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Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman and throwing velocity on sideline passes

It’s Nathan Peterman vs. Pythagoras of Samos in an all-out brawl to find out why those sideline passes are so darn pesky

As the Buffalo Bills begin regular season preparations for their week one opponent, Nathan Peterman will be the quarterback under center against the Baltimore Ravens. While it’s undeniable that Peterman consistently produced during the preseason, many fans are still filled with trepidation. One oft-cited concern is the dreaded sideline pass.

To demonstrate why this pass is so troublesome for Peterman, we turn to math and science, because that’s kind of my deal. But first, let’s find a sample play.

Nathan Peterman throws this short pass to Logan Thomas,and Mike Jordan nearly has a pick-six. Yikes! This pass wasn’t even likely to have earned the Bills a first down even though it was a second-and-six scenario. The term “short pass” doesn’t lend itself to visions of high difficulty. Let’s lay some groundwork on what makes this pass so tough.

We have a few things to juggle here. First and foremost, as most readers surely guessed, the idea of a “short pass” is actually somewhat misleading when we talk sideline throws. The first problem is that we’re used to seeing stats based on the amount of yards gained. In this case, assuming no yards after the catch by Logan Thomas, it’s a mere four-yard throw. Based on where Peterman’s hand is when he releases the ball, we’re already looking at ten air yards. That’s more than double what you’d see on the stat sheet. If you’ve heard of Pythagoras and his work with triangles, you likely already know the next step.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the GIF above just saved me more than 80,000 of them. Everything should be front and center, giving us our approximate real distance of 60 feet, or 20 yards. It turns out that the air distance is actually five times greater than the yards gained. The camera angles the NFL uses makes it very difficult to grasp just how wide the field is (160 feet, or about 53 yards). Sideline throws ramp up the distance needed to deliver the ball much higher than the broadcast footage suggests. There’s one more thing that makes these throws so dangerous.

The first thing to note with this illustration is the seemingly illogical distance comparison. This is how much the camera angle skews what we’re seeing. If thrown straight forward we’d be calling this a decent heave downfield. The angles also reveal another layer of the difficulty with a sideline throw. Pay very close attention to the cornerback. With the pass that’s thrown, the defender has easy access to read the quarterback the entire time. Mike Jordan is also in position to start driving forward quickly, as he’s breaking out of a backpedal rather than a sprint. Jordan is in prime position to cut around Thomas as well, due to the angle of attack.

Now visualize a pass over the middle. The defensive back is likely shadowing the receiver and attempting to stay with him stride-for-stride. This creates a higher level of difficulty in reading the quarterback. It’s also much harder to change direction when sprinting than while backpedaling. The receiver should be more directly between the quarterback and defensive back, making it harder to jump the route.

EDIT: One of the more frequently cited concerns with Nathan Peterman is a weaker arm, resulting in relatively low pass velocity. Sideline throws combine the worst of all worlds for a quarterback. Despite the often short gains, the travel distance is more like a mid-tier throw than a check down. Making matters worse, the positioning for defensive backs is rarely more advantageous. Many passes can be conceptualized as a race between the ball and the defensive back (with the receiver as the finish line). Sideline throws then give the defender a head start, making throwing velocity all the more important.