The Legend of "Fair Catch Kerley"

Over time, myths and legends can grow out of control.
However, there's always some truth in legends...

One of the most notorious long-held folktales is that of "Fair Catch Kerley" - a name that strikes fear and apathy into even the most hardened and loyal Jets fan.

The mythos surrounding Fair Catch Kerley arose towards the end of the 19th century as seamen aboard merchant sailing vessels used to sing a sea shanty across the western ocean:

Did you ever see the man who was here 'fore Kerley?
Wouldn't wave the wave lest they thought him girly
When 'e drop'd it again, 'e 'ad to go, surely
So they sent 'im out to seeeea!

'e'll catch your ball and 'e'll hold it tight
Now you'll be able to sleep at night
For if you don't wave the wave, you're not very briiiight
Kerley in the morning!

Since those days of yore, the legend of Fair Catch Kerley has only grown. But how much of it is true and how much has just evolved over time?

When the modern day Jets "waived the waive" at Kalif Raymond, it was immediately apparent that Fair Catch Kerley would be back in that familiar punt return role from Sunday.

Many Jets fans find themselves depressed about the thought of Kerley and his propensity to fair catch "everything" - but is there any truth to that perception?

Where it comes from is the 2012 season, where Kerley - transitioning from a promising rookie season into a larger role - set the NFL record with 36 fair catches. Moreover, he only returned 19 punts.

However, the fair catches actually dried up over the next three years. He only had five the following year - on 18 attempts in an injury-plagued season. In fact, he only had 37 in total over his last three years with the Jets, starting immediately after the one where he set the record, returning 86 punts in that time.

Clearly Kerley actually got over whatever it was that was causing him to fair catch the ball so often. Anecdotally, there were plenty of occasions where fans expressed frustration at him for not attempting to return a kick where he appeared to have room, but at the same time on a lot of these punts, he had little option because the opposing gunners were getting past the vices.

So, it's possible that in 2012, Kerley was being overly conservative through necessity. This seemed to help him refine his decision making to the point where his fumble rate dipped significantly. He had seven fumbles (two on offense) in his first two seasons, but only two over the next three following his record-setting season.

Kerley's fair catch record was actually broken in 2013 by another ex-Jet called Jeremy. This time it was Jeremy Ross, who fair caught 37 punts. However, he did return 32 so his fair catch percentage wasn't anywhere near Kerley's 65.4% - a mark that could stand for ever. (Although - through two games in 2017 - Dwayne Harris has fair caught six of nine punts, which puts him on course for both records).

The previous record holder before Kerley was Brian Mitchell, one of the best return men in NFL history. Mitchell had 33 fair catches in 2000 to set the old mark, although his fair catch percentage was still only 56.9%. Research indicates that his career fair catch percentage was 33.2%, which is probably a good indication of a reasonable rate.

In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Kerley's fair catch rate was only 30.6% so actually he was no longer fair catching the ball at a significantly high rate for the rest of his Jets career, while also displaying good ball security with no lost fumbles.

Interestingly, having seemingly shaken the fair catch habit, Kerley regressed back to his old self last year, tying his career-high with 36 fair catches and posting the second highest fair catch percentage of his career. He also had four fumbles.

It's obvious that Kerley once again was forced to become more focused on ball security last year, perhaps due to inadequate support again from the rest of the special teams unit.

Ultimately, the thing about a fair catch is that it's still a catch and that was a challenge that proved impossible for Raymond and all of the return men the Jets auditioned in preseason.

Once he catches the ball, Kerley has never been a dominant return man at the NFL level. His career average (9.1 yards per punt return) would've placed him 15th in the league last year (he was actually 25th) and even his best year would barely have snuck him into the top 10. He's even less established as a kick-off returner with only five career attempts, none of them longer than 20 yards.

However, the Jets saw last week how much a muffed punt can swing momentum and so ensuring they catch the ball safely would benefit them.

Sometimes legends can be blown out of proportion over time. Myths and misconceptions can grow and spiral out of control. However, if Fair Catch Kerley heeds the words of those ancient sailors and possesses the ball safety each time, he's doing a good job.

Maybe we'll see this again one day...