Passing Mechanics

Throwing A Football Is A Complex Mechanical Motion

Mike Pawlawski
Former NFL, AFL, XFL Quarterback, and California Athletic Hall of Famer
May 18, 2020
Passing mechanics is a complex motion.

With at least 20 joints involved in the process, kinesiologists have proven that the quarterback throwing a football is the most complex mechanical motion in any sport or at any position.

A huge reason for this is because for a QB to throw a football, he is initiating a dynamic movement that is actually a chain, or cascade, of movements. Add to that that no two quarterback passes in a football game are ever exactly the same. This is because of all of the variables that are going on at the snap; from varying drops, to the defensive pass rush, to wide receiver routes, and varying coverage schemes from the defense. Then, of course, there are physiological differences between quarterbacks as well as variable weather and football field conditions.  These limitless variables make passing a football an interesting technique to teach and perform consistently.

This being said, thousands of QBs over the years have learned to throw effectively and efficiently.  The key to understand passing mechanics as a player or a coach is this: Though we strive for perfection in our quarterback passing mechanics, we seldom, IF EVER, reach perfection. However, we do coach and we do practice perfect quarterback mechanics when we're working on the specific technique of "the throw", and we learn to adapt to dynamic football situations with different quarterback drills that will put us in "game-like" scenarios.  

The goal of this type of training is that we retain enough of the "perfect" quarterback mechanics in different states of balance and body positions that we- as QBs - remain accurate and efficient as a passer. As the old saying goes, “that ‘close’ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” I'd argue that it applies to quarterback passing mechanics as well.

A lot of football coaches focus primarily on the mechanics of the throw. However, if a quarterback truly wants to perform at an elite level, a huge part of their training and coaching needs to focus on understanding the defense. That way a QB can master their reads and react to their keys for execution from the pocket. It's also extremely important to rep routes and throws with the receiving corps that they'll be working with in order to create chemistry in their timing. Anticipation of where and when to throw to a wide receiver makes it a lot easier to maintain sound mechanics than if we're just guessing.

We offer a host of videos at that quarterbacks and coaches alike can use to hone all of the skills needed to perform at an elite level from the pocket.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the pure mechanics of throwing the football, so that your quarterback training can focus you on becoming the most efficient and accurate passer possible. I'll be using a lot of technical information and definitions. Some football players and coaches want to study and understand everything, and others just want the important points. Take what you need as a quarterback or a coach to help you improve and become the most efficient passer possible.

I always felt that it was easier for me to figure out "how" to do something if I understood "why" I was doing it. So, with that mindset, I'm going to explain a lot of the “why” right now...


1/ Pre-Throw

This is our “setup.” Some people call it our “base.”

For the lower body:

• Weight distribution: Balanced 70-30 with weight on rear foot. Balanced doesn't mean “even.”

• Foot position: Front foot outside of hips with front toe slightly open to avoid extra movement on the throw. The foot is lightly loaded and ready to move.

• Hips and shoulders are open or flared slightly to the target intersection line.

• Weight is on inside of feet and flat footed on the back foot, (not on your toe or ball of the foot).

• The passer is standing tall for vision, but still has flexion in the knees for agility and balance.

For the upper body:

• Ball Position 2/3's back Pectoral Shelf

• Off-hand position: Vertical or even angular on the front side of the ball. This is going to be very important later. It's a little cheat that I will show you. I haven't seen other coaches use it, but it helped me while I was playing in the Arena League where a quick release was absolutely essential for quarterback success.


• The QB is relaxed but at the ready

Gather and Load

2/ Gather/Load

• Dip slightly to create weight transfer to 80-20 weight distribution. This is the point where we have made our decision on where we're going with the ball and we've committed to the throw. The dip allows us to transition from an agile athlete that can move freely in the pocket, to a thrower by loading back glutes and hips (weight over heels).

• All strong and accurate quarterbacks throw from stable base. That means that the back foot is firmly planted at 90 degrees to the shoulders and the target intersection line. Coaches will often use the “T Position” to describe the rear foot alignment.

