This paper develops a mathematical model describing the motion through the air of an American football. The model is based on established equations used to describe spinning projectiles. While the equations are applicable to general motions, the emphasis of the paper is on the spiral pass and punt. Separate sections introduce formulas for the forces and moments understood to act on spun projectiles. The discussion of each force and moment includes an assessment of how well available experimental data characterizes the force or moment for an American football. For each force or moment, there is a description of how it affects the motion and trajectory. While the equations are valid for arbitrary motions, the available aerodynamic data is not. In parallel with the derivation of the nonlinear mathematical model, a linearized dynamics model is developed. The linearized model is used to help explain the behavior of the nonlinear model and to provide insight into the underlying physics. The linearized model is also used to derive a relationship between linear and angular velocity that ensures that the gyroscopic motion of a football is stable. The paper provides physical insights into what causes the apparent “wobble” of a spiral pass and what the character of the wobble says about the quality of the pass. Among the physical insights provided are the reason some passes have a rapid wobble and some slow, why a pass exhibits a lateral swerve, and why the Magnus effect may be neglected. The results are applicable to rugby footballs.
Rae  appears to have published the first numerical study of the motion of an American football during a spiral pass. That paper showed results derived from video analysis of passes during games and under controlled conditions. The paper derived a mathematical model that considered the spin momentum of the football along with four aerodynamic effects: (1) the drag force, (2) the lift force, (3) the overturning moment, and (4) the Magnus lift force. The paper presented results from a numerical simulation using those equations based on the wind-tunnel test data described in Ref.  for several initial conditions. The paper also included a linearized analysis and a consideration of stability. This paper extends Rae’s mathematical model for a football to include all of the terms understood to be necessary to describe spinning projectiles in flight [3,4]. While those references focus on projectiles like bullets and artillery shells, the same forces and moments need to be characterized to describe the flight of a football. This paper extends Rae’s results  by considering additional aerodynamic effects and a more detailed investigation of the equilibrium conditions. In addition, this paper considers each aerodynamic effect in turn and its effect on ball’s motion. There does not appear to be direct experimental data related to the aerodynamic terms that result in damping due to angular motion. This paper provides estimates for those terms. In this paper, the word spin refers to angular rotation about the symmetry axis of the ball, and rotation refers to angular motion perpendicular to that axis. Because of its frequent occurrence, the angular momentum will be referred to simply as momentum.
In addition to the work on footballs by Rae  and Rae and Streit , similar work has been done by Seo et al.  on rugby balls. The rugby screw kick or torpedo punt is similar to the spiral pass, the primary differences being that the linear velocity of the rugby ball is somewhat lower while the angular spin of the ball is significantly lower. While rugby balls are similar in shape to American footballs, it is notable that there are significant quantitative differences between the reported aerodynamic data. Other authors measured the drag on American footballs [6,7]. These authors obtain results that differ substantially from each other as well as Ref. . The data in Ref.  indicate that the spin of the football affects the measured results leading to the conclusion that it should be included when making measurements. The results of Ref.  showed differences in drag between the balls used in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Football League (NFL). The numerical results presented in this paper primarily make use of the data from Ref.  and would be noticeably different if other researchers’ data were used to parameterize the mathematical models. This should be kept in mind when considering the quantitative results.
The next section of the paper describes the reference frames that are needed to model the dynamics of a spiral pass. The subsequent section provides a basic set of nonlinear differential equations for describing the trajectory. There are four equations for each of the vector quantities that need to be modeled. One pair of equations describes the translational motion in terms of the position and velocity of the football. The second pair of equations describes the orientation of the football using a unit vector aligned with the symmetry axis of the football to represent its orientation in space, and a quantity related to the angular momentum. The following section develops a set of equations that approximate the nonlinear dynamics as linear differential equations. The forces and moments are considered in the next section. For each mathematical model of a force or moment, an expression is given for representing it in the nonlinear equations and the linear equations. The effect on the flight of the spiral pass of each term is illustrated by simulation results. The simulation used to produce the results in this paper has been validated against McCoy’s equations  generally and the equations presented in Ref.  for linear coefficients. The equations formulated in this paper do not contain the divide-by-zero when the symmetry axis of the ball and the velocity vector are aligned that is present in Rae’s equations . Because American football is played on a field measured in English units, English units are used throughout the paper with SI units given parenthetically.
