Published on July 18, 2018 11:28 AM by dbo.
After successfully completing the Kicking 101 course on the basics and history of CFL kicking rules, Kicking 201 provides insight into more modern rules and tactics of the CFL kicking game.
Note: This article contains my interpretation of the rulebook. While I strive to be as accurate as possible, I am a lay person reading and interpreting the rulebook; I have no football officiating training. Please contact me with any corrections required so inaccurate information is not left on the web.
First, there are a couple rules introduced in the last decade that apply to kicks from scrimmage. Understanding these, and their purpose and place in the game will help in the overall understanding of the application of these penalties.
2022 Note: Updated to 15-yard lines to reflect 2022 rule change. Prior to 2022, was between 20-yard lines.
A kick from scrimmage that travels out of bounds in flight (that is, without striking the ground or anyone in the field of play) between the 15-yard lines is subject to a 10-yard penalty with the choice of applying against the kicking team at the point of last scrimmage and repeat down, or from the point the kick was ruled out of bounds with a first down for the receiving team.
This rule was introduced in 2007 to address a growing strategy of coaches to direct punters to eliminate returns by kicking the ball out of bounds. Against dangerous returners, with no consequence, kicking the ball out of bounds in flight to eliminate any chance of return, even if the punt distance was shorter, was preferable than keeping the ball in bounds. A solution was sought to return punt return opportunities to the game. This rule provided consequence to the strategy of kicking out of bounds, and with an option to force a re-kick after players have just sprinted 40-yards covering the first punt, one with risky repercussions. As such, the rule has effectively restored punt return opportunities and the possibility of a player making a great play. This shifted play from coaches desire to eliminate risk to fan entertainment over athletic plays, which is the game’s purpose.
The restriction was applied to between the 15-yard lines so as to not take away the skill play of punters pinning a team deep with “coffin corner” kicks out of bounds within the 15-yard line. If the rule applied to between the goal lines, punters would have to land “coffin corner” kicks in bounds before bouncing out or be penalized, and this was deemed to be too restrictive on the practice (and would likely see more single points as a result), so the 20-yard lines were chosen as a compromise to both situations, but reduced to 15-yard lines in 2022.
On a punt from scrimmage, the five players who make up the ineligible interior line players (centre, guards, tackles) may not advance beyond the scrimmage zone (1-yard in advance of the line of scrimmage) until the ball is kicked. Violating this rule is subject to a 10-yard penalty from the point of last scrimmage (and repeat down) or point possession gained for the receiving team.
This rule was introduced in 2015 as a way to improve player safety at the same time as opening up the return game. Restricting these players to remain at the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked prevents them from immediately running down field if the receiving team is setting up the return. This helps reduce the full-speed collisions on returns, as well as opening up more room for returners.
An open field kick is a ball intentionally kicked by a player with possession of the ball after crossing the line of scrimmage or receiving a kick. This tactic, which was common in the beginnings of Canadian football, is now used primarily offensively when time is limited and defensively to avoid being scored upon. This is a unique aspect of Canadian football, and there can be more than one open field kick on any play.
An open field kick, as not a kick from scrimmage (that is, not one from behind the line of scrimmage), is not subject to the rules governing kicks from scrimmage, like Punt Out of Bounds in Flight and Illegally Downfield on a Kick. However, onside rules still apply, and Yards must be given by offside players or they will be subject to a No Yards penalty.
Kicking 101 looked at the rules, terminology and history of kicking in Canadian football. Now, let us explore how these rules are utilized in today’s game.
As we’ve learned, the kicker and any player behind the ball at the moment it is kicked is onside and may legally recover the football (and are exempt from providing the receiving team yards to play the ball). Teams may line up in a kicking formation with the intent to have an onside player recover the football in order to maintain their continuity of downs.
In a punt formation, one or more player may motion backwards towards their deadline in an effort to disguise the situation as late as possible. When the ball is snapped and punted, the onside player(s) attempt to be in a full sprint downfield behind the ball when kicked and the punter attempts to position the ball to a specific location, likely an open spot on the wide side of the field. To successfully execute, an onside punt requires some surprise to the opposition (perhaps because of field position, score, or other factors that reduced the expectation of the onside kick) along with luck. Surprise can be difficult when players motioning to be onside takes enough time for defences to adjust. Some tactics to improve surprise involve showing this motion earlier without trying an onside kick, leading the opposition to believe it to be another feint, and putting onside players on both sides of the field, making it unclear where the punt is going. The risk of an onside punt in these circumstances is minimal as if not recovered, only a little yardage is lost over what might be expected from a regular punt. Onside kick attempts from punt formation may be attempted in very windy conditions, when a team is kicking into the wind and limited in the yards exchanged on a kick, and being affected by the ball bouncing back, which is an advantage to recovery by the kicking team. An onside punt recover attempt is essentially a race to the football, with the ball’s air time and landing point key to making the distance for the onside player(s) shorter than any defender’s, meaning the ball is often kicked to the wide side of the field and short to maximize the distance for defenders.
Lining up a player onside near the sidelines in the hope they be missed by the opposition use to be a valid sleeper play until 2018 when it was outlawed. Now players must participate in the huddle to take a position within 11 yards of the sideline to be able to be considered an eligible onside player who may recover a punt.
The punter may be able to recover his own punt when shanked, punted short or it bounces back towards the kicker’s line of scrimmage. This are not planned plays, but are opportunities the punter exploits when possible due to the ball position, return coverages, and lackadaisical play by the opposition.
