SI Vault
Johnny Unitas
July 10, 1972
On the eve of his 17th season, the alltime All-Pro quarterback of the Baltimore Colts describes the simple art of passing and the more exacting science of figuring out the defenses
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July 10, 1972

It's Not Only How To, It's Who To And When

On the eve of his 17th season, the alltime All-Pro quarterback of the Baltimore Colts describes the simple art of passing and the more exacting science of figuring out the defenses

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On the preceding pages you have seen the basic throwing technique I use. There are a few additional points I would like to emphasize and clarify, however.

1) Some passers step forward too soon when they are bringing the ball back. The power then comes from the arm alone, which is not only hard on the arm, but cuts down on the speed and distance of the pass.

2) There are passers who roll their wrist clockwise as they release the ball in a misguided effort to achieve a smooth spiral. This motion is very similar to that of a pitcher throwing a conventional curveball, but the result is too often a weak, wobbly pass. What I do in my follow-through is roll my hand and wrist in a counterclockwise fashion so that my palm will be facing the ground at the finish. This type of follow-through helps guarantee that I won't turn my wrist in the conventional curve motion. Finally, as I complete the throw, my right leg will swing around very much like a pitcher's when he comes down off the mound after his pitch.

3) When I throw a long pass I release the ball at a higher angle and with a greater extension of the throwing arm than I do for a short pass (left). When a receiver is in the clear on a deep pass of about 45 or 50 yards, I try to put the ball up 25 or 30 feet at its highest point. I aim for a spot approximately 10 yards in front of him and let him run under the ball. If it is slightly off target the receiver can make the necessary adjustment by slowing down, speeding up or changing direction. Greater distance can also be gained with a high trajectory. When the ball is drilled on a long pass, it has to be put out there virtually on a dime. There is no time or room for the receiver to adjust. A flat, hard trajectory also makes it easier for defenders inside the receiver to intercept because they do not have to reach as high for the ball.

Where the quarterback throws the ball in relation to his receiver should always depend on the position of the defensive man. Basically, what you must do is throw the ball away from the defender. On a sideline pattern to the right, for instance, if the defender has a good position on my receiver I will not throw him the usual nice, shoulder-high, easy-to-catch pass. It would be too simple for the defender to reach over and knock it down. What I attempt to throw is a pass that is short, toward the outside and about waist high. The receiver will have to come back for the ball and in so doing gain an extra step on the man covering him. The defender would have to run right through him to get to the ball, thus committing pass interference. If the defender is inside the receiver, I will throw the ball high to the outside. If he is outside the receiver I will throw it low and slightly behind him. And so on. Generally, the receiver will know from the position of the man covering him approximately where to look for the pass.

This is the quick fake release a quarterback occasionally makes before actually throwing and is a ploy I use often, for the most part as an aid in shaking a receiver free. Say the play calls for a deep pass to a receiver going down 15 yards and then making a move to the inside before going deep. If I suddenly pump the ball forward just as the receiver is making his move to the inside it may freeze the man covering him, or perhaps get him to commit himself too soon, and thus give the receiver a vital extra step as he turns back downfield.

This is a bit of acting that takes advantage of a secondary defender's inclination to relax when a quarterback is not actually looking his way. It requires good timing and precise knowledge of each receiver's speed. Assume I have called a sideline pass. If the defense then comes up with a zone, which means my sideline receiver is double-covered, I will want to throw to the tight end—who is making an adjustment on the zone coverage and splitting the seam, as I described earlier—or to a wide receiver going deep down the opposite side. I might keep looking toward the primary receiver until I decide that enough time has passed for my deep man, say, to be free, then turn quickly and throw to him. The fake may give him a couple of extra steps on a careless defender.


1) Poor balance while assuming your stance. What this frequently means is clumsy footwork and extra, time-consuming steps while getting away from the line of scrimmage.

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