2 Defining the Location and Orientation of the Football
When simulating the motions of airplanes, missiles, ships, or footballs, it is necessary to define a reference frame or set of reference frames that are used to characterize the motion. A judicious choice of frames can make a problem easier to model and then interpret results. In this paper, the “base” reference frame is located at a point on the field where the quarterback is standing when the ball is released. The 1-axis of the frame is pointed toward the opposing goal line and parallel to the sideline. The 2-axis is oriented upward and perpendicular to the surface of the field. The 3-axis completes a right-handed reference frame and points toward the offense’s right and is parallel to the yard lines. The image in Fig. 1 illustrates these definitions. The three components of the location of the football are shown relative to the base frame.
The “ball” reference frame is located at the geometric center of the ball and translates with the ball. Figure 2 shows the ball reference frame and its orientation relative to the three axes of the base frame. The axes of the ball frame are denoted by , with oriented along the ball’s symmetry axis. The angles associated with the orientation of the ball are defined relative to the base frame by rotating the ball about the 2-axis through an angle −θ and then about the axis by ϕ. The angles −θ and ϕ are the first two angles, respectively, of a 2–3–1 Euler angle sequence. The usual convention is that Euler angles are defined positive relative to the axis about which they are taken. In this case, the negative sign is introduced so that positive θ’s correspond to directions to the right of the quarterback (i.e., positive x3). Since the ball spins and is (almost) rotationally symmetric, the single vector is sufficient to define its orientation. From this point on, the subscript will be dropped. Note that the axis of the ball frame always lies in a horizontal plane parallel to the 1–3 plane of the field and will be normal to the plane containing 2 and . The vector is oriented so that it is normal to the plane defined by and ; therefore, it lies in the same plane as that defined by the small triangle in Fig. 2. Equivalently, lies in the plane containing the 2-axis and .
3 Describing the Football’s Translation and Rotation
As a first example, the results in Fig. 3 show the effect of height of release on the distance traveled by the ball. The simulation shows a ball released at a velocity of V0 = 61.3 mph (27.4 m/s), an angle of Φ0 = 30 deg, and a spin rate of 600 rpm. These initial conditions will be used repeatedly in the examples and are the same as those used by Rae . The difference between the two trajectories is that one ball is released at a height of 7 ft and the other zero. The effect of the change in height of release is that the ball hits the ground almost 4 yards further downfield. This indicates that if we want to model the flight of a football for some practical purpose, knowing the actual height of the release point is important. The curves also have arrows that show the orientation of the ball relative to the trajectory. The figure shows that initially the ball is tangent to the trajectory and that the ball maintains this orientation throughout its flight.
4 Linearized Dynamics
This section derives a set of linear differential equations that approximate the nonlinear equations of the previous section. A disadvantage of using linearized equations is that they are not applicable to the entire flight of the football; however, studying the linear equations is a way to gain insight into the nature of the motions at a point along a trajectory. The linear assumption is that the orientation vector, the momentum vector, and the velocity vector all remain within about 15 deg of each other and their starting values over the entire period of time considered. Under this assumption, the results from a linear analysis will reasonably accurately model the nonlinear analysis. The angle is a rule of thumb, and a larger or smaller value may be appropriate based on the context. The approach taken here is to write the equations in the velocity frame and retain first-order (linear) terms. This allows the linearized analysis to be conducted for any initial velocity vector or at an arbitrary point along a trajectory. For example, the nonlinear equations can be simulated up to a given point in the pass, and then the linear analysis is applied to those values of the state vector at that point. Typically, an equilibrium state is used as the origin for the linearized dynamics; however, the paper will show that while there is zero aerodynamic torque on the ball when the velocity and symmetry axis are aligned, this is not an equilibrium condition. By defining the linearized dynamics relative to the velocity vector, rather than the equilibrium orientation relative to that vector, we believe that the physical interpretation of the states is more intuitively meaningful. A slight improvement on the accuracy of the linearized model could be obtained by recomputing the aerodynamic coefficients at the equilibrium state, but we do not do that here.
