Joe Burrow is here to remind us: Hand size is a meaningless NFL obsession

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and FlemFile columnist for
  • Has written more than 30 cover stories for SI and ESPN.
  • Author of “Noah’s Rainbow” (a father’s memoir) and “Breaker Boys” (stolen 1925 NFL title).

WHEN GIFS OF the “Tiny Hands” guy from Burger King started showing up on his phone before the NFL combine, Brandon Allen began to wonder if the pre-draft process had finally gotten just a little bit, well, out of hand. After a rough start as the quarterback at Arkansas, where fans egged and torched his truck (not at once, mind you, but in separate instances), Allen emerged as an NFL prospect after throwing for 30 touchdowns and leading the SEC in passer rating (166.5) as a senior in 2015. An invite to the Senior Bowl followed, and shortly after landing in Mobile, Alabama, Allen strolled into a room full of NFL team reps who unceremoniously ordered him to hold up his throwing hand.

Completely unaware and somewhat amused that hand size was even a thing, Allen halfheartedly offered up his hand without so much as straightening his digits. After all, he had lost a fumble a grand total of five times in four years at Arkansas, and he had thrown for 406 yards and seven TDs (and no picks) against Mississippi State in 30-degree temps. Still, a scout stepped forward with a tape measure, stretched it between Allen’s pinkie and thumb and barked out “Eight and a half!” over his shoulder to audible gasps.

Before he even knew what was happening, Allen had been swept up into the annual spring revival of the QB Hand-Size Myth. The latest victim? LSU’s Joe Burrow, who made headlines on the first day of the 2020 combine when his hand measured a minuscule 9 inches flat — a quarter-inch smaller than Patrick Mahomes’ mitts. The theory behind all of this, that a college quarterback’s hand size correlates to his eventual fumble rate and overall performance on Sundays, has become one of the most prevalent metrics in NFL scouting. There are, however, just a few tiny theoretical stumbling blocks with this edict. For starters, it’s based on a physiologically flawed principle and is, according to decades of data, utterly meaningless as a predictor of NFL performance.

Other than that, it’s perfect.

And so word spread quickly in 2016 about Allen’s phalangeal deformity, and the next time he checked his phone, his college buddies had filled it with the David Spade-like character from the viral Burger King ads who is terrified his doll-sized hands can’t grasp a Whopper. “It was all so silly, but it was a huge ordeal for a while,” says Allen, who started three games for the 2019 Denver Broncos. “I’m getting Burger King commercials on my phone, and they’re actually wasting time on air on national sports shows talking about my hands, and I was like, ‘OK, this is getting ridiculous.'”

But it was the NFL draft and quarterbacks, so the ridiculousness was just getting started.

After the 2016 Senior Bowl, Allen began preparing for the combine at the XPE Sports training facility in Boca Raton, Florida. When the program’s masseuse overheard him lamenting his tiny mitts, and with signing bonuses hanging in the balance, Allen began receiving deep tissue massages to relax and elongate the connective tissue in his right hand. A month later, when he showed up in Indianapolis, Allen’s hand had magically grown to 8⅞ inches (the same as Tony Romo’s once measured), and the spotlight had shifted to Jared Goff, the eventual No. 1 pick, who just barely broke 9 inches. “It matters because we play in a division where all of a sudden there’s rain, there’s snow and it’s different,” then-Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson said at the time, echoing the hand-size myth’s oft-repeated origin story. “Guys that have big hands can grip the ball better in those environmental situations, and so we’ll look for a guy that fits what we’re looking for in a quarterback. Is hand size important? Yes it is.”

To which Goff just scoffed: “I just heard about that yesterday. I’ve been told I have pretty big hands my whole life. I never had a problem with that, and I don’t expect it to be a problem at all.”

It wasn’t.

Two years later, Goff had led the Rams to the Super Bowl and Jackson was looking for work.

At the time, Allen’s miracle-working hand masseuse was the talk of nearly every dinner table at St. Elmo Steak House, the popular combine hangout. In Indy, Allen’s Instagram account was flooded with queries from terrified tiny-handed QBs across the country afraid to patronize Burger King and begging to learn his secret. But he says now it was all blown out of proportion, that he received only a few “treatments” and that the biggest difference was that the combine hand measurement had been done with a ruler taped to a desktop, which allowed him to lean all of his body weight onto his palm and stretch his hand for a proper measurement.

