Practitioners of the pass are connected by an appreciation of its ineffable nature. Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts recalls when he was a Chargers rookie, in 1973, and 40-year-old Johnny Unitas was his teammate, entering his 18th and final NFL season. "I remember playing catch with him in training camp," says Fouts. "I was just marveling at what I was seeing out of this 40-year-old man. Every throw had a purpose. Not necessarily heat, but intensity. Rhythm was perfect. Follow-through was perfect. That was a training film."
Terry Bradshaw, who had one of the strongest arms in NFL history, says at least one of his peers had more horsepower. "Dan Pastorini," says Bradshaw, citing the '70s gunslinger who twice took Bum Phillips's Oilers to the playoffs but threw 58 more interceptions than touchdowns in his 12-year career. "Dan could throw it 80 yards on a rope." (The merits of this talent, on its own, are questionable.)
Almost everybody agrees that the most precise passer in history was pot-bellied, 5'11", 202-pound sidearm slinger Sonny Jurgensen, who played for the Eagles and the Redskins from 1957 to '74. Respected modern-day quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, who has schooled dozens of major college and NFL passers, will go back even further and argue that Sammy Baugh, who played from 1937 to '52 (and in 1945 completed 70.3% of his passes, when the average quarterback connected on 45.6%), was a truly great passer even by modern standards.
"Accuracy at a certain level cannot be taught," says Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. "It's something where your fingertips are directly connected to your brain. Your mind tells you where to send the ball, and your arm follows. There are a lot of guys—a lot of guys—who can watch tape and see what kind of throw they have to make. But they can't actually make that throw, because it's just not their gift. They can rep themselves to be better and play at a high level. But they can't make that throw."
That throw comes together in pieces. And everyone's pieces are a little different.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub holds a football in his right hand, standing at the side of the team's practice fields. The point of the ball is cupped between his thumb and index finger, his middle finger rests against the end of the laces, and his ring finger and pinkie reach across the laces. "That was my grip in high school," says Schaub, a seven-year NFL veteran. "Then I got to college [at Virginia] and the ball was different, so I tilted my hand just a little bit." That left Schaub with just his ring finger directly on the laces, and both his middle finger and pinkie touching the laces, but not across them. Rivers's grip is identical, and theirs is the grip that the majority of NFL quarterbacks use.
The fingertip of the throwing hand, as in baseball, is the last point of contact with the ball. "That fingertip produces the spiral," says former Giants coach Jim Fassel, who was also an NFL quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. On the release the throwing thumb is ideally driven down to the opposite thigh and the palm turned outward and down. The spiral is the goal, although not all quarterbacks throw a high percentage of spirals—the Colts' Peyton Manning, notably, does not. And not all of them hold the ball like Schaub.
Bradshaw, who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles from the 1974 to '79 seasons, put the index finger of his throwing hand close to the point of the ball. "Honestly, there wasn't an off-season that I didn't try to break the habit of holding the ball the way I did," says Bradshaw, now a Fox studio host. "I think I did it that way because I was a javelin thrower [in high school], and you put your finger down toward the end of the javelin. With that index finger down there, I could really make it whistle. But I wasn't very accurate. [True: Bradshaw completed only 51.9% of his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions, 210, as touchdowns, 212.] But the game was different. Today they all throw 60 percent completions; we ran [the ball] and threw deep."
Troy Aikman, another Hall of Fame quarterback and winner of three Super Bowls from 1992 to '95 with the Cowboys, nearly ignored the laces—he placed the top of his palm across the laces and his fingertips on bare leather. Schaub, meanwhile, licks his fingers incessantly to improve his grip, as does the Saints' Drew Brees. Rivers used to do the same thing. "But I felt like I was eating fertilizer," he says. "Now I'm a spitter. I do it even on the sideline when we're on defense. I just like to feel that little grippiness on my fingertips."