Since the velocity vector is always tangent to the tragectory, Fig. 3 shows that the effect of gravity is to continuously turn the velocity vector downward. Similarly, any force that has a component perpendicular to the direction of travel will cause the velocity vector to rotate. The angular velocity of the velocity frame is equal to . Because the one axis of the velocity vector is aligned with the velocity, the second and third components of the velocity in the linear frame are always zero. It follows that the first component of ωv is always zero and we can write . So far, we have introduced the acceleration due to gravity which results in an angular velocity for the velocity vector with components and . As other forces are introduced, their contributions will be incorporated into the angular velocity vector when their contributions to the linear dynamics are discussed.
5 Modeling the Aerodynamic Forces and Moments
This section describes the aerodynamic forces and moments that have been found necessary to model the dynamics and flight trajectories of spinning projectiles [3,4]. Each subsection considers an individual force or moment and how it is modeled mathematically. The models are added one-at-a-time to the equations developed in the previous two sections, and simulation results illustrate the component’s effect. Forces and moments are reported relative to a “wind” that notionally defines a reference frame for an imaginary wind tunnel. The 1-axis is aligned with the direction of airflow (assume right-to-left). The 2-axis is oriented upward and the 3-axis is pointed toward a viewer of the football in the imaginary tunnel. In this reference frame, the force of drag will be positive, an upward lift force will be positive, and a positive rotation about the 3-axis will be counter-clockwise as will a positive torque (right-hand rule relative to the 3-axis).
Each force or moment arises from a specific interaction between the ball and the air flowing around it, and each can be described by a three-dimensional vector representing its action in three-dimensional space. One approach to modeling a force or moment is to separate it into a scalar quantity representing its magnitude multiplied by a vector quantity derived from the geometry of the flow to determine the orientation of the vector-valued force or moment. The scalar quantities are the forces and moments measured in the wind frame made non-dimensional by dividing the forces by the product of the dynamic pressure 1/2ρV2 and some reference area S. Moments are divided by an additional linear dimension. Here the linear dimension is the maximum diameter of the football and S is the corresponding area [3,4]. These are called aerodynamic coefficients and will be represented by an upper case C with a subscript to identify the force or moment. A sub-subscript is a notational convention to indicate that the quantity is a stability derivative . For axisymmetric bodies, the only relevant geometric quantity is the angle between and which will be denoted by δ. This angle is related to the velocity and orientation by and to angle of attack and sideslip by the formula sin2δ = sin2β + cos2β sin2α. Experimental data for axisymmetric bodies is usually reported by specifying C(δ) only. The mathematical formulas presented in the following sections are correct for arbitrarily large values of δ, provided the methods used to represent the aerodynamic coefficient’s dependence on δ are correctly implemented and accurate for those large angles.
5.1 Overturning Moment.
The overturning moment occurs when the symmetry axis of the football is not aligned with the velocity vector. The vector axis of the moment acts perpendicular to the plane containing the velocity and symmetry axis. The moment has the characteristic that it tends to get larger as δ gets larger and acts in the direction to increase δ. It is therefore destabilizing in the sense that the torque associated with the moment wants to increase the angle between the two vectors which should lead to tumbling. The ball does not tumble because the interaction between this moment and the angular momentum of the spin causes the football to roughly align itself with the velocity vector during a pass. Namely, nose-up at the release and nose-down at the catch. The interaction between this torque and the momentum is also the cause of the ball’s wobble in flight. This section describes the modeling of the overturning moment and how it causes these particular motions of the spinning football.
