A tribute to… the Hail Mary

While the rules of American football do not explicitly mention the Hail Mary pass, it remains a thrilling aspect of the game. There’s little else that evokes the same anticipation, or suggests the same desperation, as these all-or-nothing, everything-on-the-line moments. In this first in an occasional series of off-season articles about some of the game’s much-loved but rarer plays, Sean Tyler explores the history of the Hail Mary in the NFL, outlines the tactics and techniques behind it, and revisits some of the greatest Hail Marys from years gone by.

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How it all began

Because it’s not part of the game’s official lexicon, the term wasn’t coined by a coach, owner or even a commentator. In footballing terms, the expression dates back to October 1922, when players from Notre Dame (a Catholic university) twice said a prayer in the huddle before plays against Georgia Tech – and scored touchdowns in both instances.

As for the NFL, the first recorded reference came several decades later from Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. In a divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in December 1975, with just 32 seconds on the clock and Dallas trailing by four, legendary Head Coach Tom Landry called for a long pass and Staubach launched one from the halfway line. The slightly underthrown ball was tipped by receiver Drew Pearson five yards shy of the paint but he somehow trapped it between his arm and hip before taking it in for the winning score. Afterwards, Landry said “Our only hope was to throw it and hope for a miracle,” while Staubach – a devout Catholic – told reporters, “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” The term appeared in several newspaper headlines the following day and has been part of NFL folklore ever since.

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Mindset and mechanics

The prayer in question (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”) eludes to summoning help from the powers that be to successfully make a long, low-probability, chuck-it-and-hope throw. Usually attempted when a team is too far from the end zone to try something more conventional, the term implies that it would take a miracle for the play to succeed – which is why we love it when it does. That success relies on several factors coming together in the perfect storm: the strength and technique of the quarterback, whether there’s enough time for the receiver(s) to get downfield, whether the opposing team can defend it and, in most cases, a massive slice of good fortune.

So how do you shift the odds in your favour? Well, according to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, you practice. During his three years as an understudy to Brett Favre, he performed countless reps. “I got used to what it felt like, height and distance wise,” he told ESPN in a great article in 2019. “I’ve always been a little nerdy about that – watching the ball, seeing where it would land, remembering what that throw felt like. Was it all out? Was it 90 percent? Was it 80 percent? And just kind of locking those things away.”

As for Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, who has both a college and an NFL Hail Mary to his name, time is also crucial. “Can you find time in the pocket or can you escape the pocket and step up? By the time you run around a little bit, the receiver is in the end zone where you want them. It helps if you can buy as much time as possible, let the receivers get underneath the ball as it comes down.” And the numbers bear that out. According to ESPN tracking, the average time before a Hail Mary is thrown is 4.75 seconds – almost twice as long as a normal play.

So what about trajectory? The throw must go high and far enough to reach the end zone but not go out of the back – that’s quite a tight window if you’re 50 yards or more away. Quarterbacks tend to pull their arms farther back than normal and Cousins tilts his shoulders, with the front shoulder up and back shoulder down. “That will put the arc on it,” he confirms. “You want the ball coming down at the receivers. You don’t want a driven ball.”

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A RARE TREAT: Due to the degree of difficulty, most attempts aren’t completed. In fact, there have only been 34 successful Hail Marys in the professional game since Staubach’s effort nearly 50 years ago.

All hail King Rodgers

While the Hail Mary is often seen as a last-ditch effort, some players have developed a reputation for launching long, accurate passes in clutch moments. Since Staubach, there have been several successful proponents of the Hail Mary. And where better to start than with the best of the best, Aaron Rodgers, who (thanks to all that practice) is the only quarterback with three successful NFL Hail Marys to his name.

One of the most famous of all time, christened the ‘Miracle in Motown’ by broadcaster Jim Nantz, came on the final play of a Thursday night game in December 2015 against the Packers’ NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions. Because of a face mask penalty on the previous play, Green Bay – who’d been trailing most of the game – were given an extra play with no time on the clock. After the snap, Rodgers broke left to buy time while his receivers rushed downfield. Then he scrambled to the right to evade pressure and hurled a howitzer from his own 35-yard line. It dropped inside the end zone, where it was caught by the 6’4” Richard Rodgers II in front of a gaggle of Detroit players. (The tight end also caught a 67-yarder from Carson Wentz as a Philadelphia Eagle in 2020.)

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The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection, which brought a dramatic 27-23 victory, is still the longest Hail Mary touchdown in NFL history. According to estimations at the time, the ball travelled 69 yards and almost hit the rafters at Ford Field. Breaking it down afterwards, then-HC Mike McCarthy said: “When you throw it with that arc, it gives guys a chance to fight for position. And Richard is the perfect guy for that type of situation, with his ability to go up and high-point the football.”

