Gripping Story

Why arequarterbacks anticipating improved performances this season? It's all about thefeel of the ball

What happens whentwo players want to make a change in the NFL rule book? When those players arethe Patriots' Tom Brady and the Colts' Peyton Manning--the biggest stars in thepro football galaxy--and they're backed by 20 other starting quarterbacks, thejob gets done.

Since he begantaking NFL snaps six years ago, Brady had been bothered by the inconsistentfeel of footballs from game to game. That may sound petty, but consider thislittle-known practice that has been in effect for decades: The rule calls for36 official balls, manufactured by Wilson, to be provided to the home team foreach outdoor game and 24 for each indoor game, the balls to be available fortesting with a pressure gauge by the referee two hours before kickoff. The hometeam and the officials had the option to use league-approved products suppliedby Wilson (a bristle brush, a tack cloth and a semihard spongy cube) to rubdown the game balls and remove the waxy, slippery sheen that they have whenthey come out of the box. A few quarterbacks, such as the Jets' ChadPennington, 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 feelbroken in.

"Imagine ifDerek Jeter were handed a brand-new glove just before the start of everygame," says Brady. "Baseball players break in their gloves until theyfeel perfect to them. It's ridiculous to [be forced to] play with newfootballs. I can tell you there've been nights before road games when I havehad trouble sleeping because I'm thinking about what kind of footballs I'll bethrowing the next day."

CBS analyst andformer passer Phil Simms calls it the biggest unknown factor in the game."Last year, two days before the Super Bowl, [Seattle quarterback] MattHasselbeck called me," says Carolina's Jake Delhomme, who played in SuperBowl XXXVIII. "You'd think he'd [have other things on his mind], but Mattsays, 'How will the footballs be for the Super Bowl?' He knew what a big dealit was." (The 108 Super Bowl game balls are prepared by the officiatingcrew.)

So last February,while having dinner together in Miami Beach, Brady and Manning decided toapproach their fellow quarterbacks about petitioning the NFL competitioncommittee to change the rule. Brady proposed that the visiting team have accessto a certain number of the allotted game balls--the number turned out to be12--so it could prepare them the way it wanted; those balls would be stampedwith the visiting team's name and kept on the visitors' sideline for use whenthat team was on offense. The remainder of the balls would be prepared by thehosts to their liking, 12 kept on the sideline for use on their drives and theother dozen in reserve in case bad weather created the need for additionalballs.

All 20quarterbacks Brady and Manning spoke with agreed to sign the petition."Every guy I contacted was so excited," says Manning. "[TheJaguars'] 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 thefootballs.'" The proposal faxed to the league also contained a suggestionby the Texans' David Carr that quarterbacks be permitted to break in balls inthe week leading up to the game.

The committeeapproved the idea in March. Teams can also use balls from previous games if theofficials deem them acceptable--if they're not too worn or discolored, forinstance. "It's the first time I recall something put in front of thecompetition committee by players," says NFL vice president of officiatingMike Pereira. "It quickly became apparent that there were no negatives toit."

The quarterbacksare 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 asit sounds, I believe I'll play better this year. I believe instead of justgetting a pass with a new ball somewhere near one of my guys, I'll be able toput it right on the money."

Turns out thatwhen they're not squaring off for AFC supremacy, Brady and Manning make quite ateam. "It's not unusual for Brady and me to talk football," Manningsays. "We see each other three or four times in the off-season, and when wedo, we're usually discussing football, trying to improve our games. We're bothkind of football junkies."

This season theirfellow passers appreciate that.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (BRADY)HANDS-ON Brady pushed for the rule change that lets visiting teams prepare 12 balls before each game.
PHOTOWESLEY HITT/WIREIMAGE.COM (LEFTWICH)TARGETED Leftwich says a consistent grip will help his accuracy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)