The results in this paper use the same models that Rae  used based on the experiments . The experiment collected data up to an angle of attack of about 55 deg and the formula is a reasonable fit over that range, and = 0.33. Some caution should be used in applying this model at larger angles of attack. The area and aspect of the football projected onto a plane normal to the flow are substantially different at 0 deg and 90 deg, and it is expected that the magnitude of the slope of CM will be smaller at a right-angle to the flow than when parallel. For comparison, Seo et al.  recommend a model of CM = 0.771δ − 0.494δ2. This model has been corrected for angular units and the use of volume in the normalization is therefore comparable to Rae’s model. The factor of two discrepancy in the slope at small angles for balls that are relatively similar in size seems large. Neither paper attempts to make corrections for the effect on the measured forces and moments of the mounting arrangement for the ball .
The results in Fig. 4 were produced by simulating the nonlinear equations of motion for the same initial conditions as the first example (Fig. 3). In that figure, only gravity acted, but now with the effect of the overturning moment included. The curve labeled “perfect” corresponds to the ball being released with the spin axis and the velocity vector aligned. This would seem to be the ideal condition since the aerodynamic torque is absent. The figure plots the angle of attack versus the sideslip angle during the pass which lasts about 2.8 s. An alternate interpretation of this figure is that (α, β) are the projections of the unit vector onto a plane through the center of the ball and perpendicular to the velocity vector. This implies (α, β) ≈ (s2, s3) if the angles are expressed in radians. The angle of repose is about 3.5 deg at the release, and the first half-orbit of the curve is centered roughly about this point. The second full-orbit corresponds to the smaller circle. At the apex of the pass, the angle of repose is about 6.3 deg and during the middle-half of the pass, the motion is centered on this point. During the final quarter of the pass, the axis of the ball orbits roughly about the same point as the first quarter except in the lower half-plane. The figure shows that the ball travels downfield with the nose pointed slightly to the right because of the right-handed spin and the yaw of repose (Eq. (19)).
While the release with the velocity and spin axis aligned corresponds to zero aerodynamic torque, it is evident that this does not correspond to an equilibrium condition. The second curve on the plot in Fig. 4 corresponds to the ball being released at the equilibrium state for the release conditions; namely, the ball is released with a sideslip angle corresponding to the yaw of repose. It is evident that amplitudes of the motion are much smaller than for the “perfect” release.
So what has to happen to have precession at the fast frequency? Basically, the requirement is that C1 > C2. Following the discussion of the previous paragraph, the precession will proceed on average at the fast frequency and nutation at the slow frequency. The magnitudes of the complex constants Ci contribute equally to the magnitude of the initial angle of the ball relative to the velocity axis. This is not true for the initial angular velocity of the ball relative to the velocity vector. It is evident from the derivative of (20) that the magnitude of C1 has five times the effect on the initial angular velocity of the ball. Basically, if the ball is precessing at the fast angular frequency, the quarterback released the ball with significant angular velocity perpendicular to the spin axis of the ball. The results in Figs. 5 and 6 illustrate these ideas. In Fig. 5, the ball is initialized with its axis 10 deg above the velocity vector and with zero rotational angular velocity. There is pronounced nutation, but the precession frequency is still the slow frequency. In Fig. 6, the ball is initialized with the same initial α0 = 10 deg and with an initial angular velocity . In this case, the precession frequency is now ωf and the nutation frequency is ωs. When we have completed the modeling of all of the aerodynamic forces, the paper will briefly consider the effect of the release on the distance of the pass. Until then, the focus of the paper is on how each aerodynamic coefficient affects the motion of the ball. This is best understood when the motions are slow.
