Fundamentally, a football flies through the air like any projectile: its velocity depends on the angle you launch it at and the speed at which you throw it. However, if you’ve ever thrown a football, you know that just throwing it hard doesn’t guarantee that it will spiral. In fact, the oblong shape and pointed ends of a football make it harder to throw without spiraling it.
So how do quarterbacks do it? Something called gyroscopic precision. Rather than give a complicated definition, imagine a spinning toy top. That is gyroscopic precision in action. So now, you have two forces acting on the football: it’s traveling forward (through the air and ultimately downward toward the ground) but also spinning. Both forces take energy, so a quarterback needs to find the perfect happy medium between a fast spiral and forward motion–a faster spin takes up unnecessary energy from propelling the ball forward, so if a quarterback puts too much spin on the ball, it won’t go as far as it could. A good spiral speed is about 600 rotations per minute, or 10 spins per second (which is pretty fast!)
When a quarterback throws a pass to a receiver, he’s taking into account the launch angle, velocity, spin of the ball, and speed of the receiver to ensure his teammate will catch it, all with 200+ lb linebackers charging toward him! No wonder Tom Brady gets paid so much!
Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everyone!
Or, try playing football yourself with this miniature football game!