I've been getting in to NFL this season and really like the sport. One point I was unclear about in the rules is when a team punts the ball. Why does the receiving player not have to catch it? I noticed that a player the other week let the ball go over his head and bounce but the opposition could not pick it up?
Just to go into a bit more detail about 'illegal touching':
During a punt, if the kicking team is the first to touch the ball, then illegal touching occurred. At that point, the ball may be still considered live, if the ball has not stopped moving and/or if the kicking team does not hold the ball in possession.
This is important, because if the kicking team just touches the ball - for example, if they jump into the end zone to try and keep the ball out of the endzone - the receiving team is free to pick the ball up and run with it, knowing that nothing worse can happen than the result of the illegal touching.
So, if the kicking team bats the ball out of the end zone, the returner picks the ball up, and heads downfield but fumbles on the 10, the fumble doesn't count, and the receiving team gets the ball on the 1 (or wherever they rule the illegal touching to have occurred).
On the other hand, if the receiving team touches the ball first - even accidentally, such as if a player is blocked into the ball - the ball is now a loose ball and the kicking team is free to pick it up, and would retain possession.
Also, if nobody touches the ball on either team, and the ball stops moving, the ball is blown dead. This prevents one team or the other from delaying the game unnecessarily (such as, in a punt in the last minute).
The main things to understand which apply to your question are:
Any punt that is blocked and does not cross the line of scrimmage can be recovered and advanced by either team. However, if offensive team recovers it must make the yardage necessary for its first down to retain possession if punt was on fourth down.
The kicking team may never advance its own kick even though legal recovery is made beyond the line of scrimmage. Possession only.
A punted ball remains a kicked ball until it is declared dead or in possession of either team.
Any member of the punting team may down the ball anywhere in the field of play. However, it is illegal touching (Official’s time out and receiver’s ball at spot of illegal touching). This foul does not offset any foul by receivers during the down.
Defensive team may advance all kicks from scrimmage (including unsuccessful field goal) whether or not ball crosses defensive team’s goal line. Rules pertaining to kicks from scrimmage apply until defensive team gains possession.
- The punting team may down the ball, but they can not gain possession of the ball unless there is a fumble by the returning team or it touches a player from the returning team.
- The defense (returning team) can advance any kick from scrimmage.
- The only time the offense can advance the ball on a block is when the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage and they must gain the yardage for a first down.
- As Joe mentions, illegal touching is a significant play. If the ball is touched by the punting team, then the returning team may advance the ball with the worst outcome being possession at the spot of the illegal touching (ie the returner fumbles after the illegal touching).
- While the previously mentioned play is rare, the act of illegal touching is not so rare. It is common to have players of the kicking team try and bat the ball from going into the endzone, or get hit by the punt on accident.
Basically, the receiving team is not "liable" for anything that happens to the ball until one of their players touch it.
A receiver may elect to catch a punt and run with it, but he also has the right to "let it go" if he judges that it is "too hot to handle."
In this case, the kicking team may "down" or stop the ball, but the receiving team will still get it. The kicking team may do this to avoid the following:
If the kicking team allows the ball into the end zone for instance, the receiving team gets a touchback on their 20 yard line. Put another way, whatever the kicking team does with the ball is done at their own risk, because the receiving team gets the best of all possible results.
So a receiving team will let the kicking team take all the risks until it is time for them to take possession.