• Weight is primarily on the inside, or arch of the rear foot. As begin this phase, we shift our center of gravity more towards our mid foot and rear heel, not the toe or ball of the foot. We can work from the balls of our feet when we're moving in the pocket, but when it comes time to throw, we need to be flat footed on the rear foot with rock solid contact with the ground to initiate the movement.

• If your weight is over your forefoot, you will tend to have too much weight forward and you'll have to use your quad and calf to stabilize, rather than your glute and hip, which means you lose power and accuracy.

• Finally...the QB is going to unload the front foot in preparation for the front step.

Now, let's talk about the passer's upper body…

• Arms, shoulders, trunk and neck are all relaxed but ready to load.

• Front shoulder, pec, rear lat and external.

• Rotators are lightly engaged in preparation to initiate throw.

• Off-hand slightly increases rearward pressure on the ball, which aligns the front shoulder perpendicular to or 90 degrees to our target intersection line.

Step and Separate

3/ Step and Separate

This is the point where the passer is creating the majority of the potential energy.  A flaw in these steps creates problems in the acceleration phase to come next and decreases the efficiency of the motion. Let's talk about the front step first. Some people mistakenly refer to the front step as a “Stride.”

But if we look at the definition of a stride, Webster's dictionary refers to it as

noun: stride 1. 1.  a long, decisive step.

synonyms: (long/large) step, pace

"long swinging strides"

As a passer our front step is decisive but if it's long then it's wrong. Let's look at what the lower body is doing first. Without a good efficient base, you can't be an efficient passer.

• Our first move in the separation phase is to step and externally rotate the front foot. That short step and rotation clears the front hip and allows the passer to create and utilize rotational torque.

• The QB is only lifting the front foot high enough to facilitate the movement so that the shoe doesn't get caught or stuck.

• Think of the movement of the front leg as a quick, light foot strike. We don't want to focus on the lift of the foot as much as we're interested in the efficiency of picking it up and putting it down quickly and prepping the front hip.  There's no major weight transfer yet. Even after the step, the passer could come off the target and switch receivers if the front step is quick and light. The time for major weight transfer will come, but the rest of the body needs to be in position before that happens. This initial step gets the QB in position for what's about to come.

Here's a little side note from the way back machine....

Football coaches used to teach that the quarterback should point the front foot at the target. For me, this visual creates inefficient bio-mechanics and balance issues. It also creates over rotation of the front foot and hip and can encourage the passer to fully extend the front leg or develop weight transfer too early in the throw.

All of those are bad because the point of the QB's shoe will end up pointed at the target. The initial step needs to be outside the target line to clear the front hip. The front foot will end up slightly pigeon-toed on the initial step to set a solid front side. The step should be somewhere around 4-6 inches so that after the step, the passer's overall base is equal to just over 60% the passer's height.

With that said....

The front foot should end up slightly pigeon toed and slightly in front of and outside the front hip. The tip of the shoe will be inside the heel pointing at the target intersection line. The length of step is one of those physiological and mental differences which is also based on the width of the QB's initial stance before the step. Each QB need to figure out the initial base width and step length for what’s comfortable for them.

Remember, the key is that we are going for efficiency and power, so too wide of an initial base means that you can't transfer weight efficiently to generate power or clear the hips to create torque. A front step that is too long for creating power means a longer release and creates balance and accuracy issues from the extra movement. Getting the initial stance and front step right may not be comfortable at first, but it's essential to keep refining this move as it changes “in game” based on different circumstances, so repeating proper movement at the start of the throw will greatly increase success at the end.  

So that's what's going on downstairs....

While we haven't started the full forward movement and force generation yet, we're getting the passer's base ready for action...

Simultaneously, as the lower body is working creating the base to set a strong front side and clear the hips, the upper body is working to coil and create the load or potential energy.

Kinesiologists and coaches have called this “dissociation”. While the lower body is working in a linear fashion, (on the Sagittal Plane), or “back to front”, the upper body is working in a rotational fashion, (on the Transverse Plane), “front to back”.  

Here just for definition and a little deeper understanding of the science involved on the two different planes of motion:

Sagittal Plane

The Sagittal Plane passes through the body front to back. As it relates to throwing, we're talking about the final delivery of the football, so our forward movement is on the Sagittal Plane.

