Will the Angle of a Football Affect the Distance it Goes?

Close-up of a man's hand getting ready to throw a footabll to his son in the blurred background.

Football is a hard-hitting sport at times, where brute force is often needed to obtain goals on the field. However, when it comes to throwing or kicking the ball downfield, pure strength will not always give you the best results. The flight angle of the ball can greatly affect how far it travels through the air, so understanding what flight path is best for a given situation will help you hit your mark more consistently as a quarterback or kicker.

Horizontal Distance

You can measure the best launch angle for horizontal distance with a football throw or kick by finding out how far it travels over fixed time intervals. According to the physics department of the University of Illinois, the football will always travel the same horizontal distance over a fixed time interval regardless of the flight angle as long as the forward velocity of the ball, or its speed in a specific direction, remains constant.

Vertical Distance

The vertical distance, or height, of the ball when thrown or kicked increases when you launch it at a greater angle. As the ball travels upward on its parabolic flight path, the vertical distance it travels decreases because the vertical velocity is decreasing against the push of gravity. At the peak of the ball arc, the vertical velocity reaches zero and the ball no longer gains distance. As gravity then pulls the ball back to earth, the vertical distance over a set time period increases until the ball hits the earth. The higher the launch angle of the ball, the more vertical velocity and the less horizontal velocity it has.

Spiral and Air Resistance

All football quarterbacks strive to throw the football with a perfect spiral through the air because it minimizes air resistance. However, a 2007 study by physics researchers at California State University Fullerton notes that there will always be a slight torque produced on the ball along its rotational axis because of the quarterback’s fingers pulling it down to begin the spiral. Even the slightest wobble in the spiral can reduce horizontal velocity, which in turn can reduce the overall horizontal distance of a throw launched at the perfect angle.

Application of Different Angles

Associate professor of physics at Brooklyn College, Peter J. Brancazio, states in the “The Physics of Sports, Volume 1” that when comparing net yardage gained in a kick, the best launch angle for a kickoff is 45 degrees and the best angle for a punt is 60 degrees. This is because a 45-degree angle produces optimal horizontal distance, while a 60-degree angle gives the best combination of horizontal distance and vertical distance, or hang time. Similarly, the University of Tennessee states that the best throwing angle for maximum horizontal distance is 45 degrees.