One of the more puzzling aspects of quarterback Alex Smith's first season in the NFL was his inability to keep his grip on the football. He fumbled 11 times in his seven starts, but on several occasions the ball slipped out of his hand.
In his first two road starts, the ball squirted away from him six times, resulting in one incomplete pass, four fumbles and one botched handoff. Moreover, Smith said that some of his incomplete passes during a 9-for-22 passing performance against the Seahawks were off target because the ball slipped as he was throwing.
But thanks to a new NFL rule, Smith does not have to be at the mercy of the footballs that are handed to him when the game begins. Now, both the home and visiting teams are allowed to prepare 12 footballs to their liking to be used when their team is on offense.
"The problems I had in the past with the balls were always on the road," Smith said. "It'll be nice to travel with our own."
The rule allowing the visiting team to prepare their own balls for use in games was ratified this spring at the NFL annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. The suggestion was brought before the competition committee at the behest of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who rallied the support of the league's other signal-callers.
"I think enough of the quarterbacks got together and decided to do something about it," Smith said.
Niners equipment manager Steve Urbaniak said he prepares the team's footballs by rubbing them with a wet towel to remove the thin slick layer that coats new footballs. He said he tried to use the same mud that major league baseball clubs use to rub balls, but it did not work as well.
"Alex took some criticism for dropping some balls, but, believe me, the rest of the quarterbacks had the same issue and they got tired of dealing with it," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It (was) the only sport that doesn't rub down the balls. Baseball rubs down the balls, basketball rubs down the balls, heck, I believe soccer rubs down the balls."
However, the slick footballs might have been only part of the reason. Smith intimated last season that his mechanics were also part of the problem, as he often would rush his passing motion to get rid of the ball quickly, creating his problem.
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