What is happening? Examining the rarely seen fair catch free kick that Carolina nearly pulled off

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LONDON – I have no idea what’s happening.

If you said those words aloud as Joey Slye lined up a kick right before halftime of Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers, know you were not alone.

The Panthers used the rarely seen “fair catch free kick,” which hasn’t been attempted since Phil Dawson tried it unsuccessfully for the 49ers in 2013. Word is it hasn’t been converted since 1976 – records of it are sparse because it doesn’t actually appear in box scores. Such mystery!

So you might still be asking, “what exactly is a fair catch free kick?”

After fair catching a punt, a team can elect to send out its kicker without the defense able to rush the kick on the very next play. If it goes in, it counts for three points just like any field goal.

“It’s something we practice,” Slye said after the game.

The Bucs were getting ready to punt it away from their own 26-yard line before they were flagged for a false start. Then another. And then another!

Suddenly they were at their own 11-yard line with eight seconds left in the second quarter, so head coach Ron Rivera and special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn wisely prepared for a fair catch free kick opportunity with one second on the clock.

It was all lining up perfectly.

“That was amazing,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “To force them to jump offsides three times, and then our coaches did a great job getting the message out. We were able to put two returners back there to cover more field, which I thought was really smart in the event they tried to kick it directionally.”

Wide receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and Brandon Zylstra were both back deep to field the punt, and it was Zylstra who made the fair catch at the 50-yard line.

Then Slye trotted onto the field, the Bucs lined up like it was a kick return and most everyone watching got really confused.

If we’re being honest, some of the players on the field probably were just as bewildered.

“Me, (holder) Mike (Palardy) and (special teams captain) Colin (Jones) were probably the only ones who really knew,” Slye joked.

Slye, who is fully capable of drilling a 60-yarder, used his usual run-up behind Palardy’s hold. But the kick just sailed wide right as time expired.

“Because of Joey’s ability to kick the ball deep. We just felt that because they were backed up, if we got the right kind of kick, we would have an opportunity to put some points on the board,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “And he just barely missed that. That’d have been a terrific 60-yarder.”

“It worked out, obviously outside of the kick,” Olsen added. “How many of those have even been attempted? He hit it good, but that’s a long way. Those goalposts were looking pretty tight.”

What made it all the more amazing was the fact that it took place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

A free kick in the home an English Premier League club? It was too fitting.

“Ah, I wish Joey would have made that for himself. For that to be the first free kick and it be in the UK,” safety Tre Boston said, still shaking his head in disbelief. “I stood up and was like, ‘There is no way!’ These fans get to watch this. This is unbelievable.

“Just missed it, man.”

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