Transverse Plane

The Transverse Plane divides the body into top and bottom. Movements in the Transverse Plane are rotational in nature, like internal and external rotation, trunk rotation, and pronation and supination.

Those last two will be important but we'll talk more about pronation and supination later, during the drive or “acceleration” phase of the throw.

I only throw these definitions in here for the scientists in the reading audience. There are quite a few Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks who have no idea of what the Sagittal or Transverse Planes are. In fact, I had to teach myself proper throwing mechanics as a player and I had no idea what they were until I really researched the science of the throwing motion. It's just a cool little bit of kinesiology that I like to add in for those who want to understand the concepts. You don't have to get caught up on the terms. You can just learn the function within the throw.

Now getting back to our QB: As a coach I don't like to use a lot of terms that suggest moving backward during the throw, because I think it confuses young quarterbacks and creates extra motion and misunderstanding of proper mechanics. In actuality, while the lower body moves forward, the upper body and trunk can harness that motion to remain almost stable and self-load with a very slight rearward and upward movement of the ball. By using the front hand and arm efficiently and remaining relaxed, the passer can coordinate these movements into a smooth mechanical cascade.  

• To do that, the passer needs to push the ball toward the back shoulder with the front arm and hand to set the ball on its motion. The ball will travel in a semi-circle or "C" pattern to get to the fully "cocked" position.

• This “push” coils the upper body and maintains the front shoulder orientation perpendicular to the target intersection line. This is the beginning of the rear loading aspect of the throw.

• As the shoulders get set, and we reach the end range of our off-hand push, we "flick" the ball back with the off-hand. Here, the passer uses the advantageous biomechanics of the small joint movements being "quicker". In this case it's the wrist and fingers of the off-hand to increase the efficiency of the throw, and allow us to relax and assist the mechanical chain in the throwing arm and shoulder.

Rather than having to fully engage the external rotator muscles of the throwing shoulder to re-direct and pull the throwing arm back and through the "C" motion, if we "flick" the ball back with the off-hand it starts the ball movement towards its rear set point while simultaneously initiating the front arm motion forward to create the rotational torque we need to really drive the ball. With the ball back-loaded by the front hand, mechanically all the passer has to do is raise the ball up to the rear set point.

A key point here: At no point did the ball drop below the elbow on the throwing arm. Often times when young QBs are trying to generate power, they elongate their release thinking that they'll "get more on the ball". Everybody thinks this way intuitively. Just watch kids at the park try to throw the long ball. You'll be hard pressed to find a compact, efficient release. You'll see nothing but huge run-ups and long releases. If they keep that up those kids are going to be linemen. It's fun, but totally counterproductive for a quarterback. To coach keeping the ball up in the release or to work on keeping the ball up as a passer, try focusing on the front hand. As the passer flicks the ball backward with the off-hand, the front hand should pull away and up, right around face high.

Coach Mariucci used to tell me all the time that body parts will match.  In this case the ball in the rear - and the front hand - should both stay above the shoulders for balance. By not allowing the ball to dip below the pecs on the takeaway, we create a compact, but powerful motion.

This takes some time and a lot of reps to teach because it's counter-intuitive to what our bodies want to do. Physiologically, we're programmed to keep the joints loose and in their mid-ranges to avoid injury. But in this section of the throw, we're asking the shoulder to abduct – to externally rotate in order to open up the upper body and create maximum potential energy without going through a long range of motion with the arm.

The tip of the ball in the hand is pointing toward the rear - or pronated, (we'll get to that in a second). Some coaches like to teach that the point HAS to be straight back, but every thrower's physiology is different.  

I think that each passer will find the right spot for the tip in their throwing motion.  It's just important that early on in their development, each QB experiments with really opening that ball up, (or pronating the forearm and externally rotating the shoulder), until they find a spot that maximizes power, efficiency and accuracy without wasted movement.

I developed the "flick" to help maximize this movement without a lot of extra muscle groups getting involved and as a sort of "cheat" for QBs. I have never heard other coaches teach it - but having played at a high level in the Arena League where a quick release is paramount - it really added to the efficiency of my throwing motion.