Another kick from scrimmage that can involve an onside player recover attempt is the field goal formation. Again, players will move out of the traditional field goal formation and motion towards a sideline behind the holder. When the ball is snapped, the kicker tries to kick the ball towards the sidelines without going out of bounds rather than downfield, the height and distance of the kick dependent on where recovery is planned by the play call. The only requirement is the ball crosses the line of scrimmage before it is touched. Then, if an onside player recovers the ball, a new series of downs is awarded no matter if yards were gained. If the ball is recovered by an onside player before it crosses the line of scrimmage, then yardage still must be gained before the end of the play for a first down to be awarded. CFL Operations provided a video explanation of the rules and officiating aspect of an onside kick from field goal formation.
Such a play provides another method of “faking” the field goal, and a traditional run or pass fake can still be run out of a similar formation and call, providing options to the offence and deception to the defence as to what to defend.
As we learned, a kick from scrimmage that is not from a traditional kick formation and on 1st or 2nd down is called a quick kick. Such a kick can also utilize the onside rules to maintain continuity of downs.
For instance, through penalty and/or loss, a team faces 2nd down and 25 or more yards (any yardage is possible, I am specifying what would be a common scenario). They may line up in a normal offensive formation, and due to the distance required, the defence is playing off the receivers. Upon receiving the ball after the snap, the QB throws a pass to a receiver who remains behind the line of scrimmage by a yard or so. The receiver lightly kicks the ball across the line of scrimmage and runs to recover it. As the punter, they are onside, and when the ball crosses the line of scrimmage on a kick and is legally recovered, a new set of downs will be awarded even if yards were not gained. Such a play allows a team to get a new set of downs without having to gain the yards required! It is not without risk, and failure to recover the ball will result in a turnover at whatever location this is attempted. As a kick from scrimmage, restrictions apply, specifically Illegally Downfield on a Kick and No Yards, so lineman and offside players must be aware of the situation and act accordingly to avoid penalty.
This has become more common than a quick kick from the shotgun formation with players onside, which has fallen out of fashion. The new quick kick tactic is to exploit the rule to receive a new set of downs, while maximizing the chance of success by making the kick as short as possible to improve recovery chances.
A player with the ball across the line of scrimmage may punt the ball downfield. Normal onside rules apply, the kicker and any players behind the ball the moment it is kicked are onside and can legally recover the ball. This tactic may be used like the lateral to advance and keep possession of the ball in an attempt to score on a single play, such as the last play of the half or game.
There are no restrictions with an open field kick — Punt Out of Bounds in Flight and Illegally Downfield on a Kick do not apply. If the ball is kicked out of bounds, the ball reverts to the opposition at the point it went out of bounds.
Used more often defensively, the open field kick is a tactic wielded to avoid being scored upon. In a tie or offensive team trailing by 1-point, they may attempt to win or tie the game by scoring a single point. This may come from a field goal or punt formation, or in a case where they are scrimmaging deep in their end, on an open field kick after a pass to a receiver. Any kick that is kicked through the end zone, or in which the receiving team cannot return the ball out of the end zone (is rouged), will score a single point. If such a return would be risky, perhaps due to the depth of the kick, or the proximity of opposition tacklers (for instance, received 5 yards deep in the end zone, with the opposition at the 4 yard line, kicking it out is the safer play), the ball may be kicked out of the end zone. If it stays in bounds, No Yards rules apply for offside players of the kicking team. The receiving team, upon receipt of the ball, may use an open field kick and punt the ball again. Onside rules still apply, and this can continue until the ball becomes dead (goes out of bounds, ball carrier is tackled, or any other dead ball condition). For the defence, kicking the ball out of the end zone out of bounds is the ideal situation, as they cannot be penalized for this, and ends the play without score. The risk is kicking the ball from deep in the end zone angling for the sidelines; if the ball goes out of bounds within the end zone the result would be a single point for the opposition (ball became dead in possession of team in own Goal Area).
Sometimes the rarity of open field kicks leads to teams unprepared for what to do when an opposition employs one. Unless the kick is in the end zone, teams that are up on the scoreboard should down the ball if received in the field of play (between the goal lines). Returning the kick in this scenario only provides the opposition another chance with the ball. In tie games, the same is likely preferred in order to head to overtime. However, if in a tie a team was to receive a punt around mid-field or on the oppositions side of play, an open field kick for the single might be the coaches call on the last play of regulation time.
If a coach wishes to avoid the point, and sees it likely that it may be difficult to return the ball out of the end zone, he may deploy one or more kickers in the end zone, and/or another player with kicking ability who is not a normal returner. In doing so, he has reduced the mobility of his returners, making getting out of the end zone less of an option, and kicking a safer play. If the ball is kicked back in, getting to the ball is as important as kicking it out again, so multiple players to cover the 20 x 65 yard end zone is required. Once the ball is touched, offside defenders are free to encroach on the 5 yard zone, so as an attempt to kick it out of the end zone is made, a block is possible. Close defenders will take punters out of their normal rhythm of kicking, limiting the effectiveness of their punts. All of these possibilities make open field kick scenarios very unpredictable. While they normally end one of two ways, no two exchanges of open field kicks will ever look the same.
The conditions that see these tactics deployed usually only occur a few times per season. However, some coaches are students of the Canadian rulebook, and have a multitude of options in their arsenal to utilize when needed. Coaches will analyze opposition tendencies based on field position, down, distance and other factors to determine what plays and what situations they can best be deployed. Some of these tactics will surprise fans, while others will lead to exciting finishes. In both cases, the kicking rules of Canadian football provides fans with many thrills.