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The disgusting habit that NFL quarterbacks will have to change in the COVID-19 season

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·5-min read

Eventually, an NFL quarterback was going to be forced to think about it. And when one confronted the inescapable reality, the door would open for others to follow. On Wednesday, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees officially breached that threshold, admitting that an incessant (and questionably gross) habit will need to be ditched during the COVID-19 era.

Licking fingers during an NFL game.

Brees and other quarterbacks have engaged in the act thousands of times before a snap, using their tongue to wet the fingers of their throwing hand, thereby giving themselves additional grip on a football. The very same object that is touched, sweated upon, spit upon and, in rare occasions, even bled upon during the course of play.

Drew Brees licks his hand while waiting for a snap.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees licks his hand during before the snap to give his throwing hand extra "tackiness" in order to grip the ball. That practice, during COVID-19 times, will have to change. (Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There have occasionally been debates about how disgusting the habit really is, given the fact that it’s basically akin to putting your tongue on a football during the course of a game. Never mind that quarterbacks are also spending their sweaty Sundays high-fiving teammates, slapping them on the rear end (see most of Brett Favre’s career) or regularly tucking their hands into the nether regions of an offensive lineman to take a snap.

To be fair, that latter hand placement has been mitigated by the rise in shotgun formations over the years, but when you see an offensive lineman with a towel tucked in his pants, it’s usually because the quarterback has complained about sliding his hands into a case of swamp butt.

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Breathe that all in and then once again consider that NFL quarterbacks often lick their fingers in a game.

Once you’re adequately nauseous, take comfort in one of the few benefits of a pandemic: Rethinking some of the habits that probably aren’t all that sanitary. Which Brees apparently is ... and other quarterbacks are likely to follow.

“The whole point is to help give your hands a little tackiness so you get better grip on the ball,” Brees told ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski in a fantastically detailed report about how COVID-19 will impact the hygienic aspects of sports in the coming days. “I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot lately as I’ve started throwing again. Trying to avoid it, but it has been so habitual for so long. You don’t realize how much you touch your face and lick your fingers until COVID hit.”

To which Ryan Harris, a former journeyman offensive lineman in the NFL added in the piece, “It’s so gross, even when there isn’t COVID. And just look where he puts his hands the play before, the play after and the play he’s running when he licks his fingers. Do the math. Honestly, there are a lot of everyday, don’t-give-it-a-second-thought things people are going to have to give a second thought about.”

Just so we can eliminate any ambiguity, when Harris says, “just look where he puts his hands the play before,” he’s referring to quarterbacks who operate under center pressing their digits directly against the damp underside of some sensitive anatomical parts of their offensive center. Having played the position myself during the course of my high school career, I can promise you that it’s pretty much every bit as bad as it looks.

So much so that over the years, NFL quarterbacks have occasionally taken to relating their displeasure with what they often refer to “swamp ass,” which is the penchant of a center to sweat ... well ... below deck.

Tom Brady has long been known to be a serial complainer about swamp ass — to the point that he has been known to require towels shoved down the pants of his centers, or copious amounts of baby powder to be employed. Brady isn’t alone, either. Others have complained as well. But in 2020, it’s less of a laughing matter, as other leagues have tried to limit fluid contact between players during the course of games.

In that effort, Major League Baseball and the NBA have instituted regulations that prohibit the licking of hands between plays. An NFL league office source and an additional source from the union said NFL regulations haven’t gone that far (yet), leaving players to create thresholds of their own.

However, on the team level, there will be some changes. One NFC executive told Yahoo Sports that smelling salts — that have often been employed during games in the past — are now prohibited on the sidelines during games. So, too, has the sharing of water bottles between plays, eliminating the age-old sight of seeing managers spritz down or hydrate players en masse during timeouts

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 15: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs is given a drink of water during the game against the Oakland Raiders at RingCentral Coliseum on September 15, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Patrick Mahomes' water breaks will probably take on a new look in the 2020 NFL season. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“We’ve eliminated the sharing of any fluid container,” the NFC executive said. “Players will have their own individual bottles for what they need, and they’ll be instructed very clearly not to share with each other.”

Time will tell whether it lasts, given that in the heat of a game, regulations (and the ability to enforce them) often go by the wayside. As always, there will be no getting away from the cameras on the quarterbacks. That means we’ll be able to count every time the most important player on the field takes a risk that means more in 2020 than ever before.

Prior to this season, licking hands before a snap was just gross. Now there’s a legitimate argument that it’s completely untenable.

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