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Saved by the turf. A look back at Wes Welker’s GIANT drop in Super Bowl XLVI.

Sure-handed Patriots’ wide receiver Wes Welker dropped albeit a difficult ball, without question, was the turning point of Super Bowl XLVI.  With the Patriots up 17 to 15 and with exactly 4 minutes left in the contest, Welker could not corral Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s throw.  If we look back at this crucial play, on the surface,  Brady did not make an accurate pass.  Thus, this caused Welker to twist his body around to look for the ball.  Consequently, Welker let the ball slip throw his fingers.  Instead of the Patriots adding to their lead and perhaps winning this Super Bowl, they were forced to punt.  Then it was Eli Time.  

Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard wrote an article about this infamous drop which will forever be part of Super Bowl lore.  Unlike Jackie Smith’s regrettable dropped pass from Roger Staubach in Super Bowl XIII,  Welker’s drop had a higher degree of difficulty.  Bedard asked NFL coaches about this play.  One is an anonymous quarterbacks and  the other a receivers coach.  Here is their take:

Two veteran NFL assistant coaches – a quarterbacks coach and a receivers coach – were asked about the play. They don’t know the exact play-call and how the Patriots teach the play, but they agreed that the back-shoulder throw was not the type of pass Welker expected.

“You don’t have to throw a back-shoulder on that because you’re in the seam, and if you’ve thrown it properly, you beat the safety by taking some air out of the throw,’’ the quarterbacks coach said. “I think that was an inaccurate ball. Anytime you get an inaccurate ball, that’s a tough catch when you’re running vertically toward the goal line like Welker was.

“I wouldn’t count that as a drop if I were charting my football team.’’

The receivers coach agreed, to a point.

“You expect that ball to be in front,’’ he said. “But in the end, it was a catchable ball. Was it where it should have been? No, it’s not where you normally expect it. You’d like it out in front and just run into it.

“It was behind him and it would have been, not a great catch, but a good catch. And he just missed the ball.’’

On the contrary, according to Eric Edholm at Pro Football Weekly,  he looked at this play through a different prism.  
Brady floated a pass that hit Welker in the hands. He twisted around, the pass
not quite perfect but darned good, and dropped it.  Furthermore, the Giants secondary blew their coverage.  The Giants botched their coverage on the play, rotating from a two-deep to a
single-high safety look. One problem: Not everyone got the message. Kenny Phillips was out of
position, and it allowed Welker, who was running up the inside edge of the
numbers, to get free, more wide open than he — or any other Patriots receiver —
had been all game. “We were in a man-coverage concept, and the set they came out in (five wide
receivers) moved us to a different concept,” Giants defensive coordinator Perry
Fewell said. “We tried to communicate that; everyone wasn’t able to hear it.”

Based on Edholm’s analysis, Brady’s throw not perfect but darn good,  a busted coverage which allowed Welker to find an open space in the Giants defense, and a reliable receiver not being able to secure the football.  Was there something else going on here?  

Using physics,  Dr. Eric Goff, Associate Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Lynchburg College, provided his explanation on Welker’s dropped pass.   “Though not perfect, Brady’s pass found Welker between three Giants defenders. Welker was rotating clockwise in an attempt to make the catch. Newton’s laws tell us that initiating rotation takes a torque, which is a force multiplied by a lever arm distance,” Dr. Goff said.  He goes on.  “In Welker’s case, the force came from friction between his shoes and the turf; the lever-arm distance was the distance from his shoes in contact with the turf and the vertical rotation axis passing through his head and torso. Catching a ball while rotating is tough, but Welker had made tougher catches in his career.”     

Goff is much smarter than me.  However, in his analysis, he does not account for the playing surface.  Even though Lucas Oil Field has been praised by players for being an outstanding surface, unfortunately, it is an artificial surface. And artificial turf does have its limitations.  According to Skylar Christensen of naturesfinestseed.com:  Artificial turf has a higher coefficient of friction, meaning that players are more likely to “stick” to the surface instead of sliding naturally across it. After viewing the replay on of this play in slow motion, it appears, Welker’s foot gets “caught” in the turf.  As a result, he was unable to gain his balance. As Goff did state, the force came from the friction between his shoes and the turf. Nevertheless, the force of friction is much greater on an artificial surface than grass.  Putting this together, one can deduce this is why he did not make this catch.  

In a season in which this Giants team caught many breaks, the biggest break happened to be the playing surface at the Super Bowl.  If this game was played on grass, perhaps, Super Bowl XLVI could have had a different outcome.