It's probably the most exciting moment of any football game — and it doesn't matter if the game is on a Friday, Saturday, or a Sunday. One team is down six or seven points and they're making the drive across the field in the fourth quarter with just seconds left on the clock. Stopped just short of a first down or goal, the quarterback drops back and chucks the ball as fast and far as he can, along with a prayer for a receiver — any receiver — to catch the ball in the endzone.
Sometimes, they get a little help from less divine sources.
(National Football League)
Sure, it's a supreme letdown when the pass fails, but when it succeeds, the crowds go wild. It's the "Hail Mary" Pass, and it was made famous by that name with a little help from the Naval Academy's famous alumnus and Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Roger Staubach.
The desperation pass existed well back into the 1930s. Football is a very old sport and desperation in football dates back to the beginning of the game itself. Referring to a pass as a "Hail Mary," however, was generally restricted to desperate plays made by Catholic schools, like Notre Dame — until 1975, that is.
A 1975 divisional playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Roger Staubach-led Dallas Cowboys saw the Cowboys down 14-10, 85 yards from the endzone, on 4th down and 16 with just 24 seconds left in the game. There was no other call Staubach, the former Naval Academy cadet, could make in that situation. The ball snapped, Staubach dropped back and threw the ball as far as he could.
The original "Hail Mary."
(National Football League)
The ball found its way into the arms of wide receiver Drew Pearson, who ran it in for a last-second touchdown. The Cowboys won the game 17-14. Staubach would lead the Cowboys all the way to Super Bowl X, where they fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-17. The pass earned its name when an elated Staubach talked the press after the game his victory over the Vikings.
"I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary," said Staubach. "I couldn't see whether or not Drew had caught it. I didn't know we had the touchdown until I saw the official raise his arms."
Staubach was a devout Catholic all his life, from his early days in Cincinnati through his Midshipman years at Annapolis. It just so happened that a Hail Mary is the prayer that went through his mind. The play could just as easily be known as the "Our Father" Pass.
Or if you're a Mormon, "Bless that we will travel home in safety" Pass
"I could have said the 'Our Father' or 'The Glory Be.' It could be the 'Glory Be Pass,'" Staubach later said.
So how rare is a successful Hail Mary Pass? One statistician broke down the likelihood of a successful pass on the last play of a game, more than 30 yards from the goal, with the offense tied or down by 8 or fewer points to ensure the team on offense either wins or forces an overtime.
Only 5.5 percent of games since 2005 have a play that fits these criteria. Of the games that do fit, most of the passes thrown were too far away from the goal line, out of range of the quarterback. Of the remaining, eligible passes, only 2.5 percent resulted in a touchdown. The stats also show that the further away the quarterback is from the goal line, the more likely the ball is to be intercepted — and the ball is eight times more likely to be intercepted than to score a touchdown.
Truly blessed are thou among passes.