quarterbacks anticipating improved performances this season? It's all about the
feel of the ball
What happens when
two players want to make a change in the NFL rule book? When those players are
the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Colts' Peyton Manning--the biggest stars in the
pro football galaxy--and they're backed by 20 other starting quarterbacks, the
job gets done.
Since he began
taking NFL snaps six years ago, Brady had been bothered by the inconsistent
feel of footballs from game to game. That may sound petty, but consider this
little-known practice that has been in effect for decades: The rule calls for
36 official balls, manufactured by Wilson, to be provided to the home team for
each outdoor game and 24 for each indoor game, the balls to be available for
testing with a pressure gauge by the referee two hours before kickoff. The home
team and the officials had the option to use league-approved products supplied
by Wilson (a bristle brush, a tack cloth and a semihard spongy cube) to rub
down the game balls and remove the waxy, slippery sheen that they have when
they come out of the box. A few quarterbacks, such as the Jets' Chad
Pennington, prefer the balls to feel nearly new. Most, like Brady and Manning,
want that sheen rubbed off so they can get a better grip and make the ball feel
Derek Jeter were handed a brand-new glove just before the start of every
game," says Brady. "Baseball players break in their gloves until they
feel perfect to them. It's ridiculous to [be forced to] play with new
footballs. I can tell you there've been nights before road games when I have
had trouble sleeping because I'm thinking about what kind of footballs I'll be
throwing the next day."
CBS analyst and
former passer Phil Simms calls it the biggest unknown factor in the game.
"Last year, two days before the Super Bowl, [ Seattle quarterback] Matt
Hasselbeck called me," says Carolina's Jake Delhomme, who played in Super
Bowl XXXVIII. "You'd think he'd [have other things on his mind], but Matt
says, 'How will the footballs be for the Super Bowl?' He knew what a big deal
it was." (The 108 Super Bowl game balls are prepared by the officiating
So last February,
while having dinner together in Miami Beach, Brady and Manning decided to
approach their fellow quarterbacks about petitioning the NFL competition
committee to change the rule. Brady proposed that the visiting team have access
to a certain number of the allotted game balls--the number turned out to be
12--so it could prepare them the way it wanted; those balls would be stamped
with the visiting team's name and kept on the visitors' sideline for use when
that team was on offense. The remainder of the balls would be prepared by the
hosts to their liking, 12 kept on the sideline for use on their drives and the
other dozen in reserve in case bad weather created the need for additional
quarterbacks Brady and Manning spoke with agreed to sign the petition.
"Every guy I contacted was so excited," says Manning. "[The
Jaguars'] Byron Leftwich said, 'Fax it to me right now.' Brett Favre said, 'Oh,
this is fair. I'm getting ready to retire, and now you're fixing the
footballs.'" The proposal faxed to the league also contained a suggestion
by the Texans' David Carr that quarterbacks be permitted to break in balls in
the week leading up to the game.
approved the idea in March. Teams can also use balls from previous games if the
officials deem them acceptable--if they're not too worn or discolored, for
instance. "It's the first time I recall something put in front of the
competition committee by players," says NFL vice president of officiating
Mike Pereira. "It quickly became apparent that there were no negatives to
are thrilled. "How can you throw a football well that you can't grip?"
says Leftwich, who has relatively small hands for a 6'5" quarterback.
"This is the best thing that's happened to me in a long time. As crazy as
it sounds, I believe I'll play better this year. I believe instead of just
getting a pass with a new ball somewhere near one of my guys, I'll be able to
put it right on the money."