Having won the NFL Play of the Year Award for the 2015 season for that one, Rodgers threw another just weeks later. This time, Green Bay were facing the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game. Down by seven and with seconds remaining, Rodgers heaved another desperation pass into the end zone while Marcus Golden and others rushed to close him down. This time, the ball was caught by receiver Jeff Janis and the 41-yard reception sent the game into overtime (although the Cardinals ultimately prevailed).

Rodgers, the unofficial yet undisputed ‘King of the Hail Mary’, then uncorked a third the following year – again in the postseason. In the NFC Wild Card Game against the New York Giants, he let it fly from the 53-yard-line with the last play of the first half and Randall Cobb took the catch at the back of the end zone. Rodgers’ three career Hail Marys, which came during a span of just 13 months, travelled a combined 172 yards.

Talking on Pat McAfee’s show years later, Rodgers raised another interesting factor: the inability of defensive players to read the flight of the ball. “I think it just comes down to the way you throw it,” he said. “If you take out the Jeff Janis one, the other two I was trying to get to a clean spot and throw it as high as possible. On both of those, I think there was a misjudgement by a majority of the players as to where the ball was going to come down.”

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A LONG SHOT… IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD: According to ESPN Stats and Information, only 9.7% of the 193 attempts from 2009 to 2019 were completed.

Double trouble: Dalton and Couch

Looking back through the annals of NFL history, there have been several other notable exponents of the Hail Mary. In particular, a couple of QBs from the AFC North have managed the feat twice (as has Russell Wilson, and we’ll come to him shortly).

In a 2013 battle with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens were leading 17-10 when, on the last play, Cincy’s Andy Dalton launched a 51-yard lob to the end zone on a 4th-and-15. The ball was deflected twice, once by each team, and while everyone else fell to the deck, the ball fell to AJ Green for a touchdown that forced overtime. The same pair teamed up three years later against the Browns, when the Red Rifle found Green with a 52-yard moonshot with seconds left in the first half. Again, there was some juggling and bobbling before Green pulled it into his chest for a 31-17 Bengals win.

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Staying in the division, in October 1999, the Cleveland Browns secured their first win as a returning expansion team with a Hail Mary against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Tim Couch avoided the pass rush and launched a 56-yard bomb that was tipped, then caught, by receiver Kevin Johnson. Three years later, Couch repeated the feat against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when his 50-yarder to a tightly covered Quincy Morgan (and the ensuing extra point) secured a 21-20 win. Couch remains the only player to win two NFL games on game-ending Hail Marys.

Before we move on from the Browns, we ought to mention another so-called ‘miracle’: The Miracle at the Met. This refers to Cleveland’s epic game at the Vikings’ old Metropolitan Stadium in December 1980, in which Minnesota came back from a 23-9 deficit to snatch victory in the last five minutes. The Vikes closed to within a point and, after forcing the Browns to punt, were left with 14 seconds, with the ball at their own 20. A crafty lateral pass (more of them another time) set up a 39-yard gain, leaving 41 yards still to go and just five seconds on the clock. NBC broadcaster Len Dawson predicted, “They’re gonna throw that ball up in the air and hope for a miracle” … and he wasn’t wrong. Three receivers lined up on the right and all ran go routes to the end zone, while Tommy Kramer (456 yards, 4 TDs) dropped back and heaved the ball into the crowd scene. A Browns defender tipped the ball but Ahmad Rashad caught it, with one hand, on the 1-yard line and took it in backwards for the score that sealed the NFC Central division title for Minnesota.

When Hail Marys become Fail Marys…

The original ‘Fail Mary’, as it became known, is a misnomer; it was actually a successful play. It occurred in 2012, during a contractual dispute with referees and umpires, when a replacement crew dominated the headlines in the Packers’ Monday night clash with the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a last-second attempt on a 4th-and-10 to Golden Tate, who was surrounded by three defenders in the end zone. Tate pushed one of them away without drawing a flag (hold that thought) but both he and MD Jennings gripped the ball with both hands as they fell to the ground. One referee signalled for a touchdown while another called it an INT. A replay confirmed the score, which resulted in a controversial 14-12 Seattle victory.

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That play is one of several that confirm the benefits of defensive players knocking the ball away – preferably down – rather that trying to intercept it but even that can go wrong. On the final play of a 2010 game in Jacksonville, Texans safety Glover Quin tried to knock down a David Garrard pass intended for Mike Sims-Walker with a double-handed, volleyball-style swat. Alas, it went straight into the hands of Jags receiver Mike Thomas, who brought the ball under control and stepped into the end zone for the winning score.

The Tate TD also highlights the fact that players on both sides are essentially immune from pass-interference flags on a Hail Mary, largely because the NFL doesn’t want a game to be decided on a penalty. Most attempts turn into rugby scrums and no one seems to bat an eyelid. The other dilemma facing defensive coaches is whether to take your chances at the line of scrimmage and send in the pass rush or pull more bodies back to defend the ball down the field. That’s a case of pick your own poison and there’s no right answer.

