Madden NFL 22 is launching with a lot of new features, including new layers to the Franchise mode that should deepen an experience hardcore fans have felt was neglected. But it will not, for the 30th consecutive year, include the fair catch kick. Curses! Drat!
“I was hoping for that question,” said gameplay producer Clint Oldenburg, who has come to expect it from me every year. “No, it’s not going to be in [Madden NFL] 22, but I do ask [at developers’ meetings] every year, and I say this: ‘The fair catch kick is worth at least one Metacritic point.’ I’ll keep trying for you.”
The fair catch kick is a quirk of the NFL’s rulebook, a vestige of the game’s origins in rugby, and a come-look-at-this moment whenever it’s attempted. Basically, a team that fields a punt with a fair catch — calling off the defense in exchange for not advancing the ball once it’s caught — can then attempt a free kick, for a score, from that spot, also without blocking or any defense rushing the play.
It has been attempted only nine times in the past 40 years (although twice in 2013, and most recently in 2019). It’s been even longer since the last attempt was successful. In 1976, Ray Wersching made a 45-yarder to send the San Diego Chargers into the locker room leading the Buffalo Bills 27-10. I was barely 3 years old. Oldenburg wouldn’t be born for another seven years.
Here’s a look at a fair catch kick attempted in the NFL playoffs, on New Year’s Day 1989, with John Madden himself on the call. It’s one of my favorite pro football highlights, even though San Francisco’s Mike Cofer came nowhere close to making the kick. Madden is giddy with excitement when he realizes the conditions are ripe for an attempt.
“I always wanted to use it, but I never got the opportunity!” says Madden, who coached the Oakland Raiders from 1969 to 1978. The Minnesota Vikings seem never to have heard of the play when officials tell them to back up 10 yards from the ball. Joey Browner, incidentally one of the greatest players in Tecmo Super Bowl, responds with an up-yours fist but still gives space. It’s very anticlimactic, because Cofer shanks it and the ball lands about 20 yards short of the goal.
A close analog of the fair catch kick is Australian rules football’s electrifying after-the-siren goal. Here’s a compilation some of their best ones, and the crowd always goes bananas from the moment the player takes the mark — catching the ball, on the fly, from a kick traveling more than 15 meters.
Long-distance kicks in Madden NFL, particularly at lower difficulty levels, are easier than in real life, which is probably another reason why the fair catch kick isn’t in the game. It could also be used to grief or disrupt a ranked game, and there are already enough ways to do that (such as always going for it on fourth down, or attempting an onside kick when the situation does not call for it).
But hey, one day, my kick will come! And it’ll be fun to goof around with it a couple of times and never attempt again. Yeah, wait a minute. Maybe, like John Madden, I just want the possibility of this play, and the fun of discussing it and teasing Oldenburg about it. And that goes away if he ever does put it in the game.