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The role of a punt returner is to catch the ball after it is punted and to give his team good field position (or a touchdown if possible) by returning it. Before catching the punted ball, the returner must assess the situation on the field while the ball is still in the air. He must determine if it is actually beneficial for his team to attempt a return. If it appears that the players from the punting team will be too close to the returner by the time he catches the ball, or it appears the ball will go into his own end zone, the punt returner can elect not to return the ball by choosing one of two options:
- Call for a fair catch by waving one arm above his head before catching the punt. This means that the play will end once the catch is made; the punt returner's team will get the ball at the spot of the catch and no return attempt can be made. The fair catch minimizes the chances of a fumble or injury because it ensures that the returner is fully protected from the opposing team, whose players may not touch the returner or attempt to interfere with the catch in any way after the fair catch signal is given. In the NFL, a fair catch also allows the fair catch kick to be used on the next play, even with no time on the clock remaining, to attempt a field goal via free kick. However, this option is rarely exercised.
- Avoid the ball and let it hit the ground. Under this option the ball will go into the returning team's end zone for a touchback, go out of bounds and be spotted at that point, or come to final rest in the field of play and be downed by a player on the punting team. This is the safest option, as it completely eliminates the chance of a fumble and ensures that the returner's team will get possession of the ball. However, it also provides an opportunity for the punting team to pin the returner's team deep in their own territory by downing the ball or sending it out of bounds near the returner's end zone. This can not only give the return team poor field position, but can even lead to a safety.
The position demands footspeed, quick reflexes, and good hands. Punt returners sometimes also return kickoffs and usually play other positions, especially wide receiver, defensive back and running back, although sometimes as backups. An analogous position exists in Canadian football, though differences in rules affect play considerably. See Comparison of Canadian and American football for a complete discussion of the punt returner's role in the Canadian game.
- About.com definition of punt returner
- National Football League rules digest sections relating to punt returners: Kicks from scrimmage and Fair catch
- Article on college punt returner Jim Leonhard which discusses many aspects of the position
- Comparison of Canadian Football League and National Football League rules
|Positions in American football and Canadian football|
|Linemen||Guard, Tackle, Center||Linemen||Tackle, End, Nose tackle||Kicking players||Placekicker, Punter, Kickoff specialist|
|Quarterback||Linebackers||Snapping||Long snapper, Holder|
|Backs||Halfback (Tailback), Fullback, H-back||Backs||Cornerback, Safety, Halfback||Returning||Punt returner, Kick returner|
|Receivers||Wide receiver, Tight end, Slotback||Nickelback, Dimeback||Tackling||Gunner, Upback|
|Formations (List) — Nomenclature|