The San Francisco 49ers thrashed the St. Louis Rams by a final score of 35-11 last night to end their two-game losing streak and get back to .500 at 2-2. Running back Frank Gore looked impressive for the Niners, finishing with 153 yards and a touchdown, the defense was dominant even without star players Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick returned to form after two consecutive sub-par weeks. The most impressive play of the night, however, might have been one that the team wasn’t able to pull off.
With four seconds to go in the first half, punt returner Kyle Williams fair-caught a punt at the 49ers 39-yard line. After initially sending out Kaepernick to run one last play, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh took a timeout and instead sent out the field-goal unit. Many watching were no doubt confused as to why Harbaugh would risk a near-impossible 71-yard field goal, but it turns out the crafty coach was taking advantage of an obscure rule that even die-hard fans may not have been aware of: following a fair-catch on a punt, teams are allowed a free kick from the spot of the ball.
Free kicks are extremely rare in the NFL -- so rare, in fact, that many fans don’t know what they are. Basically, it’s the same thing as a field goal, except the opposing team is not allowed to rush and the kicker is allowed to run up to the ball as they would on a kickoff, instead of the “soccer style” approach used for a field goal attempt.
The 49ers' invocation of the rule was more impressive than the kick itself; Phil Dawson sent the attempt far left, where it was run out of the end zone by the Rams’ Austin Pettis. Interestingly, had Pettis let the ball hit the ground (and had there been time left on the clock), St. Louis would have taken over possession from the spot of the kick.
The specificity of the scenario required to justify the risk/ reward of these fair catch free kick plays means they’re very rarely attempted. The last time a team even tried one was Dec. 28. 2008, when Packers kicker Mason Crosby shanked a 69-yard attempt against the Lions, and the last successful conversion was nearly 40 years ago, when the Chargers’ Ray Wersching hit a 45-yarder against the Bills.
Even though the attempt was unsuccessful, the 49ers’ staff deserves a ton of credit for recognizing the unique situation and utilizing this unusual scoring opportunity, as well as adding some novelty to an otherwise boring game.