Here's a little coaching point for health and offseason training. This point in the throw is where it is extremely important that QBs have a strong posterior chain to stabilize the back, shoulder, and arm. I know as young quarterbacks, we all want to work on pecs and biceps, but A LOT of posterior strengthening really helps a QB.  

You can take a look at Coach Banning's Human Performance Series to help you strengthen your back and shoulders.  EB is a huge proponent of back strengthening. It's truly important for functional strength and will make you a much better passer. If you're diligent about back strength, you'll also eliminate some of the possible injuries associated with throwing. His approach to functional strength can be a huge help to any developing athlete that wants to be an elite performer.

SOOOOO... back to our passer.

As we "Flick" the ball back with the off hand, we finish the separation phase in perfect position to harness all the potential energy that we just created. Now the passer is balanced with a 90 degree angle from the body to the upper arm at another 90 Degree angle at the elbow, to the ball. This is the ideal position for the passing arm to facilitate efficient energy transfer and accuracy. The rear glute and hip are fully engaged, and the front arm and hand are moving forward to create additional torque.

It’s also important to note that during all of this, the head remains stable and relaxed with the eyes level and locked on target. Our eyes are our targeting system and without a stable head, accuracy decreases. Throughout the entire throw, it’s important that the passer’s head and eye level remain consistent but relaxed. Keeping the knees flexed is a huge component to creating stability for the head.

Now we come to the point where, as quarterbacks, we make our money…

Acceleration or "Drive"

4/ The Acceleration or “Drive” Phase

To this point in the motion, we’ve been setting the stage for the full forward movement, the force creation, and the eventual release.

For the upper body:

• We've set the ball backward through the coil and “C” motion and externally rotated the shoulder to create maximum potential energy for rotational torque.

• The shoulder is in optimal position for the forward track on the throw.

• We've separated the hands and set the off hand on its forward motion with the "Flick".

• We've also matched upper body parts keeping both hands above the shoulder line to maximize efficiency for the compact throw and to maintain balance and stability.

A very important point to recognize here: We have held the weight transfer and shoulders back from firing. In doing so we've created a ton of potential energy.

For the lower body:

• We've engaged the rear glute and hip. We’ve kept the weight in the rear of our stance and over the heels and arches. We've stepped with a fast and light foot strike and cleared the front hip to create the optimal position for full trunk and shoulder rotation.

• We have the front foot very lightly loaded, outside the front hip and target intersection line with the front toe in a slight pigeon-toed position.

• The foot is opened far enough to clear the hip joint but not so far that it negatively affects balance. Toe position on the front foot is important because it also sets our strong front side.

Now with the proper base, balance, and load we're we will bring it all together:

• On the rear foot, we begin the weight transfer by using the hip and glute to create maximum force in a forward linear motion. As we reach near full extension in the hip movement, we start to engage the muscles of the lower leg to exert more force to the ground and create the essential weight transfer.

• We do this by internally rotating the rear hip while we begin to extend the rear knee slightly by engaging the rear quad. It's important to note here that both knees will remain flexed to a certain extent throughout the throw. Passers should never have a fully extended knee on either side as it reduces the ability to use ground force and negatively affects balance. Fully extended knees are also more dangerous in the pocket with bodies flying around. Having flexion in the knee helps prevent a lot of injuries for quarterbacks.

• The movement of the rear leg starting at the hip, initiates the weight transfer to the front foot, which is in perfect position by virtue of our short step, to harness ground reaction force.

• Lastly, we engage the rear quad, then calf, to direct and maximize the energy from our arch to the ball of the foot and eventually to the big toe.

• Once again, while the lower body is working in a linear fashion to transfer weight forward to the front side, the upper body is working on the rotational plane.

• As the lower body moves forward, the shoulders hold back from firing until about 80 % of weight transfer. The passer's front arm, which has set to the perfect position from the "Flick", initiates the movement by pulling down and through aggressively to the offside. The muscles of the trunk are now fully engaged and rotating the body abruptly, but smoothly, to the front side. This functions to clear the shoulders for the throwing arm.

