Anatomy of a Hail Mary

The date was December 28th, 1975. The location: Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Trailing the Minnesota Vikings by a 14-10 score with 32 seconds left in a divisional playoff game, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach reached back and lofted a bomb to wideout Drew Pearson, who, despite tight coverage, hauled the ball in at the 4-yard line and scampered into the end zone for what proved to be the deciding touchdown.

After the game, Staubach was asked about the play.

“I closed my eyes,” he remarked, “and said a Hail Mary.”

The rest, one could say, is history.

At the time, did Staubach know he had just coined a phrase that would become a staple of the American football vernacular? Probably not, but his words certainly seem to accurately describe the feeling associated with the play. It’s a last ditch effort, a holding out of hope, a statistical improbability – a prayer.

That is, unless your name is Aaron Rodgers.

With his 42-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb to end the first half of Green Bay’s 38-13 wild card victory over the Giants on Sunday, Rodgers has now successfully executed three Hail Mary passes in just over a calendar year.

The first came in week eight of 2016 at Detroit, hitting Richard Rodgers on a 61-yard game winner.

Six weeks later, Rodgers struck again in the divisional playoffs, forcing overtime in Arizona with a 41-yard heave to Jeff Janis.

Add in his latest feat of excellence, and Rodgers seems to have some kind of knack for making one of the most unlikely plays in the sport turn out in his favor. So, how does he do it?

In describing his strategy for the Hail Mary after Sunday’s win, Rodgers essentially broke the process down into three steps.

  1. The trajectory of the ball. All three of the aforementioned passes looked more like punts as they traveled downfield. “The high arc is by design,” Rodgers said in his postgame press conference on Sunday. “I want to make sure those guys get a chance to get down there and jump.”

  2. The protection. “The key is the offensive line giving you a little bit of time,” he asserted. Though Rodgers ended up rolling one way or the other on all three plays, the offensive line afforded time for the receivers to get down field and for the quarterback to survey his surroundings in each case.

  3. The positioning of receivers. Rodgers said the last step is “a matter of those guys getting in the right situation.”

Obviously, these plays couldn’t succeed without the men on the receiving end, and Rodgers is fully aware of that.

Typically, the thought on a Hail Mary is to create a swarm of humanity in or near the end zone and have a receiver attempt to tip the ball toward a teammate, as it is extremely difficult for one man to catch the ball cleanly surrounded by defenders. Funnily enough, whether they drew it up that way or not, all three such plays by the Packers over the last year ended with a clean catch.

Also interesting is the completely different manners in which the passes have been completed.

In Detroit, the Packers utilized the mass of humanity and Aaron Rodgers placed the ball toward the front of the end zone, where Richard Rodgers stretched out his arms and reeled it in with two hands.

On the play against Arizona, Rodgers was flushed early and forced to get rid of the ball before he wanted to, as the Cardinals opted to pressure him rather than drop into coverage. That left Jeff Janis against two defenders, and Rodgers dropped the ball into the middle portion of the end zone for Janis to rise up for the grab.

Finally, against the Giants, Green Bay once again opted for the mass of humanity. This time, Rodgers pinpointed the back line of the end zone, where Randall Cobb toed the boundary and let the ball fall into his waiting arms.

After the game, Cobb commented that the Packers usually practice the Hail Mary once a week, primarily as a drill for the defense. As they prepare to face Dallas, whose legendary quarterback coined the phrase, maybe they’ll add a few more reps, you know, just in case.

In other news…

  • Here are my favorite fan-shot videos of the three Hail Mary passes. The one in Detroit shows just how high Rodgers throws the ball. In Arizona, the reaction of the crowd as well as the Cardinals bench is fantastic. And against the Giants, it seems the Packers sideline as well as the fans on the opposite side of the stadium are waiting on the crowd reaction from the end zone to tell them whether or not the play worked.

  • The referees and crews for this weekend’s Divisional games have been announced. Veteran referee Tony Corrente will be officiating Green Bay at Dallas. Corrente’s crew called an average of 12.73 penalties per game this season, about one less than the league average. That might not mean a whole lot, though, since regular crews are disbanded for the playoffs.

  • Packers rookie receiver Geronimo Allison was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in December, according to multiple reports. He has a hearing scheduled for January 23rd in Manitowoc. The Packers released this statement:

“The Packers are aware of the matter involving Geronimo Allison. Because this is an ongoing legal matter, we will refrain from making any further comment.”

Allison was thrust into action while Randall Cobb was sidelined with a bad ankle for the last two games of the regular season, and was a big part of those two victories. With Jordy Nelson likely out for Sunday’s clash with Dallas, the undrafted free agent seems poised to take on a larger role yet again.