A hockey puck can scorch across the ice at 110 mph, as measured by all-star contests in 2011 in the U.S. and Russia. The fastest pitchers can launch a baseball at 105 mph, as the Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman managed in September 2010. A football, with its ungainly oblong shape, technically called a prolate spheroid, doesn’t typically reach these speeds. But quarterbacks with a cannon arm can still get the ball downfield with plenty of mustard on it.
The maximum speed of a football is actually achieved by the legs of place kickers and punters, not the rocket arms of quarterbacks. College punters can achieve top launching speeds of 60 mph, with 70 mph expected for top pros, writes Angelo Armenti in “The Physics of Sports.” Place kickers achieve another 10 mph from running up to the ball, so kickers achieve around 70 mph in college and 80 mph in the pros.
ESPN’s “Sport Science” feature uncovered the football throwing speed of one leading quarterback when it tested New Orleans Saint Drew Brees against an Olympic archer to see which could more accurately hit the bull’s eye on an archery target. In the process of hitting the bull’s eye on each of his first 12 tries, Brees threw at 52 mph. The ball had a launch angle of 6 degrees and spun at 600 rpm. Aerodynamic forces kept the nose of the ball moving right on target, with the ball displaying the optimal and necessary three small wobbles for five spins of the ball. Brees creates speed on the ball by what he calls the “kinetic chain”: power that rises from his feet to his hips, shoulder and finally throwing arm. Brees demonstrated how the index finger comes off the ball last, giving it its final push.
Drew Brees’s 52 mph falls in the typically 50 to 60 mph speed recorded for a professionally thrown football and may have been a bit slow because of his focus on accurately hitting a target 20 yards away. “Sport Science” also clocked a pass by Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns at 56 mph. In the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine testing college players, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick registered 59 mph. Ryan Mallett of Arkansas recorded 58 mph, and Cam Newton of Auburn, 56 mph.
Figures for football greats are largely anecdotal but indicate that the greatest quarterbacks had exceptional throwing speed. Brett Favre is estimated at 63 mph, and Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, 59 mph on short hard throws. The hardest thrower ever may have been the Denver Broncos’ John Elway, who may have thrown in the rare category of above 60 mph. “They used to set the Jugs machines at 70 to 80 mph for us receivers to simulate John’s throws,” recalls Elway’s former receiver, Rod Smith.