Football Physics – New Frontier For Coach’s Challenges

Michael Giberson

Another story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had me wondering whether football coaches may want to sign up a physicist to advise on potential challenges to referee decisions.

Timothy Gay, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has written Football Physics: The Science of the Game, in which he illustrates a number of the principles of physics with football examples. In the book he takes on the “Immaculate Reception,” a 32-year old fluke of a play that enabled the Pittsburgh Steelers to beat the Oakland Raiders. The newspaper recalls:

With 26 seconds left to play and the Steelers trailing by a point, Terry Bradshaw scrambles on fourth down, then desperately rifles the ball to Fuqua, his running back. The ball arrives at the same time as Tatum, the Raider free safety who breaks up the play and sends Fuqua flying. The deflected ball, however, flies backward and into the hands of Harris, who runs untouched into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

Harris’ catch was ruled fair, on the assumption that it bounced off Tatum. But if the ball actually hit Fuqua, the catch would have been illegal under NFL rules at the time.

Gay speculates that careful collision analysis could determine whose momentum was transferred to the ball, deflecting it back to Harris.

I’m neither a Pittsburgh fan, nor a Oakland fan — heck, I prefer the game that the rest of the world calls football over the American game — but I do enjoy a good applied science story.

4 thoughts on “Football Physics – New Frontier For Coach’s Challenges

  1. You mean “most of the rest of the world,” of course. Unless Australia, New Zealand, and Canada don’t count as the rest of the world. Also Japan calls it “soccer,” and it is often called such in Ireland due to Gaelic football.

  2. South Africa also tends to use “soccer” more often as well, according to various sources, though “football” is also used for Association football.

  3. Yes, I should have been more careful in describing the game that most of the rest of the world calls football.

    Does anybody know why it is called “football,” when most of the time the ball is played by holding or tossing the ball by hand. More rarely the ball is played using feet.

    From what I’ve seen, Australian rules football is a much more foot oriented game, but even there there is a lot of carrying the ball around by hand.

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