Listen: ESPN senior writer David Fleming discusses the hand-size myth on the ESPN Daily podcast.

Allen never broke the 9-inch mark, but he was nevertheless selected by Jacksonville in the sixth round. He spent 2017 and ’18 with the Rams and in 2019 went 1-2 as a starter in Denver, filling in for Joe Flacco. He has yet to fumble as a pro — or find a better summation of the hand-size myth’s silliness than John Elway’s take from 2016.

“As a player, you never look at hand size,” the Broncos’ general manager and Hall of Fame quarterback said. “As a GM, you always do.”

THE NOTION THAT hand size correlates to strength and virility is as old as man himself, and almost as dumb. Although widely debunked, the “size matters” theory was popularized in the NFL thanks in part to Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre. Trying to quantify why a second-round washout in Atlanta became a three-time MVP in Green Bay, some Packers personnel were convinced that Favre thrived inside the icy confines of Lambeau Field because of his abnormally large 10⅜-inch hands. Others, including once-renowned offensive mind Chip Kelly, even said hand size was more important than a QB’s height. “It never made sense to me,” Allen says. “I kept asking: Where do the facts come from to back up this theory on big hands? Because it seemed more like an old-time measurement that doesn’t mean anything anymore, like something that didn’t have any factual basis behind it but people still went with anyway.”

As is human nature, while ignoring the numerous big-handed busts, scouts instead began to lock in on Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning and other great quarterbacks with large hands who, in turn, selectively proved their theory. And then, without bothering to study the physiology of the grip or the abundant and readily available player performance data, the NFL scouting community (and, yes, the media) mixed common sense and an urban legend from Green Bay into QB canon: The Bigger the Hands, the Better. Period. End of discussion. All along, though, it was never more than what psychologists call an “illusory correlation.” It’s a logical, assumptive shortcut the human brain creates to form an overriding belief by conflating certain bits of anecdotal evidence. Every summer, for instance, we stay out of the ocean after news reports about shark attacks while ignoring the fact that millions of people swam safely in those exact waters.

While no one is arguing that a strong grip isn’t important for quarterbacks, there is no biological or kinetic proof that hand size correlates in any way to hand strength. Even with hands the size of catcher’s mitts, Favre still fumbled at an alarming rate (166 times, more than any QB in NFL history and good for 0.55 per game), far greater than that of his replacement, Aaron Rodgers (0.43), whose hands are a quarter-inch smaller. While you can’t blame Packers scouts for trying (or wanting to claim some credit, or deeper understanding), you just can’t quantify gamers like Favre with a single measurement, or a thousand. As frustrating as it is for the people charged with evaluating them, the greats are always more about art than science. Although, just to complete the ouroboros and confuse the issue, when asked about his ability to hold on to the ball, Rodgers held up his hands and smirked: “Size matters.”

Rodgers was kidding, but to most scouts, hand size remains no laughing matter. And so every spring in the buildup to the NFL draft, quarterback prospects get dealt the same bad hand. The draft class after Allen and Goff featured a future NFL and Super Bowl MVP quarterback whose 9¼-inch hands inspired this actual headline: “Will Patrick Mahomes’ Small Hands Tank His NFL Draft Stock?” Last year it was Kyler Murray’s turn. The Heisman Trophy winner and eventual No. 1 pick had the smallest hands (9½ inches) of any passer taken in the first round but the lowest fumble rate (0.31) and highest QBR (55.7) of any rookie quarterback. The silly season has continued with the 2020 draft class. Burrow got things started when his hands sent Twitter into a meme frenzy on Monday. In Mobile, Jordan Love, from Utah State, was a sideshow for half a day after word spread about his 10⅝-inch measurement, the biggest set of hands anyone had seen since, well, Paxton Lynch or Cody Kessler. Love’s draft stock has since risen. And long before he declared for the 2020 draft, when Tua Tagovailoa measured 10⅛ at this junior pro day at Alabama, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit went so far as to say that number was “more significant than his actual arm strength.”

