimmage been the 20 instead of the 21-yard line, the major stripe on the field would at least be something for replay to use as a visual.
Pereira tried to cover and say there was an addition of an “editorial note” this year to try to save face. That editorial note was just to correct an enforcement paradox that if the illegally kicked ball is behind the line that the penalty is marked off from the line of scrimmage, and not the spot of the kick.
And this isn’t meant to harp on Pereira. Not terribly often, but all the rules experts on the network sometimes get these unusual situations wrong when put on the spot. Goodness knows that I have done so as well. And it’s why we have conferences on the field with the crew to sort these things out.
It was an expert job done by Torbert’s crew to untangle this mess correctly on the field.
NFL scorekeepers are bound by an extensive guidebook, the NFL Guide for Statisticians, that lays out the mechanics of their job.
As far as we know, no documented double punt has ever happened in the NFL before Dickson’s twofer. (It’s very likely that a double punt happened at least once in the leather helmet days.) It has occurred a handful of times at lower levels.
The most notable example occurred in the 1968 Sun Bowl, the first one to be broadcast nationwide on CBS. (Sadly, no video is available.)
Late in that game, Auburn punted on 4th down from deep in its own territory. Connie Frederick’s punt was blocked into his own end zone, where Frederick recovered. Frederick then ran back into the field of play, managed to avoid multiple Arizona defenders, and punted again, netting 17 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Back to the Rams-Seahawks game, as of the time the gamebook was published, the NFL is scoring Dickson’s as an ordinary 68-yard punt with no reference to the original block. However, the NFL Guide for Statisticians explicitly states that the blocked punt is still scored, with emphasis added:
When a punt or a field-goal attempt is blocked and recovered by the offensive team behind the line of scrimmage, any running advance is treated as miscellaneous yardage. In the rare case when the offensive player attempts a forward pass after a blocked kick, include it as a passing attempt and any completion as passing yardage. However, if the player is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, do not treat this as yards lost attempting to pass. In the latter case, merely note the player recovered a blocked kick. NOTE: Regardless of any subsequent action, the original blocked punt or field goal must be recorded.
The proper scoring of this play should be:
- a blocked punt charged to the Seahawks team, not Dickson
- Jamir Jones of the Rams with a blocked kick
- a punt for Dickson for 68 yards.
The gamebook should be reissued at some point with the correction.
The NCAA scoring manual, likely spurred by the Sun Bowl punt, spells out exactly how this punt would be scored in college.
UPDATED, Sept. 2022: The NFL Guide For Statisticians has revised its guidelines to retroactively make the way this play was originally scored correct even though it conflicted with past practice. “Regardless of any subsequent action, the original blocked punt or field goal must be recorded” has been revised to “Regardless of the subsequent actions above, excluding multiple punt or kick attempts, the original blocked punt or field goal must be recorded,” and “If the kicking team recovers a blocked kick and attempts a subsequent kick, count only the result of the final kick attempt” has been added.