Rarefied Air: Hail Mary catches clutch, not common
NOV 19, 2013 6:07p ET
Roger Staubach was watching on TV a couple of weekends ago when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton completed a 51-yard pass for a tying touchdown on the final play of regulation against Super Bowl champion Baltimore, aided by a Ravens defender accidentally tipping the football toward a receiver.
The official NFL game summary's description contained these words: " A.J. Green catches hail mary pass."
"I was kidding my wife. I said to her, `That was not only a Hail Mary, that was an Our Father,'" said Staubach, the Hall of Fame quarterback widely credited with adding the religious reference for a desperation pass to the NFL lexicon. "That play was amazing."
And exceedingly rare. That Dalton-Green connection, set up by Ravens safety James Ihedigbo's deflection in the end zone, represents one of only two times since the start of the 2008 season that an NFL team scored a TD off a throw of 50 or more yards in the final minute of the first or second half of a game, according to STATS. There have been 44 passes fitting those criteria in the nearly 1,500 regular-season and postseason games during that span, and only six were even caught by someone on offense. Fifteen were caught by defenders, even though that's not really the goal, as Staubach pointed out.
"They're taught to just knock the ... ball down," Staubach said. "You don't even want to intercept it."
That's a lesson that escaped Ihedigbo -- who, when approached by an AP reporter two days afterward, replied, "Are we still talking about this?" -- as well as the pair of defensive backs who appeared to be trying to grab the ball instead of swat it away on what turned into a ricocheted, 73-yard TD pass on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds left that lifted No. 7 Auburn past No. 25 Georgia in a college football thriller this weekend.
The only other successful NFL example over the last 4 years came in last season's playoffs, when Baltimore's Joe Flacco hit Jacoby Jones for a tying 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation against Denver. The Ravens went on to win that game in double overtime en route to a championship.
Staubach, a Roman Catholic, reportedly used the phrase "Hail Mary" in postgame interviews while saying he closed his eyes and prayed when he tossed the ball to Drew Pearson for an improbable 50-yard touchdown with 24 seconds left to help the Dallas Cowboys come back to edge the Minnesota Vikings 17-14 in a 1975 playoff game.
Before then, a heave-it-and-hope throw was often called an "alley-oop." As for what happened in the huddle, Staubach recalled: "I said, `Make the in-route and go deep.' We didn't even really call a play. I just said `Drew, it's going to you, no matter what.'"
Another Hall of Fame QB, Warren Moon, did not have any interest in even trying a Hail Mary.
"I never thought it would work. You're going on a wing and a prayer and you're hoping a miracle is going to happen," said Moon, who played in the NFL from 1984 to 2000. "The problem was, you need a big guy, and I had all these receivers that were 5-8, 5-9, 5-10. ... I probably had eight, nine, 10 interceptions on that play, just because you're throwing it up for grabs."
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden insisted, "You can't practice it. You have your set of rules of where you are going to meet at, and who's going to go for the ball. If you can't get it, you try to bat it up and hope something happens."
So the one against Baltimore wasn't a result of great coaching and preparation?
"It was a fluke," Gruden said.
Green said he usually is part of the bunched-up pack of players waiting for the football to arrive, but against the Ravens, "There were people already up there jumping, so I was just hanging back for the tip."
Even if Green's TD was, as Ravens safety Matt Elam put it, "a one-in-a-million thing," teams are bound to put in a little more effort now during the week -- offenses will try to figure out how to make it work, defenses will try to figure out how to prevent it.
"They'll super-emphasize it when we practice it. They'll be like, `Aw, man, did you see that play?'" Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. "A lot of times, guys think, `Oh, man, this was a free pick opportunity,' and everybody goes up and tries to pick while the receivers are trying to catch it. And usually something bad happens. So they tell us to knock the ball down, but it's a lot easier said than done when it's thrown up in the air."
Staubach, for one, figures there is more at play than strategy or skill.
"It's really just getting lucky," he said. "The odds are against you, but it's like an onside kick: Every so often, you get one. Golly, there's been enough of `em over the years that you're sure going to give it a try."