That new theory on biomechanics is sure to interest the Cincinnati Bengals, who are almost certainly going to select a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. But when Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who played quarterback at Nebraska, was asked about the role hand size would play in the team’s selection, he reacted in a telling manner and one similar to the way nearly everyone else inside the NFL reacted when hand size was brought up: a helpless shrug followed by an embarrassed, apologetic laugh as if word had leaked that teams were using palm readers and psychics.

“Look, plenty of guys have had great seasons, great careers and Super Bowl seasons, and people would say they have small hands,” Taylor says. “I have small hands, so I’m a little bit sensitive to it. I’m about a 9 flat, which is generally last when it comes to starting quarterbacks in the league.” Here, Taylor holds out his hands in mock disgust and jokes, “It’s probably why I’m not a starting quarterback in the NFL right now. You can look at this both ways: There are some great quarterbacks in the league that have 10½-inch hands, and there are some great quarterbacks who have 9s, just like myself, that are playing deep in the playoffs. There are always exceptions to everything.”

Behind Taylor, on a wall inside the Mobile Convention Center, was a giant banner of Senior Bowl icon Baker Mayfield. One season after Hue Jackson’s bold combine proclamation about the significance of large QB hands on cold-weather franchises, the Browns used the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 on — wait for it — the QB with the smallest hands in the draft. Since then, of course, Mayfield (9¼) has had the lowest fumble rate (0.41) and the second-highest QBR (51.8) of the five QBs taken in the first round that year. “Yes, we’re overthinking it with hand size, which is what we tend to do in the NFL,” says Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl and an ESPN analyst who won four Super Bowl rings as an NFL scout. “It’s insane the amount of work and minutiae in scouting now, and hand-size measurements is just a microcosm of that.”

AS A BIOMETRIC, QB hand size is fundamentally flawed on every level.

For starters, it’s hard to take the statistic too seriously when there isn’t a single universally accepted method for how to measure hand size. And so, as was the case with Allen, the data can vary wildly between the Senior Bowl, the combine and pro day workouts on campus. And while the size of an NFL football is close to universal — 11 inches tip to tip and 22 inches around at the center — where and how quarterbacks grip the ball isn’t. “Every single quarterback grabs the ball just a little bit differently,” Mahomes says. “It’s hard to describe what makes a grip feel right because it’s a mix of everything, starting with the shape of the football, and not every football is exactly the same. There are ones that are more ovalish, ones that are more rigid, ones where the laces are big or tight to the ball.”

That’s why Lamar Jackson puts his 9½-inch hand higher up on the laces with his pointer finger practically on the cone of the ball, while Troy Aikman threw with his hand closer to the middle of the ball and his palm over the laces. “My hands aren’t the biggest,” Mayfield explains, “so I [put my] ring finger on the end and my pinkie four down on the laces.” All three of these quarterbacks place their hands on different areas of the ball. And if grip quality is determined by the percentage of the ball’s circumference a passer can cover with his hand, unless all quarterbacks are forced to hold the ball in the same spot, it’s impossible to accurately compare Grip Size A directly to Grip Size B.

Next, there’s the pinkie problem. While the pinkie is an integral part of the scouting measurement, it has virtually no physiological significance in grip strength. (The NBA ignores the little finger altogether, measuring hand “height” from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger.) Last year, when ESPN surveyed nearly every starting quarterback in the NFL about their grips, players were asked which digit was the least important to throwing mechanics, and the universal response was the pinkie. It’s so vestigial that Mahomes, the Super Bowl MVP, revealed he often does drills where he leaves the pinkie entirely off the ball in order to work on his wrist and the four fingers that actually matter.

“The pinkie is useless,” says David Dellanave, who owns Movement Minneapolis, where he specializes in training and coaching grip strength, a niche branch of weightlifting. “So to that point it’s doubly stupid to use this measurement because the pinkie is useless when it comes to gripping something.”

When he wants to gauge someone’s hand strength, Dellanave doesn’t get out a tape measure. Instead, he uses several diagnostic tests and tools, including a $30 grip dynamometer, a squeezable clipboard-sized tool that instantly measures grip strength digitally within one-hundredth of a pound. This year, the Senior Bowl teamed up with Zebra Technologies and placed GPS tracking chips in the ball and in shoulder pads in order to precisely track player speed and ball movement. In the occasionally archaic world of scouting, this is a major step forward. But for the time being, when it comes to the most important and expensive hands in the game, they’re sticking with the good old-fashioned tape measure. “That’s gotta be so simple — hand the kid a device, let him squeeze it, done,” Nagy says. “The NFL and scouting in general is kind of antiquated in their methods, and hand size is a good example of that. We’re making strides with technology, but for whatever reason, we just haven’t gotten there with the grip yet.”

