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To Joe Burrow’s chagrin, we’ve arrived at the ‘hand size’ portion of the NFL calendar

Joe Burrow appeared to grip the football adequately for LSU last season. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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The NFL calendar has flipped from early February, defined so well by those two words, “Super Bowl,” to late February. As defined, of course, by “hand size.”

Yes, we’ve arrived at the NFL draft combine, where prospects are poked, prodded and measured in all sorts of ways that strike casual fans as esoteric at best, if not ludicrously irrelevant to actual talent at playing football. And nothing quite sums up the shift in focus from touchdowns, yardage, wins and losses to, well, other stuff than suddenly hearing a lot about college quarterbacks’ hand sizes.

Bigger is better, so some NFL prospects try to increase their hand size

That annual dynamic more than reared its head again on Monday — to Joe Burrow’s chagrin. You see, the record-setting LSU quarterback, widely expected to go No. 1 overall in April’s draft, reportedly checked in with alarmingly substandard nine-inch hands.

To put that into perspective — and let’s face it, we could all use a dose of perspective right now — ESPN noted that Burrow’s hand size would tie for the smallest among all quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2008. The other two were Jared Goff, who went No. 1 in 2016, and Ryan Tannehill, picked eighth in 2012.

Now here is where we start to get into the “on the other hand” aspects (no pun intended but happily accepted) that mark the debate over whether hand size actually means anything.

Goff, for example, has had a solid start to his career that includes two Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl appearance. But on the other hand, he was terrible in that game, didn’t look very good in 2019 and the jury is still out on how much of his success is owed to Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay’s schemes. For his part, Tannehill appeared to come into his own this season with the Tennessee Titans, but before that he spent years mired in mediocrity with the Dolphins.

Joe Burrow showed an engineer’s precision and a wizard’s magic as he went out a legend

ESPN also struck an ominous note in claiming that just three quarterbacks over the past 10 years have used their nine-inch hands to throw as many as 300 NFL passes, and no one among Goff, Tannehill and Chad Henne has posted a Total QBR above 55. On the other hand, QBR denotes a mark of 50 as average, so 55 would be above average, which doesn’t sound terrible, right?

It does appear that successful NFL quarterbacks tend to have hand sizes closer to 10 inches than nine, or at least over 9.5 inches, so that doesn’t bode well for Burrow. On the other hand, a certain Super Bowl winner and recent NFL MVP named Patrick Mahomes measured at just 9¼, so Burrow can take some consolation in having hands only slightly smaller than that.

In fact, those two had a humorous exchange Thursday, as Burrow joked about his hand measurement spelling doom for his NFL career.

The hand wringing over hand size has caused plenty of eye rolling over the years, but the reasons for possible concern are not hard to grasp. Actually, something being potentially hard to grasp, in this case an NFL football, lies at the heart of the issue.

The logic goes as follows: the smaller the hand, the less secure a grip on the football. That could cause more fumbling, or at least make it harder to throw with velocity and accuracy in inclement conditions. In that light, it’s worth noting that the No. 1 pick belongs to Cincinnati, which makes trips every year to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

On the other … okay, let’s just start going with “however,” a 2019 study by USA Today found very little correlation between NFL hand size and fumbling rates or cold-weather performance. In addition, one of the smallest hand sizes in recent memory for a first-round draft pick at quarterback reportedly belonged to Michael Vick, whose microscopic, 8½-inch mitts didn’t prevent him from having one of the strongest arms in recent memory.

Then there’s Aaron Rodgers, who has been slinging it all over Green Bay’s frozen tundra with a reported hand size, 9⅜, that would ostensibly leave draft evaluators cold.

However, the two highest fumble rates in the USA Today study did happen to belong to Goff and Derek Carr, whose 9⅛-inch hands are similarly small. Plus a 2014 Rotoworld study, which looked at quarterbacks drafted from 2008 to 2012 who had their hands officially measured at the combine, concluded that hand size correlated much more closely to passing success than height did.

The main takeaway from that study, though, was that NFL teams and fantasy football players alike might exploit a misguided bias against quarterbacks who were considered short but who had large hands. Examples of undersized signal-callers who fell in the draft but thrived in the pros famously include Drew Brees (10¼-inch hands) and Russell Wilson (also 10¼).

In a related development, NFL personnel executives reportedly had major fears put to rest last year when Oklahoma’s talented but diminutive Kyler Murray posted a solid hand size of 9½. That hurdle cleared, he went on to become the No. 1 pick and played well for the Cardinals.

Burrow apparently can’t lay a finger on Murray’s hand size, but he can certainly point to statistics from his final college season that, as with Murray, were nothing to thumb your nose at. In fact, with 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns on 76.3 percent passing, plus a national championship, his manual labor amounted to arguably the finest campaign ever by a Division I quarterback.

Certainly, no other quarterback in this year’s draft, not even Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, can lay a glove on Burrow’s résumé. That has him looking like hands down the best candidate to go No. 1 overall, certain shortcomings aside.

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