Picking on stupid things that sports commentators say is the ultimate “Fish. Barrel. BLAM!” sort of activity, but this morning on the way to drop SteelyKid at day care, Mike and Mike kept repeating one of the absolute dumbest things that football commentators say. They were talking about Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, and praising his ability as a receiver. In particular, they heaped praise on his ability to “go up and get the ball at its highest point.”
That would be a pretty neat trick, if he could manage it. A football pass spends a second or two in the air– let’s call it two seconds for a long pass to a wide receiver like Fitzgerald. The trajectory of the ball looks like this:
For a pass that spends 2s in the air, its “highest point” is 4.9 m above the release point, or just over 16 feet. That release point is at least another 2m off the ground, putting the highest point of the ball off the ground at 6.9 m. To put that in persepctive, the world record for the pole vault is just 6.14 m. So,taking this football cliche literally would suggest that Larry Fitzgerald by himself can jump two and a half feet higher than the greatest pole vaulter in history could manage with the aid of a big long pole.
The issue here is pronoun trouble. Larry Fitzgereald doesn’t get the ball at its highest point, he catches it at his highest point. That is, he times his jump for the ball very well, so that he gets it in his hands at the very highest point his hands reach. Since he’s a pretty tall guy, that means that an opposing defensive back doesn’t have much chance of getting the ball before he does, which makes him a great wide receiver.
Now, you might say that 2s is a long time for a pass, and that’s true– I picked that number to make the math easier. But the basic point is still the same– the receiver is not catching the ball at its highest point. You wouldn’t want that, anyway– the highest point of the ball’s flight is roughly halfway along its trajectory from quarterback to receiver. If they really were catching the ball at the peak of its arc, they would be getting roughly half as much yardage as they could be.
There are cases where a football pass is caught at or before the peak of its trajectory, but they generally involve either a short fast crossing route, or Brett Favre flipping some crazy underhand thing to avoid a sack. The vast majority of the time, though, the pass is caught at the receiver’s highest point, which is well below the highest point reached by the ball.