These disqualifying issues with the QB hand-size measurement, however, are minor compared to the metric’s central, catastrophic flaw. In the NFL, the purpose of measuring the length between a QB’s pinkie and thumb is the belief that there is a relationship between this distance and a passer’s hand strength, fumble rate and overall performance.

It’s logical, reasonable even, to think that these two data points might be related. When you want to grab and hold something, bigger is probably better. You don’t reach for tweezers when you need to pick up a cinder block. But there’s zero proof that the distance between the pinkie and thumb is related in any way to the strength of the grip. “Size alone doesn’t really mean anything when it comes to grip strength,” Dellanave says. “I don’t think there is any correlation between hand size and hand strength. You would think teams would have a ton of data and insight into this, but then again, I’ve seen some pretty dumb stuff in professional sports training, so I don’t know.”

When Taylor, the Bengals coach, was asked why NFL teams continue to measure hand size instead of what they’re really after — hand strength — a lightbulb seemed to flicker for a split second before his eyes glazed over as if he had been asked about nuclear physics. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “That’s a little beyond me.”

Using hand size to predict a quarterback’s strength (and success) is a little like measuring a kicker’s shoe size to predict field goal range and accuracy. Which means for the last few decades, the NFL, a $15 billion business with virtually unlimited time and resources, has been drafting the most critical position in the game based, in part, on a measurement that doesn’t actually measure anything.

The data resoundingly confirms that there is no actual correlation between hand size, fumbles and passing efficiency. Since 2014, there have been several studies that analyzed data from hundreds of NFL quarterbacks and each one concluded the same thing: The hand-size myth is laughable. As USA Today put it: “Hand size has nothing to do with a quarterback’s ability to hold on to the football [even in cold weather]. … Just to drive that point home, the correlation coefficient between the number of letters in the quarterback’s name and their fumble rate is six times stronger than hand size.” ESPN Stats & Information’s own analysis went back through the past 10 draft classes and found that the group of QBs with the smallest hands fumbled at nearly the same rate as QBs with large hands, and, what’s more, small-handed QBs had a slightly higher QBR than passers with medium-sized hands.

More than anything, what the data shows is that by the time a quarterback has reached the level of the NFL draft, the selection process has made whatever variation is left in hand size pointless. By the combine, the range of hand sizes of potential quarterbacks is so preposterously narrow that to back the hand-size myth, you’d have to believe that the difference between a perfect passing hand and an unacceptable one is found in a variance half the width of your phone.

If that’s too theoretical, just focus on Mahomes and his supposedly disqualifying 9¼-inch hands and the way he is able to pump-fake, draw the ball back, palm it and scramble with it in the open field like an NBA point guard on grass. “Scouting is checks and balances, so if there’s a concern with hand size, it’s just one more thing you have to go back to the tape and double-check,” Nagy says. “You’re not running back into the draft room yelling, ‘This guy’s got 9-inch hands! Don’t take him!’ I don’t think that’s happening. But absolutely, I think we should all maybe take a breath on hand size.”

AS OVERWHELMING AS the data is, it’s simply no match for human nature. The best — and perhaps only — use for QB hand size might be as a window into the pervasive, stubbornly old-fashioned groupthink of the NFL. This is a league where inside the bunker mentality of the draft-day war room, consensus is often valued far more than critical thinking. It’s a league slow to innovate, where old habits die hard, where coaches who dare to run the ball on fourth-and-1 (when the conversion rate is near 65%) are still considered mavericks and loose cannons. And it’s an environment in which the theory that bigger hands are better is considered to be true simply because scouts have always believed it to be true.

To move on from the QB hand-size measurement, then, or to even just trade it for a grip dynamometer, would first require some of the biggest egos in sports to admit they’ve been wrong for decades. There’s a better chance we’ll see the Lions and Browns in the next Super Bowl. “I’m afraid you just opened Pandora’s box,” says Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. “This just shows how entrenched the human mind is in holding on to beliefs it already has.”

