I’m an American football referee, NCAA rules, but NCAA and NFL are close enough on this I can speak on it.
In Canadian football, there’s a wonderful rule that players on the punting team can recover and regain possession if they were behind the ball when it was kicked. Rules similar to this in American football were removed around the time the forward pass was introduced.
In American football, the kicking team my recover the ball and retain possession if the kick does not cross the line of scrimmage. This usually happens when the kick is blocked, but can happen in a stiff wind. Under NCAA rules, if the kicking team recovers the ball behind the line of scrimmage, they may run, pass, or even kick again. I’m not sure if NFL allows the re-kick. If the ball is run or passed beyond the line to gain, the kicking team gets a first down. If it is short of the line to gain, play advances to the next down, but since most kicks are on 4th down, the result is usually a turnover. It can be advantageous to take a game-winning field goal attempt late in the game on 3rd down in order to give you a chance to try again on 4th down if the snap is mishandled or the kick is blocked.
If the kick crosses the line of scrimmage, the kicking team may not touch the ball before it is touched by the receiving team. To do so is “illegal touching”, which is a violation, not a penalty, so there is no flag, no yardage, etc, and it does not offset actual penalties. The spot of illegal touching is marked with a beanbag. Illegally touching the ball does not kill the play, but the ball is dead and the play over if the kicking team comes into possession of the ball, either before or after it has been touched by the receiving team. *
The consequence for illegal touching is that the receiving team has the option of taking the ball at the spot of touching. When the kicking team has held the ball and killed the play, then there’s not much choice here. But when the kicking team has only touched the ball, this gives the receiving team some options. If the ball was IT’d at the 20, and the receiving team recovered and was tackled at the 15, they can take the ball at the 20. Even more interesting, if it was IT’d at the 20, and the receiving team subsequently fumbles the ball away, they can have the fumble ignored and take the ball at the 20. If the ball it IT’d at the 20, and the receiving team recovers and scores a touchdown, the score counts.
There are certain situations involving penalty enforcement that result in the receiving team losing the option to take the ball at this spot, but it’s too complicated for me to explain here. Unless someone wants me to.
- The play is dead if the ball still has the status of a kick. If the receiver controls the ball then fumbles, it has lost the status of the kick and the play is not over if the kicking team recovers the ball. If the receiver merely muffs the ball without catching it, it is still a kick, and the play is over if the ball is held by the kicking team. The kicking team will be awarded a new set of downs if they recover a muffed kicked, even if they recover it short of the line to gain.
Kickoffs are different – play is still ended when the kicking team gains possession of a kick, but it is only illegal for the kicking team to touch the ball within the first 10 yards. After that, it is legal for any player to touch the ball.