It's the most subtle but important connection in sports: a quarterback's grip on the football. Critical but somehow often unnoticed, it can be the difference between offensive supremacy and pick-sixes galore. NFL quarterbacks all hold it a little differently -- the laces are crucial or optional depending on whom you ask -- but every great quarterback has a story behind why he grips the ball the way he does. So we asked around, from perennial MVP candidate Tom Brady to reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes to 2019 MVP front-runners Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson, to get a glimpse at how some of the league's starters have managed to get a grip.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Every single quarterback grabs the ball just a little bit differently. It's a natural thing -- no one really taught me. I've tried different grips. But mostly, I just always go back to my original grip from when I was a little kid throwing the football for the first time. Most quarterbacks pick up the ball and just naturally throw it. I don't really even care that much about throwing with the laces, which goes back to my high school days when we ran the spread and I had to get the ball out fast. A lot of times when I take a three-step drop in the NFL I still throw without the laces. And I still actually like throwing more without the laces than with them.
The index finger is really important, especially if you're trying to get that spiral. It's the last thing on the ball. There's definitely supposed to be a little bit of space between your palm and the ball. I just like to feel the full ball in my hand without any space in between. I started with baseball and I was always very tight when I gripped a baseball, so I don't know if it transferred from that, but it's definitely something that I do a little different from everyone else. I also keep a lot of my pinkie on the seam of the ball, more just to stabilize it. The left-handed grip? That for sure is all natural. Never thought about it much. It's more of just shot-putting the ball to wherever the guy is.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Any time you get a good spread on the football, I think there's two good pressure points, there's this finger and this finger [the middle and pointer fingers], which are the last two to come off the ball. So when you throw, it's coming out of your hand, those last two are going to create the spiral. ... A lot of the young guys, they have such big hands -- and I have pretty big hands too -- but their ability to transition the football and flick the football is almost like a baseball. Some of those young guys are spinning the ball so good.
I actually think snow is a great advantage. The defenders are very slippery, so when they're moving slower, it's good for me. The windy ones are the hard ones. We had a windy one against the Giants, and every time we were throwing a certain direction, it would hit the wind and it would just [die].
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Last year [then-Ravens offensive coordinator] Marty Mornhinweg noticed that my finger placement on the ball was so high on top of the ball, and he was like, "You could try to move that down some and it might give you a tighter spiral." But I feel like that finger on top of the ball gives me more power.
Last year before the Chiefs game, at the TV meetings, Kurt Warner noticed my grip and asked me where my hand was placed on the ball and why my finger was so high on top of it. We had a football at that meeting, and he grabbed it. I showed him my grip, and he was like, "That's crazy, because mine is the same." He showed me his hand placement, and it was pretty cool to see. He's a Hall of Famer, and he was saying, "Just keep doing what you're doing." I'll adjust it a little bit, move it a little bit down and see if that works. But you really don't want to change something that's not broken.
My dad has a big shop in the back of our house -- the ground is gravel, all rock. And when I was younger I'd go out in the backyard and pick up rocks and try to throw them in the dumpster. Whether it was 50 or 100 feet away, I'd just stand out there and throw rocks, like for hours, and I think that's one thing that really correlates to my throwing. My grip started with my dad actually buying these little quarterback informational tapes that he'd get to learn quarterback stuff. Some old guy did these tapes; I can't even remember his name. Dad learned from that and taught it to me.
Follow-through is a big factor in a throw. It starts with the sequencing of the throw: Your hip fires first, your shoulders come around, you follow through with your elbow and then you're kind of flicking it off your index finger, the last part of the grip. When you don't throw a good ball, it's almost always when that follow-through doesn't quite feel right. The follow-through is the tell-all. When it comes off that index finger and it's fluid, and you know it's gonna spin, it's gonna be a good throw. You can just feel it.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
I try to put my second finger basically right here on the second string. I think the bigger the hands, the easier it is to grip the football and let it rip. I try to put this pointer finger right near the tip of the football and let it rip, let it spin. I'm used to turning two, playing baseball -- I figured out how to get the laces pretty quickly. You definitely practice that some, but if you need to late in the game, or something happens and you're scrambling, whatever it may be, usually I find the strings pretty quickly.
There's been some great quarterbacks that just can flip their wrist and really let it rip. I think that's a big thing that I try to do, for sure, especially when I'm scrambling or whatever. You change your arm slide, you change it around, you have to get the ball out. I'm a shorter guy, obviously, so I try to get the ball in my hand quickly and get it through lanes. But I think flicking the wrist is everything. Some people say you got to flick the booger off your finger. That's one of those things that you got to really wrist it. I think that helps the deep ball as well, when you're really flicking your wrist and letting it ride.
I wasn't always a quarterback. I started out as a running back and linebacker, so I wasn't even focused on gripping the football. No one's ever given me real tips on how to grip a football. I've always kind of found out just from reading books and everything, things like there should be a little space between the ball and your palm and you should be able to see through the crack.