HOT AND COLD STREAKS: There have been three seasons (2012, 2015 and 2016) with three successful Hail Marys each, while only one was completed between 2003 and 2009.

… and Oh Hell Marys

Because it’s such a high-risk, high-reward play, a Hail Mary can go spectacularly awry and I don’t mean the ‘it didn’t quite work’ kind of wrong; I mean ‘handing the other team seven points’ wrong. Indeed, that happened just three months ago, in Week 12 of the 2023 season, in what might be one of the most ‘Jets’ plays ever.

Trailing 10-6 with the first half all but over, New York Jets QB Tim Boyle unleashed a ball 57 yards through the air. Alas, it went straight to Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland on the 1-yard line, and he ran it back for the first Hail Mary returned for a touchdown since ESPN began tracking them in 2006. Starting from the back-left of the field, he ended up at the opposite corner, having run for 124 yards. Picking up critical blocks from Christian Wilkins, Bradley Chubb and Jerome Baker along the way, he left the Jets players sprawling in his wake as he completed his incredible 99-yard pick six.

Despite going on to lose 34-13, Jets running back Breece Hall had no beef with the decision to try a Hail Mary. “It makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “You get the ball at the 50, you throw it at the end zone. When you stop thinking like that, that’s when you’re passive, and I don’t want to be a part of a passive offense. I’m happy we went for it.”

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THE LATEST (SUCCESSFUL) HAIL MARY: In Week 2 of the 2023 season, the Washington Commanders fought back from 21-3 down to lead the Denver Broncos 35–27. With three seconds remaining, Russell Wilson heaved a pass from midfield that was deflected twice before Brandon Johnson caught the TD, giving the QB his second career Hail Mary completion. Alas, Denver failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion so it was all in vain.

A personal favourite: the Hail Murray

With 35 Hail Marys in the NFL record books, it’s impossible to summarise them all here. But before we finish, let’s revisit one more corker that wasn’t scripted. It was a play that unravelled and the quarterback in question just had to wing it.

The so-called ‘Hail Murray’ occurred when the Cardinals hosted the Buffalo Bills in November 2020. Down 30-26 with 11 seconds remaining and with no timeouts left, the intended target Andy Isabella – running a crossing route – couldn’t get open on a 1st-and-10. The diminutive Kyler Murray evaded a would-be sack from Mario Addison but with two Bills lineman barrelling towards him, it was clear that the play was breaking down, there was nowhere for him to scramble to and time was ebbing away. He was left with no other choice but to hurl it 43 yards downfield and hope for the best. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the only Arizona player to reach the end zone, somehow climbed the ladder and caught the ball, his hands rising through those of Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde to seal a stunning 32-30 comeback victory.

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Here’s just a taste of how that amazing moment, which won the NFL Play of the Year Award, was described by the radio announcers who cover the Cardinals on KVMP FM. (The fact that it’s nearly all in capitals tells you everything…)

Dave Pasch: “Murray back to throw, flushed out, rolling left in trouble, slips a tackle, gotta launch it, he does, left side, into the end zone, jump ball, and it is… is it caught?! Is it caught?! OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S CAUGHT! DEANDRE HOPKINS CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT FOR A TOUCHDOWN! WITH ONE SECOND LEFT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! YOU’VE GOTTA BE JOKING ME! HOPKINS… REACHES UP WITH THREE DEFENDERS AROUND HIM AND PULLS IT IN! THE CARDINALS LEAD 32-30 WITH A SECOND LEFT!”

Ron Wolfley: “YOU! CAN’T! COVER! ‘NUK! YOU’RE NOT GONNA BE ABLE TO COVER HIM! THROW THE BALL UP! THAT’S WHAT KYLER MURRAY DID! HE EXTENDED THE PLAY WITH HIS LEGS! AND JUST CHUCKED THAT THING UP INTO THE AIR! INTO THE DESERT SKY, BABY! AND D-HOP BROUGHT IT DOWN! TOUCHDOWN!”

Wow. Goosebumps.

Long live the long throw

Since Staubach’s post-game comment half a century ago, the Hail Mary has (somewhat fittingly) come a long way. It is now less of a desperate call for divine intervention and more often a deliberate, strategic play that a cannon-armed quarterback can pull out of the bag when needed. It embodies everything we love about football: skill and strength for sure, but also unpredictability, hope and a little bit of luck.

So, please join me in raising a glass to the Hail Mary: a rare beast, but far from endangered. Rather, it has become an integral part of the NFL’s rich tapestry and, as these examples hopefully illustrate, brought us some of the most dramatic and celebrated moments in league history. That’s why I’m certain that, as long as there are a few seconds on the clock, half a field still to gain and a result hanging in the balance, the Hail Mary will continue to captivate NFL fans.

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