The Punt Rules of a Football Game
Punting in American football, which is when a team kicks the ball to relinquish possession to the other team, occurs when a team’s offense is struggling. Like with everything else in football, punting has rules:
In the pros, only the players lined up on the ends are permitted to cross the line of scrimmage after the ball is snapped to the punter and before the ball is punted. In college and high school, all players on the punting team may cross the line of scrimmage after the snap.
After the ball is punted, everyone on the punting team is allowed to cross the line of scrimmage with the intent of tackling the player fielding the punt (who’s also known as the punt returner).
Players aren’t allowed to block below the waist on punt returns. Such an illegal block is a 15-yard penalty and is marked off from where the team returning the punt gained possession of the ball.
If a punt doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage, either team may pick up the ball and run toward its own end zone.
A touchback occurs when a punt touches the end zone before the ball touches a player on either team, or when the punt returner catches the ball in the end zone and drops to one knee. The ball is then spotted on the receiving team’s 20-yard line.
Either team can down a punt after it hits the ground or after one of its players touches the ball past the line of scrimmage. To down the ball, a player must be in possession of the ball, stop his forward movement, and drop to one knee. Such action leads to an official blowing his whistle, signaling the end of action.
A partially blocked punt that crosses the line of scrimmage is treated like a typical punt.
Several times during a game, you see the punt returner stand and simply catch the ball. He doesn’t run. In this case, he’s probably calling for a fair catch:
To signal for a fair catch, the player who’s preparing to receive the punt must clearly extend his arm over his head and then wave it from side to side to let the officials and the defensive players know that he doesn’t plan to run with the ball after catching it.
After signaling for a fair catch, the punt returner can’t advance the ball.
If the defenders tackle the returner after he signals a fair catch, the kicking team incurs a 15-yard penalty.
However, the player signaling for a fair catch isn’t obligated to catch the ball. His only worry is not to touch the ball because if he does so without catching it, the loose ball is treated like a fumble, and the other team can recover it. After he touches it or loses control and the ball hits the ground, either team is allowed to recover the ball.
If the returner muffs a kick, or fails to gain possession, the punting team may not advance the ball if they recover it. If the returner gains possession and then fumbles, however, the punting team may advance the ball.