A Safety isn’t what it used to be

Posted By BrokenClaw on September 28, 2008

A safety in football is an exciting play and can be a game-changer. The defense scores 2 points, and then their team gets the ball, hopefully with good field position. It’s kind of like a technical foul in basketball, where you get uncontested free throws plus possession of the ball. But in football, the safety has lost some of its impact

First of all, the safety, which ostensibly means that the offensive ball-carrier is tackled in their own end zone, doesn’t seen to happen that way very often. I don’t know what the stats are, but it seems to me that a safety is more likely to be called as a result of a penalty — intentional grounding, offensive holding, etc. — in the end zone. But where the safety has really lost its impact is when it happens on a botched punt. It can be a bad snap or mishandled snap, or a blocked punt that either goes out of the end zone, or that the offensive player recovers in the end zone. Either way, the defense gets fired up because they’ve score 2 points for their team.

But that’s it. Two points. Now the other team gets a free kick from the 20 yard line. With today’s long punters and kickers, a free kick from the 20 is essentially the same as lining up for a punt at the 30. Of course no team wants to give up 2 points, but the part about kicking the ball back to the scoring team isn’t a big deal. After all, that’s what they were doing anyway. In fact, punters are taught to give up a safety, by kicking the ball back through the end zone, rather than having the the ball recovered on the field of play.

In yesterday’s Michigan State vs Indiana game, both teams scored safeties. In the 2nd quarter, Michigan State had a 4th down on their own 19 yard line. The punt was blocked into the end zone, and the punter recovered it for a safety. He then got a free kick from the 20, and punted it 65 yards to the 15 yard line. It was returned to the 25. So the net effect of the safety, besides the 2 points, was the equivalent of a 56 yard punt from the original 19 yard line with no return.

In the 3rd quarter, Indiana had a 3rd down on their own 3 yard line. The quarterback completed a pass that looked like a 97-yard touchdown, but offensive holding was called in the end zone. The infraction was rather obvious, and probably allowed the quarterback to make the throw in the first place, so there was no controversy about that call. Nevertheless, after the 2-point safety, the Indiana punter got a free kick from the 20 yard line, and punted it 60 yards to the opposite 20. It was returned to the 23. So the net effect was the equivalent of a 74 yard punt from the previous 3 yard line.

In the Virginia Tech vs Nebraska game, Virginia Tech blocked a Nebraska punt from the 14 yard line. Again, the offense recovered the ball in the end zone for a safety. Nebraska then punted the ball on the free kick to the 28 yard line. Virginia Tech actually got a decent return to the 44 yard line. Still, that’s equivalent to a 42 yard net from the original 14 yard line.

Football rules change. I can remember when kickoffs were placed at the 40 yard line. Then kickers improved to the point where they could all kick it out of the end zone. So kickoffs were moved back to the 35 yard line. And now they’re back to the 30 yard line. Years ago, whenever a team missed a field goal, the other team would get the ball at the 20 yard line. But since kickers were attempting field goals from longer and longer distances, the rule was changed. Now the other team gets the ball at the point of the missed field goal, or the 20 yard line, whichever is better.

The safety is an old rule. It’s been around since the days when field goals were made by drop kicks from the 15 yard line over a goal post on the goal line and when typical games ended with scores like 11 to 8. The original intent of the rule was to allow a team to take a safety, rather than give the ball over to the defense so close to their end zone. I understand that not all college teams have players who can kick or punt the ball 60 yards in the air, but I think it’s time for the 20 yard line safety kick to be re-evaluated in college and NFL rules. Just as the missed field goal placement has changed, I think the safety kick should be changed.

It’s time to move the free kick after a safety to the previous line of scrimmage, not exceeding the 20 yard line. It may have minimal effect on those botched punts from the 15 to 25 yard line, but it would better reward a defense when they cause a safety from inside the 5 yard line.

By the way, did you know it’s actually possible, under college football rules, for a team to end a game with a score of 1? It can happen if an offensive team, during a PAT attempt, somehow ends up getting tackled in their own end zone at the opposite end of the field. The defense would be awarded a 1-point safety. Who knew?


2 Responses to “A Safety isn’t what it used to be”

  1. Smilodon says:

    I searched around and couldn’t find any definitive old-time rules. As far as I can tell, the safety kick has always come from the 20 yard line. Today, the drop-kick and punt are both legal safety kicks. In college, a kickoff with a tee is permissible, but in the NFL only a place kick with a holder is allowed. Practically all teams opt for the punt instead.

  2. Trip Reese says:

    Please settle a dispute….Years ago, when a safety was scored, did the team have to drop kick the ball from the end zone? Or did they have the option of placing it on a tee? What was the rule for safety score, say in the 40′s?

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