My grip has changed over the years, from high school to college to the NFL. It's always been a little different just depending on the ball. And sometimes my grip changes and I don't even realize that it changes. Sometimes I'll throw from the second and fifth lace and sometimes I'll throw from the second and fourth lace. I don't exactly know how it happens or why it happens. The most important thing is you just want to feel like you have control of the entire football, not that it's too heavy on one side or the other. Just feel like you could grasp the whole thing. Just let it fly after that.
I just grab it. I have no idea. I did an interview not long ago. Someone asked me, "How do you hold it? How many fingers are on the laces?" I said, "I have no idea." 'Cause I have to grab it to know. So I guess my middle finger just butts up against the end of it. When you got a quick game -- the ball's gotta come out -- you don't always have time to find the laces. I always give it, like, one quick turn. If I get the laces, I get it. If you don't, then the ball just has to come out.
My hands aren't the biggest, so I go ring finger on the end and my pinkie four down on the laces. There have been people who have tried to get me to change my grip. But nobody's succeeded.
Hasselbeck demonstrates the art of gripping a football
Matt Hasselbeck explains how he changed his grip on the football in college and how it worked for him after that.
My uncle, John Loughery, played quarterback at Boston College as well, and he was one of the first ones who taught me how to grip a football. My grip hasn't changed since. I don't know if it ever has.
Mine is: ring finger on the second lace, pinkie just touching part of the fourth, and I was always taught to keep a little bit of space between your palm and your thumb so you can see a little bit of light through there so you're not palming the football and it stays on your fingertips. It's not like golf. You don't have time to adjust and readjust to get that grip exactly right. There's so much other information to be processed in that moment that the grip has to be second nature. It's just catch, feel it, throw.
The biggest transition for me was going from the college ball to the NFL ball. The laces are different in college; that ball has, like, rubber molded laces, so your hand has to be further out on the ball. The NFL ball has, like, real old-school laces. I love throwing the NFL ball.
Everyone's hand is different, so everyone grips the football different. I remember Joey Harrington had a weird grip. I shouldn't say weird, because it was his own grip and he could spin the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen. But his two middle fingers were, like, almost together on the ball. So if I were teaching a grip to someone, the big thing I would concentrate on is grip pressure: not trying to squeeze the life out of the ball, keeping it in a comfortable position in your hand where it's sturdy but also where your wrist and grip can be flexible to be able to finish the throw by whipping the ball out of your hand.
We were just running around, playing in the neighborhood as kids, when my older brother handed the ball to me and said, "If you're gonna throw it, this is how you hold it." And that was that. It wasn't until middle school and high school that I really started changing my grip and using the laces on every throw. I just flipped the ball over and started using the laces. My hands are so big, it wasn't much of a difference. Starting out without the laces has helped me plenty of times in the NFL. It happens a lot, and I don't even think about it until I see it on film and realize, "Wow, I threw it without the laces."
I had to relearn my grip when I broke my hand in college, especially the feel of the pointer finger. The middle finger and the pointer finger are the ones that direct and guide the ball. It felt good to get the ball back in my hands. The biggest thing was the strength of the grip, not the placement of the fingers. That's such a natural thing, even after that injury: You throw the ball to me, my hand goes right back to the right place -- something you've done for so long, it becomes a habit you can't break.
I've got my ring finger on the second lace and my pinkie on the fourth lace, and I've held the ball like that for as long as I can remember. The first thing when you're talking about the grip is what's comfortable for you. My fingers cover the laces more than probably some guys' do.
I've had two injuries, both to my right hand. The thumb's pretty important, so when you don't have that, it's tough to throw the ball. I put my thumb down pretty far so I've got more hand on the ball and I've got more control of it that way. More control means you can change the release of the ball midthrow while your arm is moving, depending on how much touch you need to put on it. When my thumb injury first happened last year, I wondered, "Is it going to come back to how it's always been? Am I going to have to change my grip?" Part of my rehab was just trying to get my grip back. Then you want to get the strength back and get all the mobility you can. Eventually you get there and it feels like it did before. Luckily for me, with all the rehab, everything's back to normal, so I get to hold the ball the same way.
I was throwing a football when I was 1 or 2. As soon as I could walk, I had a ball in my hands and was playing catch with my dad. He says the first pass I ever threw was a spiral. I remember throwing the football so much when I was little that if I didn't have anyone to play catch with I'd throw it up in the air to myself, catch it and throw it again.
My dad is the one who taught me how to grip a football. He was a quarterback in high school. I got my throwing motion from him, and before that I got my grip from him as well. It's not a tribute, but my pops throws a nice spiral, and I think I throw a pretty good spiral too. It all starts with my grip, which is his grip too.
I know a lot of guys like to go over the laces. I know Tom Brady's hand is, like, way over the laces, but I'm here, on the edge of the laces, just so I feel like I have a better grip on the laces so it can just kind of come out of my hand nice. But when it's raining or if it's super cold, sometimes you want to move your hand up so that you get a lot more grip and it's easier to have some control. But when it's nice and dry, I'm right there and sling it around.