In gridiron football, a punt is a kick performed by dropping the ball from the hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground. The most common use of this tactic is to punt the ball downfield to the opposing team, usually on the final down, with the hope of giving the receiving team a field position that is more advantageous to the kicking team when possession changes. The result of a typical punt, barring any penalties or extraordinary circumstances, is a first down for the receiving team. A punt is not to be confused with a drop kick, a kick after the ball hits the ground, now rare in both American and Canadian football.
The type of punt leads to different motion of the football. Alex Moffat invented the now-common spiral punt, as opposed to end-over-end.
A punt in gridiron football is a kick performed by dropping the ball from the hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground. In football, the offense has a limited number of downs, or plays, in which to move the ball at least ten yards. The team in possession of the ball will typically punt the ball to the opposing team when they are on their final down (fourth down in American football, third down in Canadian football), do not want to risk a turnover on downs by not gaining enough yardage to make a first down, and do not believe they are in range for a successful field goal. The purpose of the punt is for the team in possession, or "kicking team", to move the ball as far as possible towards the opponent's end zone; this maximizes the distance the receiving team must advance the ball in order to score a touchdown upon taking possession. Thus, the most common use of this tactic is to punt the ball downfield to the opposing team, usually on the final down, with the hope of giving the receiving team a field position that is more advantageous to the kicking team when possession changes.
A punt play involves the kicking team lining up at the line of scrimmage with the kicker, or punter, typically lined up about 15 yards behind the center (in American football, where the end zone is only ten yards deep as opposed to twenty yards in Canadian football, this distance must be shortened if the kicker's normal position would be on or beyond the end line). The receiving team lines up with one or two players downfield to catch the ball. The center makes a long snap to the kicker who then drops the ball and kicks it before it hits the ground. The player who catches the ball is then entitled to attempt to advance the ball.
The result of a typical punt, barring any penalties or extraordinary circumstances, is a first down for the receiving team at the spot where:
Other possible results include the punt being blocked behind the line of scrimmage, and the ball being touched, but not caught or possessed, downfield by the receiving team. In both cases the ball is then "free" and "live" and will belong to whichever team recovers it.
The type of punt leads to different motion of the football.
Alex Moffat is generally recognized as the creator of the spiral punt, having developed it during his time as a college athlete in the early 1880s. It is the longest type of punt kick. In flight, the ball spins about its long axis, instead of end over end (like a drop punt) or not at all (like a regular punt kick). This makes the flight of the ball more aerodynamic, and the pointy ends of gridiron footballs mitigate the difficulty to catch.
Teams may line up in a normal offensive formation and have the quarterback perform a pooch punt, also known as a quick kick. This usually happens in situations where the offense is in a 4th and long situation in their opponent's territory, but are too close to the end zone for a traditional punt and (depending on weather conditions) too far for a field goal try—a situation also known as the dead zone. Like fake punt attempts, these are rarely tried, although Randall Cunningham, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Ben Roethlisberger have successfully executed pooch punts in the modern NFL era. Some pooch punts occur on third down and long situations in American football to fool the defense, which is typically not prepared to return a punt on third down.
On very rare occasions, a punting team will elect to attempt a "fake punt" — line up in punt formation and begin the process as normal, but instead do one of the following:
Although teams sometimes use fake punts to exploit a weakness in the opposing team's defense, a fake punt is very rare, and often used in desperate situations, such as to keep a drive alive when a team is behind and needs to catch up quickly, or to spark an offense in a game where the defense dominates. The high risk of "fake punts", and the need to maintain an element of surprise when the play is actually called, explains why this play is seldom seen. Fake punts are more likely to occur when there is short yardage remaining to secure a first down, or the line of scrimmage is inside the opponent's territory.
One of the most famous fake punts was by New York Giants linebacker Gary Reasons during the 1990 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, in which he rushed for 30 yards on a fourth down conversion via a direct snap to him instead of the punter, Sean Landeta, which was a critical difference in a 15–13 victory. The Giants went on to win Super Bowl XXV.
A rugby-style punt is done with a running start (usually to the left or right) before punting while remaining behind the line of scrimmage.
A punt return is one of the receiving team's options to respond to a punt. A player positioned about 35–45 yards from the line of scrimmage (usually a wide receiver or return specialist) will attempt to catch or pick up the ball after it is punted by the opposing team's punter. He then attempts to carry the ball as far as possible back in the direction of the line of scrimmage, without being tackled or running out of bounds. He may also lateral the ball to teammates in order to keep the play alive should he expect to be tackled or go out of bounds. DeSean Jackson, then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles in the "Miracle at the New Meadowlands", is the only NFL player to return a punt for a game-winning touchdown on the final play of regulation. The NFL record holder for the number of punt returns for a touchdown in a career is Devin Hester with 14.