In gridiron football, the safety (American football) or safety touch (Canadian football) is a scoring play that results in two points being awarded to the scoring team. Safeties can be scored in a number of ways, such as when a ball carrier is tackled in his own end zone or when a foul is committed by the offense in their own end zone. After a safety is scored in American football, the ball is kicked off to the team that scored the safety from the 20-yard line; in Canadian football, the scoring team also has the options of taking control of the ball at their own 35-yard line or kicking off the ball, also at their own 35-yard line. The ability of the scoring team to receive the ball through a kickoff differs from the touchdown and field goal, which require the scoring team to kick the ball off to the scored upon team. Despite being of relatively low point value, safeties can have a significant impact on the result of games, and Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats estimated that safeties have a greater abstract value than field goals, despite being worth a point less, due to the field position and reclaimed possession gained off the safety kick.
Safeties are the least common method of scoring in American football but are not rare occurrences – a safety has occurred around once every 14 games in the history of the National Football League (NFL), or about once a week under current scheduling rules. A much rarer occurrence is the one-point (or conversion) safety, which can be scored by the offense on an extra point or two-point conversion attempt: these have occurred at least twice in NCAA Division I football since 1996, most recently at the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, though no conversion safeties have occurred since 1940 in the NFL. A conversion safety by the defense is also possible, though highly unlikely; although this has never occurred, it is the only possible way a team could finish with a single point in an American football game.[A]
In American football, a safety is scored when any of the following conditions occur:
In Canadian football, a safety touch is scored when any of the following conditions occur:
After a safety is scored, the ball is put into play by a free kick. The team that was scored upon must kick the ball from their own 20-yard line and can punt, drop kick, or place kick the ball. In professional play, a kicking tee cannot be used – however, a tee can be used in high school or college football. Once the ball has been kicked, it can be caught and advanced by any member of the receiving team, and it can be recovered by the kicking team if the ball travels at least 10 yards or a player of the receiving team touches the ball.
After scoring a safety touch, the scoring team has the option of taking control of the ball and beginning play from their own 35-yard line, kicking the ball off from their 35-yard line, or accepting a kickoff from the team that conceded the score. When the scored-against team kicks off, it comes from the 35-yard line under amateur rules and from the 25-yard line under CFL rules. If a kickoff is chosen it must be a place kick, and the ball can be held, placed on the ground, or placed on a tee prior to the kick. As in American football, the ball must go at least ten yards before it can be recovered by the kicking team.
In American football, intentionally conceded safeties are an uncommon strategy. Teams have utilized elective safeties to gain field position for a punt when pinned deep in their own territory and, when ahead near the end of a game, to run down the clock so as to deny the other team a chance to force a turnover or return a punt. Teams have also taken intentional safeties by kicking a loose ball out the back of their end zone, with the intent of preventing the defense from scoring a touchdown.
Elective safeties are more common in Canadian football, where they can result in better field position than a punt. The 2010 Edmonton Eskimos surrendered a Canadian Football League (CFL)-record 14 safeties, a factor that led CFL reporter Jim Mullin to suggest increasing the value of the safety touch from two to three points as a deterrent.
In American football, if a team attempting an extra point or two-point conversion (officially known in the rulebooks as a try) scores what would normally be a safety, that attempting team is awarded one point. This is commonly known as a conversion safety or one-point safety. The first known occurrence of the conversion safety was in an NCAA University Division (now NCAA FBS) game on October 2, 1971, scored by Syracuse in a game at Indiana. On a failed point-after-touchdown kick, an Indiana player illegally batted the ball in the end zone (a spot foul defensive penalty). There are two other known occurrences of the conversion safety in Division I college football – a November 26, 2004, game in which Texas scored against Texas A&M, and the 2013 Fiesta Bowl in which Oregon scored against Kansas State. In both games, the point-after-touchdown kick was blocked and recovered by the defense, which then fumbled or threw the ball back into its own end zone. A conversion safety has occurred once in Division I-AA (now NCAA FCS) where Nevada scored a conversion safety against North Texas on September 21, 1991 and twice in Division II: once by Morningside College on November 9, 1996, against Northern Colorado, and once by Emory and Henry College on October 8, 2022, against University of Virginia's College at Wise. There are also at least four known NCAA Division III occurrences, the first being on October 20, 1990, scored by DePauw University against Anderson University; the second on October 23, 1993, scored by Salisbury State against Wesley College; the third on November 11, 2000, scored by Hamline University against St. Thomas-Minnesota, and the most recent scored by Bluffton University against Franklin College (Indiana) on November 9, 2013. One-point safeties have also occurred in a NAIA game and two junior college games.
No conversion safeties have been scored in the NFL since 1940, although it is now slightly more likely after the rule change in 2015 which allowed the defense to take possession and score on a conversion attempt. Before 2015, the only scenario in which a one-point safety could have been scored in the NFL would have involved, on a conversion attempt in which the ball was not kicked by the offense, the defense then kicking or batting a loose ball out of its own end zone without taking possession of the ball, giving the offense a one-point safety.
A conversion safety can also be scored by the defense. This scoring play has never occurred; to accomplish this, the team attempting the try must somehow be forced back to its own end zone. A possible scenario in the NFL and NCAA would involve a turnover while attempting a conversion, followed by the defending team's ball-carrier fumbling while en route to the attempting team's end zone, with the attempting team finally recovering the ball and, after establishing possession outside the end zone, downing it in its own end zone (this scenario is not possible in high school football, as a turnover would end the conversion attempt; such a conversion safety could occur only if the offense maintains possession). While such a conversion safety has never been scored by the defense, it is the only possible way under current rules in which a team could finish with a single point in an American football game.[A]
Kicker George Bodine's effort was far short, and [Mike] Heizman, standing in front of the goal posts, reacted to the falling ball by swatting it away, mosquito-swatting style. Center Greg Aulk fell on the ball for Syracuse. ... 'It was just a reflex action,' Heizman said. 'I never even thought about the ball being live.'
Syracuse was trying to kick the extra point after taking a 6-0 lead. The ball was kicked almost straight up in the air and was coming down obviously short of the crossbar when an Indiana player [illegally] batted the ball down in the end zone and Syracuse recovered.
The resulting PAT was blocked, but the Cavaliers attempt at a return failed to leave the end zone, resulting in the most elusive scoring play in football – a one-point safety.