• Now, the ball and throwing elbow must track up and over the throwing shoulder to get into position. That means that as we bring the elbow forward, we are actually externally rotating the shoulder by the torque of the forward motion.

• The elbow and ball should be traveling on the target line (or Sagittal Plane), at this point. The elbow will end up in what has been called the "0" position. Slightly in front of and above the shoulder. This position will vary slightly, depending on the physiology of each passer, but best said, it is the point from which the passer can transfer maximum force to the ball by enabling full or triple extension of the passing arm outward and upward.

So, you may wonder why, with all this rotational torque going on, is it important for the ball to be travelling in a linear path on the target intersection line here?

In spite of generating a lot of our force production with rotational torque, our best accuracy is attained when the ball travels on a linear path. If the passer releases early or late while the ball is travelling on the Sagittal Plane - or linear path - towards the target line, then the "miss" will result in a high or low pass to the wide receiver, which is far easier to catch, than if the passer's arm is travelling on a rotational, (or Transverse Plane), in which case the ball is wide if it is released early or late. It's far easier for a receiver to react up or down within their body frame than it is to react side to side.

In order to create the linear path for the ball the passer has to “Supinate” the throwing hand as he initiates the forward motion with the ball.

So, now it's time for another set of definitions:

I told you that I'd explain Pronation and Supination later. This is the point that the small muscles really come into play in the throwing arm.

Pronation functions to rotate the forearm and hand toward the inside. For instance, when the hand is turned so the palm is facing downward. Try this: Extend your arm straight out with your thumb up in a neutral position. Now rotate your hand so that your palm faces the ground. You just pronated your forearm.

Supination is the opposite of pronation. In supination, the muscles in the forearm cause the limb to rotate toward the outside so that the palm is facing upward.

This time with your arm straight out and your thumb up in a neutral position, rotate your hand so your palm is open to the sky. You just supinated your forearm. My college physiology professor taught me an easy way to remember this. If you were to get a bowl of soup in one hand you would hold it with your palm up. That describes supination.

Alright, that's enough physiology and kinesiology. Back to passing....

Starting in a pronated position with the ball in the rear set point at the completion of the "C" motion, the passer drives off the rear leg and pulls the front arm to generate torque. As the hips, then shoulders, clear, the throwing elbow moves toward the "0" Position. The quarterback must supinate the throwing hand and ball to get it on the linear target intersection path with the tip pointed forward. This movement in the small muscles of the forearm also creates the last bit of potential energy and sets up the throwing hand to direct the ball in the final moment of contact.

As the QB transfers weight to the front foot and completes the rotational movement with his upper body he will hit the "wall" he created with a strong front side. This is why the front step placement is so important. Without a strong front side the QB lacks the ability to harness “ground reaction force”.

Time for another definition here:

Ground Reaction Force

In physics, and in particular in biomechanics, the ground reaction force is the force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it.

This is an extension of Newton's 3rd law. loosely stated.

Newton's 3rd law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction force.

Which means the force that the passer is able to generate into the ground through their front foot will essentially reflect or react back into that foot and leg, and when harnessed correctly with proper mechanics, it can be transferred into the throw. That's why the sequencing of motion is so important. It's also why it's important to have what you have heard me call a "strong front side". By creating that strong step and weight transfer, we are transferring not just weight, but force into the ground through the front leg. As predicted by Newton's 3rd law, energy will transfer back as a reaction force at an equal amount. It's pretty heady stuff with lots of equations, but let's simplify and say that we want the most efficient, balanced, controllable force-transfer possible to the ground, because that's what will generate the most force to the football on the throw.

Now, as the passer hits "the wall", which is the ground force redirecting back up through leg, the hips and shoulders come square to the target with a whip effect. Here, the ground force ties into the rotational torque that was generated by holding the shoulders back. As the QB reaches full forward rotation with their upper body and hips, and their  shoulders are square to the target intersection line, they utilize the last bit of potential energy available to them by extending the arm as quickly and fully as possible and firing the wrist. This is called triple extension. The passer maximizes power when the joints are all extended in a synchronized effort and the wrist is pronated or fired at the exact moment of release. This also creates a more accurate pass because the ball is affected for as long as possible by the throwing hand and fingers.

