By far, the question I receive most often about football rules is the definition and description of the ‘safety.’
What is a ‘safety”? Some are confused by the term, as there is also a defensive player position called ‘safety.’ Many ask about the reason for the rule, the 2-points scored on a safety, and how a safety can be achieved.
The most common type of safety occurs when an offensive player, typically the quarterback, is tackled (or sacked) in his own end zone. The defense, then, is awarded 2 points for the safety. In fact, safety is the only opportunity the defense has to score points. By most definitions, a safety occurs when the offensive ball carrier downs the ball, with or without intention, behind his own goal line.
If, for example, the quarterback fumbles the ball on his own 10-yard line and the ball is recovered by the defense, that defense now becomes the offense. If the fumble recovery is run back for a touchdown, the score is an offensive score, regardless of the fact that it was achieved by a defensive-positioned player. Only in the case of the safety is the score considered a defensive score. The team incurring points for the safety then becomes the receiving team (i.e. offense) during the ensuing kickoff.
Another situation in which a safety may occur would be during a punt. If the punt is blocked by the defense and goes out of bounds in the kicking team’s end zone, the result would be a safety. Finally, if the offense is penalized, and the enforced spot is behind the offense team’s own goal line, a safety would be awarded to the defense.
One of the rarest forms of a safety occurred just weeks ago, in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII, when Pittsburgh center Justin Hartwig was flagged for holding in the end zone—resulting in an automatic safety for the Arizona defense. In this case, the defense never had to touch the ball; the penalty itself was cause for 2 points being awarded to the defense.
Please feel free to continue sending me your questions or comments.