How Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers perfected the Hail Mary

For years the Hail Mary was a hopeful heave into the end zone. But the Packers have shown with skill and a great it can become a potent weapon

The first time Aaron Rodgers completed a Hail mary touchdown pass in the NFL his throw nearly hit the ceiling of Detroits Ford Field. Videos shot from the stands and field show the Packers quarterback firing the ball so high it nearly grazed a support rafter before landing in the arms of tight end Richard Rodgers 66 yards away.

I love how Aaron can get it into the end zone, but with that much height I was a little concerned, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said that night in December 2015 after Rodgerss Hail Mary devoted Green Bay a last-second victory over the .

And yet the fact Rodgers can propel the ball to such heights, launching it like a pigskin rocket, might be what has attained him an expert at what is supposed to be a prayer of a pass. Three periods in 13 months he has thrown Hail Marys for touchdowns inducing him, perhaps, the greatest Hail mary quarterback in the history of pro football. Not that there is much competition for the title. His half-time Hail Mary in Sundays wildcard win over the New York Giants pushed him out of a four-way tie-in with Cincinnatis Andy Dalton, former Browns quarterback Tim Couch and former Falcons star Steve Bartkowski for most Hail Mary touchdowns in NFL history.

Then again the word precise should not be used in conjunction with Hail Mary. The plays name itself is a plea for a miracle, originally used by Notre Dames legendary Four Horsemen to describe any long, seemingly hopeless pass but has come to mean one final desperate hurl of at least half-a-field with zeros on the clock. When the Hail mary runs, it is one of the most exciting plays in sports. It is also the most deflating for the team that gives it up because the touchdown usually comes at the end of video games or the end of a half. Rodgers pass on came just before half-time dedicating Green Bay an unexpected eight-point leading that broke the Giants.

With Rodgers and the Packers reaching so many in such a short time its easy to wonder if somehow they have discovered a Hail mary secret.

In a sense they have.

Following Sundays victory over the Giants both Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb, who caught the half-time Hail mary, utilized an interesting term. Watching Rodgers pass fall toward the end zone it seemed as if New Yorks players had overestimated the ball, “theyre saying”. The slight fault in predicting where it would land had allowed Cobb to slip undetected into the back of the end zone where he caught the ball so easily it looked as if he had been waiting for it all along.

Hes throwing it and[ opponents] are misjudging it, Cobb said.

But it might be the very route Rodgers throws his Hail mary that is causing disarray among other squads defensive backs. In all three of his Hail mary the Detroit game, the end-of-regulation pass at Arizona in last years playoffs and on Sunday the resisting players seemed slightly off in their leapings for the ball. Rodgers said Sunday he throws his Hail Mary passes higher than other quarterbacks. The Ford Field heave is a great instance. The balls go so high in the air they are more like punts than pass and catching a punt is hard enough without having to jostling with other players for stance in the end zone.

When its that high, its difficult to magistrate for receivers and defensive backs, Rodgers said Sunday. As there was a cluster, Randall slipped to the back.

The difference between the Packers receivers and the teams they play is that the Green Bay receivers are used to Rodgerss Hail Mary passes, having seen them in practice. Their adversaries havent. That slight discrepancy is enough to let his team-mates induce seemingly easy catches as defenders leap in the wrong place.

How high does Rodgers fling his Hail Mary? A few days after the 2015 game-winner in Detroit, Mike Reuter of the site Cheeseheadtv employed math to explain the mechanics of Rodgers game-winning pass. He calculated that Rodgers threw the ball at an arm angle of 53 degrees, sending it flying at 57 mph to a peak of 78 feet, travelling a total of 105 yards when accounting for the arc for 4.15 seconds. Its hard to imagine another quarterback who can throw a ball as high or as far with similar accuracy.

As chaotic as they might seem, Hail Mary passes are not disorganized scrambles with the ball heaved into the middle. Teams actually script plays to score on such hurls as well as design schemes to stop them defensively. McCarthy said the team works on Hail mary each Saturday in their final practise of the week, though Rodgers said he hadnt actually thrown a Hail mary in practice since October.

We practice it once a week but its more for the defense to try and break it up, Cobb said.

Most coach-and-fours teach their defenders to knock pass to the ground rather than attempt an interception. The thinking is that when a defensive player tries to catch the ball he runs the risk of having it slip through his hands or bounce off his fingertips giving receivers a chance to grab the ball for a score.

When the Packers offensive players run Hail mary drills they do so with assigned roles. Some drift to the middle of the end zone but one usually has the assignment of trying to get to the back of the end zone in case a pass goes over the defenders as Rodgerss did on Sunday. Another player stands simply in front of the goal line in case the ball runs somewhat short of the pack. This is where Richard Rodgers was that 2015 night in Detroit.

On Sunday, Cobbs job was to box-out Giant defenders and give receiver Davante Adams – the designated leaper – room to catch the pass. Instead, Cobb moved behind the players who miscalculated the hurl and saw the ball dropping into his hands.

It might have looked like luck, but even good fortune can be the product of science.

Or a simply a matter of watching a Hail Mary fly so high it must seem like it touches the heavens.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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