Elder says that when a long-held belief is questioned, our brains react by overemphasizing evidence that supports the original theory. And it just so happens that three of the most respected and influential scouting departments — Green Bay, Seattle and New England — all have compelling, and oft-repeated, anecdotal confirmation of the hand-size myth. And there’s a good chance those stories will keep it alive, no matter how much proof is offered to the contrary. “This is where the groupthink factor comes in, the power in numbers,” Elder says. “You’re gonna hear a lot of: ‘I know what they’re telling us over here with all this data and all this lousy evidence, but everyone in this room, we all know the facts. And the fact is, the best quarterbacks all have the biggest hands.'”

Besides the Favre legend in Green Bay, before the 2012 draft, the Seahawks were concerned with Russell Wilson’s height (5-foot-11) until they discovered he had a high release and the hands (10¼) of someone who, proportionately, should have been 7-foot-4. In 2003, the Patriots drafted Texas Tech QB Kliff Kingsbury, the current Cardinals head coach, in the sixth round despite his 8½-inch hands. As if reliving a nightmare, Patriots staffers from that time still recall how badly Kingsbury struggled to hold on to the ball, especially as the season went on and the weather got worse. A year later, after a season that also included a stint on injured reserve, Bill Belichick cut Kingsbury, and he bounced around professional football until starting his coaching career in 2008.

Since then, Kingsbury, who developed Mahomes in college and drafted Murray in Arizona, seems to be trying to destroy the QB hand-size myth all by himself. Kingsbury, however, declined an interview request. Which is exactly what a former Patriots scout predicted would happen. “Kliff doesn’t want it out there that he’s got small hands,” the scout said, laughing, “because of the way people equate small hands to something else.”

INSIDE THE MOBILE Convention Center, an hour or so after the official weigh-in for the 2020 Senior Bowl, QB hand measurements begin circulating on Twitter. Suddenly, there is a larger than expected crowd around Utah State’s Jordan Love, whose massive hands have turned him into something of a unicorn among the draft-guru underground. Laughing as he recalls the moment, Love explains to the captivated crowd that a scout used a tape measure and that his official size was, yes, 10⅝ inches (though he measured in at 10½ at the combine on Monday). “It’s just part of being a quarterback,” Love says, shrugging. “Height, weight, hand size.”

Nearby, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson isn’t quite as forthcoming with the hand he was dealt. The look on his face is proof of how endlessly frustrating the hand-size myth can be for players on the doorstep of their dreams. After all, you can work out to get stronger and faster. You can study to improve your knowledge of the game. But you’re pretty much stuck with the hands you were born with. Patterson says he thought he did everything right. He got his hands massaged. He worked tirelessly on his actual grip strength. But when he is asked about his rumored 9¼ Burger King measurement, all Patterson can do is deflect the question with humor. First, he blames his parents, naturally. Then he claims amnesia. Finally, he says with a smirk that he can’t be 100 percent sure of the measurement, “but I think I was a 12 or a 13.”

The more Love tries to downplay his hand size, the more the starstruck draft devotees in the crowd push back and escalate his indoctrination, insisting, out loud, just how big that number is, just how important that number is and just how unlikely it is that Love will ever fumble as a pro even during an ice storm or a flash flood. “Some people are born with small hands, some people are born with big hands. I’m not really sure what it means,” Love insists. “But did I stretch my hand for the measurement? Oh yeah, definitely, I’m trying to make my hands as big as possible.”

A few hours later, Love and the rest of the North squad take the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for practice, with representatives from every NFL team watching from the aluminum stands. With the wind picking up and temperatures dropping into the low 40s, after all the buzz about Love’s giant mitts, it’s a perfect opportunity for one more field test of the QB hand-size theory.

After warming up and breaking into groups for individual work, the offense and defense meet up at the 30 to take some live 11-on-11 snaps. Sporting a red No. 5 jersey and his white and blue U-State helmet, Love strolls confidently to the line of scrimmage while rubbing his hands together. He checks the safety depth and IDs the Mike linebacker. Then he places those can’t-miss, once-in-a-generation 10⅝-inch hands under center.

And promptly fumbles the snap.

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