HOUSTON — On what was the final (but could have been the penultimate) play of the first half of the divisional-round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, the Packers punted from deep in their end of the field and the Cowboys’ Cole Beasley fair caught it.
End of half. Standard stuff, right?
Not really. It actually set up a rare possibility and invoked an obscure NFL rule: the fair catch free kick option. After any fair catch, teams are allowed to try a free kick from that spot, where with the help of a holder, a kicker can line up and attempt to boot the ball between the uprights. But fair catches rarely happen close enough to attempt the kick and it almost always occurs only in the waning seconds of a half because a miss means the other team potentially takes over at that spot (or can try to run back a miss like a normal missed field goal).
Referee Tony Corrente gave Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett the option — even though the clock had expired — of attempting an untimed 72-yard field goal in which Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey would have had no Packers rushing at him by rule. Almost like a kickoff, but it’s potentially worth three points. (It’s in the NFL rule book, for real.) Garrett passed on the chance. The Cowboys lost, 34-31.
This wasn’t the difference in the game. But it certainly was an opportunity for three extra points — one that seldom comes up in NFL games. Fox announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman never mentioned the possibility of the free kick, which probably speaks to how rare it is. It’s the Halley’s Comet of NFL plays.
And yet there’s one coach who better than probably any other in today’s game who prepares his team for such plays. The New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick preaches situational football and awareness like no other that we’re aware of, even keeping his players — and himself — refreshed on all the game’s rules, even the most obscure ones.
“Those kind of plays come up sometimes once in a career,” Belichick said Tuesday. “They are very unusual. First of all, you have to explain the situation so that everyone understands it.”
Patriots receiver Julian Edelman said Belichick shows a film cut-up of unusual situations that crop up in non-Patriots games during the season and will review them with his players. Edelman wouldn’t say whether the free kick rule was specifically discussed but pointed to another rare (but still more common) rule that could come up in Super Bowl LI on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
“We’ll go over those situations, such as the extension of the out-of-bounds rule on kickoffs where if you’re half in or on the line and half on the playing field, you’re extending the out of bounds,” Edelman said. “We go over this stuff all the time.”
The odds of a fair-catch free kick coming up Sunday have to be in the hundreds- or perhaps thousands-to-one. There have been more than 4,000 NFL games (regular season and playoffs) since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, and there are only seven known possibilities — and in four of them, including the Packers-Cowboys game, the team passed on the chance to attempt it.
Belichick could remember only one instance during his Patriots career where it came into play.
“The closest that it really came for us at the Patriots was against Miami in 2002,” Belichick said. “At the end of the game, we had them backed up and there were just a few seconds to go in the game. They punted but we couldn’t make the catch.”
Belichick’s memory, of course, is spot on. Dolphins punter Mark Royals punted from his own 14-yard line with four seconds left, and it traveled only 30 yards.
“If we caught the ball, we would’ve had a free-kick opportunity with Adam [Vinatieri],” Belichick said. “It was a kick that was into the wind and we just couldn’t quite get to it. It hit the ground but it would’ve been a free kick situation. Things like that are unusual.”
Since the NFL merger in 1970, there have been only 11 free kick field-goal attempts in the regular season and one in the playoffs. Only one of those 13 tries, back in 1976 by the San Diego Chargers’ Ray Wersching, was made. After there were two attempts in a five-week span in 2008, there has been only one fair-catch free-kick try, back in 2013 by the Green Bay Packers’ Mason Crosby.
Most of the attempts are longer than normal field-goal tries, too, as Crosby’s miss was from 68. The absence of a rushing defense will allow some coaches to feel comfortable attempting a kickoff-length field goal, although the flip side is that the defense also can attempt to run a miss back.
Quirky rule indeed. Most NFL fans can’t say they’ve seen one. That goes for many coaches, too. Looking back at any NFL game Belichick ever coached in where a free kick occurred, the only one that revealed itself was in 1979 when Belichick coached special teams for the New York Giants. The Giants led the Washington Redskins, 14-6, and tried a free kick from 74 yards out (!) in the waning moments, as there was no two-point conversion then and they hoped to score the field goal, recover an onside kick and then complete a Hail Mary for the win. Alas, Mark Moseley’s free-kick try came up short.
Want to watch a funny version of this? Back in 1984, watch as the Indianapolis Colts and Patriots seemed to stumble around the field as everyone tried to figure out exactly how one of these free kicks actually worked. Credit play-by-play announcer, the late Charlie Jones, for instantly recognizing the rarity of the situation on the broadcast.
Imagine the prop-bet odds you could get for this happening Sunday. As Belichick noted, football’s natural chaos theory — the smallest change making the biggest difference — likely keeps it from coming up very much.
“Some of the situations, if you just add or subtract a second from the situation or add or subtract a few yards and put a timeout into that equation, with or without it, you get a pretty dramatic shift on what the strategy would be, the type of play you would want or wouldn’t want,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to tweak some of those situations to really change your thinking.”
But the point is that Belichick is always testing his team on these obscure possibilities. It’s something Chris Long noted after joining the team this past offseason.
“No detail is too small,” Long said. “The level of preparation is unparalleled. There is nothing that seems to slip through the cracks.”
Belichick showed the Patriots the final play of the first half in the Week 9 game between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers when 49ers head coach Chip Kelly ordered his defenders to hold all the Saints’ receiver across the board with 8 seconds remaining from the San Francisco 13-yard line.
It was a brilliant strategy, really — time is not put back on the clock on a defensive penalty, and it forced the Saints to kick a field goal instead of giving them a chance to score a touchdown and go up 15 points. (Really, this is what former Belichick assistant Nick Saban should have had his Crimson Tide do against Clemson at the Alabama 2-yard line with 6 seconds left, as Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney admitted after the game that they would have kicked the field goal had there been any less time on the clock.)
“The San Francisco play against New Orleans at the end of the half — things like that that you don’t see or haven’t seen in a long time. You have to refresh yourself and then remind the players and coaches as well,” Belichick said. “We do that on a regular basis. We go over situations weekly. A lot of those happen in other games. Sometimes that situation doesn’t even line up with something that happens in our game, but it makes you think about things and other adjustments or plays.”
Most NFL games are more evenly matched that you think, talent-wise. Sometimes the less-talented team ends up winning. But being aware of the situation and knowing how to gain an edge, no matter how small, has been a hallmark of Belichick’s coaching as he goes for Super Bowl No. 7 — five as a head coach.
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