So, once again we're talking about pronating the wrist. You can see in the video that at the final moment of the throw as the ball is released my pointer finger is the last thing to leave the ball. Remember, we talked about pronation being the palm down rotation of the wrist and forearm. The reason we pronate the wrist is to maximize the power that we developed throughout the sequence. Triple extension without this movement would send the ball on its way without the spiral. I won't go into the physics of the spiral because that's several more definitions and equations, and we've already done enough of that. Let's just suffice it to say that the most efficient way to transfer power while maintaining accuracy is to throw a tight spiral. The best way to accomplish that is to pronate the wrist at the exact moment of triple extension.

You'll notice that the thumb on my passing hand ends up on the bottom. That's a good indicator that the QB is pronating the throwing hand properly. The acceleration doesn't stop at release though. Like all good athletic movements, throwing needs a follow through to maintain accuracy, just like the golf swing. Decelerating too early will destroy accuracy and control of the ball. So, we accelerate the hand and arm through the throw by reaching out toward the target to finish the acceleration phase.

Once again, a key element here is that the passer's eyes have to remain level and locked on target throughout the throw and follow through. The head needs to stay level, balanced and relaxed. A big mistake that almost every young passer and even a lot of pros make, is to watch their ball in flight. The impulse is to see if you just threw a beautiful spiral and watch the arc or flight of the pass. This is a mistake and a flaw in your release if you do it as a quarterback. By moving your head at the last moment of the pass, you change your balance point and accuracy suffers. I can't emphasize enough: If you want to develop pinpoint accuracy don't watch your ball!!!

Nobody coached me on this critical point until my 5th year of pro football. I had a great coach by the name of Mike Hohensee who was relentless about yelling, "DON'T WATCH YOUR BALL!!". He said it so much that I heard it in my sleep, and I'm glad he did. When I finally learned this absolutely fundamental, but critical point, my accuracy went from good to exceptional. I was putting the ball on the receiver's body at 30 yards before focusing on my eye discipline. When I was on balance, I could put the ball into a 1X1 yard box at any distance by simply staying focused on my target throughout the throw and follow through. That's how important eye discipline is for a quarterback. Your eyes are the targeting system. Keep them locked on the target and your ball will likely find it's mark. If you watch your ball though, you risk decreasing accuracy by up to 50%.  

Follow Through and Deceleration

5/ Follow Through and Deceleration.

I think the key to deceleration is that it doesn't happen until after the ball is well on its way. As a passer, we need to finish the throw by accelerating through the release and reaching out to the target with good pronation on the throwing hand to really spin the ball and create the tight spiral. Follow through with power first to finish the throw, then decelerate.

By keeping your eyes locked on the target, the body will naturally accomplish a lot of the deceleration on its own, but there are a couple of key concepts that you want to make sure you cover. Firstly, to encourage the follow through, the thumb on the passer's throwing hand should travel to the opposite hip. In my case, I'm right-handed, so right thumb to left hip. Left handers will be left thumb to right hip.

As that's happening, the passer has to control their eye level and spine angle. Letting either of those go at this point creates balance issues earlier in the chain which diminishes accuracy and force production for the throw.

I already talked about the importance of keeping your eyes on the target. Because it's so important, I'll mention it one more time here. Doing that one thing will allow the passer to finish the follow through and deceleration on-balance.  All the weight will be on the front leg and hip. The passer's hips will be essentially square to the target intersection line and hopefully the catch by this point. Inertia should cause the rear foot to come off the ground and reset forward of its last position, but short of even with the hips. This will allow the foot to widen and dissipate the rotational torque normally. The shoulders will be rotated beyond square to the target and hips with the throwing shoulder now in front on a strong follow through. If the shoulders don't travel beyond square then the passer likely initiated deceleration too early.

The follow through is time to regain agility for safety. The passer will remain balanced and agile enough at this point to be able to protect themselves from on-coming pass rushers or other players falling around their legs.