PITTSBURGH — The moment the ball settled into Mat McBriar’s hands, the Steelers’ punter knew something wasn’t quite right.
On a freezing Thanksgiving night in Baltimore, hardly ideal conditions for anyone let alone a punter, the ball seemed especially waxy and pointed to McBriar. Fortunately for the Steelers and the 10-year veteran, the Aussie got the kick off in time, receiving a favorable bounce that rolled out of bounds, pinning the Ravens deep in their own end.
“I ended up getting lucky,” McBriar said. “I knew as soon as I got it, it was totally the wrong ball. The tackiness was different. It was a lot narrower.”
Nope, it wasn’t the K-ball.
The kicking ball, or K-ball, is the one that all NFL kickers and punters have used — or in McBriar’s case, supposed to use — since 1999. In the modern NFL, 60-yard field goals are great but, clearly, 60-yard touchdown passes are preferable. Thus, the introduction of the K-ball.
In its relative short history, the ball marked with the ‘K’ at the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio, has certainly left an indelible mark on the league for reasons good and bad.
Remember Tony Romo’s bobbled hold on a would-be game-winning field goal in the 2006 playoffs? That wasn’t just Seattle’s “12th man.” That was a K-ball that, conspiracy theorists in Dallas insist to this day, was taken straight out of the box.
Last season’s “Fail Mary,” also in Seattle? It might never have been possible had Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers not been inadvertently given a K-ball by replacement officials to throw a two-point conversion. Rodgers’ throw fluttered wildly, missing the target.
In size, shape, weight and color, K-balls are exactly like their game ball brethren. That, however, is where the similarities end according to specialists like Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham, long snapper Greg Warren and McBriar, who also serves as a holder.
Depending on who you ask, the k-ball is fatter but the general consensus is that they’re no friend to those in their line of work.
They say they are far slicker and far less forgiving in cold weather like that is forecast for tonight’s game against Cincinnati at Heinz Field.
“When the ball is cold, it’s a crisp air, it doesn’t pop off your foot quite the same but that doesn’t mean you can’t hit a good ball,” Suisham insists.
Unlike game balls which are broken in by quarterbacks over the course of the practice week, the K-balls — a dozen for each game — are right out of the box until an hour before kickoff.
“We can’t do anything,” Warren said. “We’re not allowed to touch it unless we’re using it on the field of play and we’re not allowed to alter the ball in any way. The officials have a pretty tight grip on that.”
Indeed, the only representative from the Steelers who has access to the K-ball before the game is Adam Regan, an equipment intern. That anyone is allowed to lay a hand on the balls beforehand was a concession made to specialists only in the wake of the Romo debacle.
For that, Warren is grateful.
“It’s huge,” Warren said. “(Try to) break the seams, the points. Break it down.”
In a solitary room and under the watchful eyes of a referee, Regan has about 45 minutes to “work his magic,” as McBriar puts it. Regan, who declined to be interviewed, can’t doctor the ball, can’t apply foreign substances to it and certainly can’t microwave it, which is what some teams are alleged to have done in the pre-K-ball days.
What Regan does — or others in his position — do isn’t exactly clear and the Steelers aren’t about to say. Stuff like that is guarded like nuclear launch codes around the team’s South Side practice facility.
“He’s got his own techniques,” Warren said. “We keep those in-house. It’s all stuff that he’s allowed to use in there but every team has their own guy and they all have their own techniques.
“He’s very good at it. Makes sure he gets the wax off it, relieves the grip and breaks it in so the leather’s soft for the kicker.”
Minimally, it’s believed that K-balls are treated with wet towels, brushes and heavily massaged. Every little bit helps, says McBriar.
“If you hit a ball solid, it should travel about the same but you’re going to get a better kick with a ball that’s been worked a little bit more,” he said. “That’s where it helps. When you don’t kick a perfect ball, don’t strike the sweet spot, that’s when you get the benefit from a ball that’s been smashed in a little bit.”
Suisham estimates that an untreated ball can cost him up to 20 yards on a kickoff. That’s exactly what happened to him in a game this season, he says. It’s also why he tries not to pay much attention to it all.
For Suisham, a nine-year veteran, ignorance is bliss. There are too many variable — from the ball boys with the ‘K’ vests on, to the venue — that can go wrong.
“There are some variances game to game with the type of ball you’re going to get,” Suisham says, his voice trailing off. “It’s not the exact same for every game. It can be different with a different ball as the game goes on …”
Regardless, the Steelers specialists admit the K-balls aren’t going away anytime soon. In an offense-driven league where $100 million quarterbacks and receivers get the girls and the commercials, it’s just one more obstacle for guys like Suisham, McBriar and Warren.