The insight from the linear analysis can be applied to interpret the result in Fig. 8. The effect of adding the lift force increases the maximum sideslip angle, and the nose of the ball tends to stay farther to the right throughout the trajectory. On average, the nose of the ball remains above the velocity vector for most of the duration of the pass. Based on the discussion about the equilibrium condition, this should have been expected. Equation (26) indicates the lift tends to increase the equilibrium sideslip at all conditions. For this simulation, the equilibrium value for βr varies from 10.5 deg at the beginning and end to a maximum of 14.5 deg at the apex of the pass. The corresponding values for the equilibrium αr are 1.3 deg and 2.1 deg. The result in Fig. 7 shows that the pass travels further downfield and drifts to the right. The longer range is a result of the lift due to the positive angle of attack αr. This lift force counters the effect of gravity and keeps the ball in the air for a longer time. The drift to the right is the result of the lift associated with the nose of the ball being to the right of the velocity vector due to the positive βr during the pass. Because a left-handed pass is associated with a negative βr, the corresponding drift will be to the left.
5.3 Magnus Force and Moment.
Rae and Streit  report that their data indicated that there was no measurable Magnus moment. For spherically symmetric objects like baseballs, golfballs, and tennis balls, the absence of a Magnus moment would be expected. Since the football is symmetrically tapered fore-and-aft and the Magnus force depends on the diameter of the ball, it is expected that its effect would be concentrated near the center of the ball. Also, the football has an aspect ratio of less than 2:1 which is not very dissimilar from a sphere. These considerations suggest that the absence of a Magnus moment for the football is reasonable.
For the Magnus force and the conditions of the spiral pass we have been considering, Lpα = −0.0025. Even when multiplied by P2, the corresponding value of −3.6 is small when compared with . Repeating the simulation of the previous section including the Magnus force changes the distance traveled from Fig. 7 by less than 5 cm, a change of less than 0.1%. Taken together, this suggests that the Magnus effect is negligible in the case of footballs and passes. There may be situations, say after a bad punt or when the quarterback is hit at the release, where the ball has substantial spin and the spin axis and velocity vector are nearly perpendicular that this assumption does not hold. For the remainder of the paper, the effect of the Magnus force will not be included in the model. While the lateral swerve of the football is substantial during a long pass, the swerve is caused by the lift on the ball and not the Magnus effect. Noting that Eq. (27) implies that the Magnus force is perpendicular to the plane containing and , and that the equilibrium condition (Eq. (26)) places above and to the right of for a right-handed pass, the small effect of the Magnus force acts to reduce the amount of lateral swerve due to lift. The Magnus force acts in the wrong direction to be the cause of the swerve.
Figures 9 and 10 show simulation results now including the drag force. The drag force is acting in addition to the overturning moment and lift force from the previous two sections. The first figure shows a reduction in the distance traveled by the ball of over ten yards. While the total lateral drift is less at the end of the path, the trajectory followed indicates more drift for a given distance downfield. One of the reasons for this is that the drag reduces the velocity, so the rate-of-change of the linear velocity (i.e., the angular velocity of the velocity vector) is larger for a given side force. The side force is also larger because as shown in Fig. 10, the yaw of repose is larger. The reason for this can be seen by referring to Eq. (19) and noting that the yaw of repose is proportional to the inverse cube of the velocity; namely, small reductions in velocity have a strong effect on the angle. The linearized model we have proposed will not exhibit a dependence on the drag.
5.5 Damping Moments.
The change in the spin velocity due to spin damping during the flight of the pass we have been considering in the previous examples is illustrated in Fig. 11. The response is the simple exponential decay associated with a stable, first-order, linear, differential equation. The change in spin rate during the pass is about 5% reduction. Due to the linearity of the model, the relative change will be the same for any initial spin rate. The effect of the pitch/yaw damping coefficient on the long pass used in most of the examples is shown in Fig. 12. The dashed line on the plot is the curve from Fig. 10. Since the energy dissipation associated with this damping term is proportional to the square of the angular velocity, this term will have a more pronounced effect on the pass with a high initial rotational angular velocity shown in Fig. 6. The effect of this term will also be more significant for a place kick where the ball has very large rotational angular velocity (i.e., angular velocity perpendicular to the symmetry axis).
5.6 Coriolis and Centripetal Accelerations.
6 Stability of the Spiral Pass
To illustrate what happens as the initial spin rate is reduced to near and then below the critical value, the results of six simulation are presented in Figs. 13 and 14. The initial release velocity is reduced slightly to 60 MPH. The initial release angle is 30 deg and the starting sideslip and angle of attack are zero. For the results in Fig. 13, the angular velocity at the release of the ball is above the critical value. The initial spin rates and ratio of angular velocity to linear velocity are shown in the legends. As the rpm is reduced in the first figure, the first three curves show that the angle of repose is decreasing due to the reduced spin rate and the nutation is becoming more pronounced. For the case nearly at the critical value, there is an interesting change in behavior. Using Eq. (39) to calculate the expected frequencies of the motion yields eigenvalues with negative real parts and imaginary parts corresponding to frequencies of 0.75 Hz and 3.25 Hz. The simulation shows that the ball precesses about 1.25 periods at the slower frequency and then precesses at the fast frequency. It seems reasonable to expect that under certain conditions, the reverse transition might happen. The results in Fig. 14 show results for an initial spin rate below the critical value. These results show precession at a frequency corresponding to the fast frequency that remains bounded. Part of the reason for the bounded behavior is that the reduction in linear velocity and the increase in δ both tend to reduce the magnitude of the overturning moment () decreases with δ). The behavior here is similar to a precessing gyroscope as the spin rate drops. As the magnitude of the gyroscope’s angular moment decreases, the angle between the gyroscope axis and the vertical increases until the gyroscope falls over. Eventually, the football will do the same thing. Because the available aerodynamic data are not valid at angles much larger than those shown in Fig. 14, simulation results showing a transition to tumbling or some other motion would be unreliable and speculative.
Figure 15 plots the simulated trajectories of each of the passes in the previous two figures. If drag were the only contributing factor, the results in Figs. 13 and 14 would suggest that because of the larger sideslip angle that the largest spin rate case would have higher drag and shorter distance. At least when compared to the stable throws, the reason this pass is longer is that the larger average sideslip angle results in a larger angle of attack according to Eq. (26), and therefore, comparatively greater average lift and slightly longer flight time. The group of passes associated with 375–500 rpm travels relatively similar distances downfield, with the change in drift being only about a yard. Note that in all these cases, the initial velocity is the same, just the rpm is changing; reducing the initial rpm by a little less than half reduces the distance of the pass by nearly .
7 Effect of Drag Model and Release on Trajectory
In the final set of simulation results, we consider the effect of changing the drag model and the importance of the release on the motion of the ball and the distance traveled. In the first two cases shown in Figs. 16 and 17, the drag model used is the one based on Rae’s data . The difference between these two cases is that in the first curve, the ball is released with the symmetry-spin axis and velocity vector aligned, and in the second the ball is released at the equilibrium state. The wind angle plots begin at different points, but from the mid-point of the pass onward are nearly identical. There is also almost no difference in the trajectories. The next two curves repeat the initial conditions but with a drag model derived from the data for the NCAA football . In contrast to the data from Ref.  and the NFL football  where the drag curves are relatively flat near zero angle of incidence, the NCAA data show a dependence on incidence at low angles. The most notable effect is shown in Fig. 17 where the change in the distance of the throw is about 5 yards. This is an effect just due to changing the source of the data for drag. The implication is that much better information about the aerodynamics is needed to be able to use simulation models to make accurate predictions about football trajectories. The corresponding pair of curves in the wind angle plot (Fig. 16) shows nearly identical behavior shortly after the release. The higher drag results in lower linear velocities, so the sideslip angle is larger when compared to the results using Rea’s drag data. The final two curves in the figure correspond to the ball being released at a 10 deg angle above the velocity vector. In the first curve, the angular velocity of the ball is zero and in the second it is . These are the same release conditions in Figs. 5 and 6. The wind angle plots associated with these two initial conditions are markedly different from the other curves in Fig. 16. The effect on the length of the pass and the drift is not very significant, only 1–2 yards. This suggests that if the angle and velocity of pass are the same, the angle and angular velocity of the ball relative to the velocity vector are not that important. This does not imply that the mechanics of the pass are not important, it is possible that for the poor release conditions considered here, a quarterback may not be able to impart the same spin and linear velocity.
This paper developed a mathematical model for the dynamics of a football. The equations are valid for arbitrary motions of the ball. The equations include parameters that characterize the relationship between the forces and moments on the ball and motion of the ball relative to the air. The available experimental data do not allow the characterization of these parameters for arbitrary motions, so we have limited our examples to cases where the ball has substantial spin, like a spiral pass, and does not tumble end-over-end. We noted in our discussion that there are significant questions about the accuracy of the available experimental data, and in one case our estimate is an educated guess. An obvious recommendation is that there needs to be work done to better characterize the football’s aerodynamic coefficients. One possibility is additional wind-tunnel experiments. If these experiments are performed, it is essential that the experiment design allows for accurate measurement of the effect of the mounting arrangement of the ball on the measured data. An alternative is to use free-flight data. The data reduction procedure is more complicated and measurements need to be made to identify the characteristic frequencies of the motion of the ball as well as the changes in these frequencies. It is also expected that there will be ball-to-ball variations in the aerodynamic coefficients. It is essential to know the magnitude of these variations prior to attempting to make simulation-based predictions about the flights of real footballs.
While there are significant questions about the quality of the existing aerodynamic data for footballs, there is a dearth of information that could be used to validate the simulation results. A specific set of aerodynamic data is only good if it allows one to predict the trajectory and dynamic motion of a football. A quality data set with information about initial conditions (or conditions at some point on the trajectory), trajectories, impact points, velocities, and frequencies of motion does not seem to exist. At this time, this seems to be the greatest deficiency of information. Without this information, there can be little certainty in any ability to make predictions.
The paper discussed how each aerodynamic coefficient affects the motion of a pass. The discussion showed that the wobbling of the ball was due to the interaction between the momentum of the spin and an aerodynamic moment that acts to turn the nose of the ball away from the velocity vector. The ball precesses and nutates at two characteristic frequencies. The precession may occur at either frequency, but if it is the higher frequency, it follows that the ball was released with a relatively large rotational angular velocity and was probably not a good pass. Good passes always precess at the slow frequency. The analysis showed that there is an interaction between the angular velocity of the velocity vector and the momentum that causes the ball to rotate with the angular velocity: nose-up at release and nose-down at the end of the pass. The nose of the ball will on average lie to the right of the velocity vector for a right-handed quarterback and to the left for a left-handed quarterback. This angle of repose interacts with the lift on the ball to cause a lateral drift; right for a right-handed pass and left otherwise. The force associated with the lift causes the velocity vector to rotate and this rotation cases a pass to travel with a slight nose-up, regardless of the hand throwing the pass. While it is tempting to compare this drift with the motion of a slider or curve ball, the Magnus effect does not affect footballs in a significant way and can be neglected. We have left open the possibility that there may be cases where this might not be true, but these cases involve the ball traveling with the spin axis at right angles to the velocity. A tumbling ball like a place kick does not satisfy this condition. The paper discussed the effect of drag on the linear velocity and the angular velocities. Finally, the paper derived a stability condition for a spinning football and presented some examples showing simulated motions of unstable and nearly unstable cases.
As a closing observation, we would like to note that the paper made many assumptions about the motion of a football when it leaves a quarterback’s hand. It is expected that the mechanics of passing impose their own constraints on the relationships between angles and linear and angular velocity at the point of release. It may not be possible to throw some of the passes simulated here, but more importantly, maybe it should not be tried by a person.
Conflict of Interest
This article does not include research in which human participants were involved. Informed consent not applicable. This article does not include any research in which animal participants were involved.
Data Availability Statement
The authors attest that all data for this study are included in the paper.