Hail Mary or Hail Rodgers?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]With six seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Green Bay Packers led the New York Giants 7-6. In a half where points came at a premium, Aaron Rodgers took the snap at New York’s 42-yard line and heaved a ball into the end zone to that was grabbed by Randall Cobb for a devastating touchdown to end the half.

This is the third time Rodgers has completed such a play, commonly called a “Hail Mary,” in the last 13 months. He also completed one against the Detroit Lions last December where Richard Rodgers, the front man, caught it, as well as another against the Arizona Cardinals in the Divisional Round of the playoffs when Jeff Janis made the catch.

Which got me thinking: How come Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback completing Hail Mary passes at such a high rate? Is throwing a Hail Mary a skill, one that Rodgers possesses?

Currently, many observers and analysts of the game argue that completing a Hail Mary is luck. I mean, that’s why it’s called a “Hail Mary,” right? Even the way I described it implies luck is involved. “Aaron Rodgers heaved…” Heaved. Someone heaving isn’t trying to hit a target with precision, but rather simply applying the greatest amount of force he can muster and hoping the object lands somewhere in the vicinity of where he wants it to be.

Yet I don’t believe this to be the case for Rodgers. I think Rodgers is purposely trying to target a receiver or a general area of the field on these plays, which should  classify this as a skill.

Cobb’s touchdown before the end of the half during the Wild Card game is a prime example as to why: It is clear as day that this play was designed and executed to perfection. That is to say: Rodgers and his teammates did this on purpose. And they succeeded.

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Green Bay is in 11 personnel with a trips left formation. New York has their corners giving the Green Bay receivers a ton of cushion, anticipating a deep pass downfield with just six seconds remaining in the half.

When the ball is snapped, Rodgers rolls to his right with his offensive line building a wall for his new pocket against the Giants four man rush. Rodgers stops and sets himself, pointing himself in the direction of his three receiving targets that are running downfield.

He’s now set and has had enough time for his receivers to get far enough downfield for him to throw deep.

However, throwing a Hail Mary isn’t like throwing a normal deep ball. Obviously, the ball must have enough altitude to travel the horizontal distance required to reach the target before it falls to the earth. But Rodgers clearly puts more air underneath the ball than he needs to just reach the end zone with his cannon of an arm. What we see with Rodgers is that, on a Hail Mary, you want to throw the ball with a higher trajectory so that it’s more difficult for the defenders to judge as it’s coming down. “The high arc is definitely by design,” said Rodgers after putting New York away. A ball that comes down more like a punt is much more difficult to swat away than one that is more on a line.

This explains why Rodgers winds up like this.

He puts his weight on his back leg and lets the ball go at a much higher throwing point for the ball, causing it be pointed at a much steeper downwards angle when it inevitably descends. It’s almost like throwing a high pop to someone just learning to play the game of baseball. Only more difficult with a football being used. And, like, really far.

Of course, there’s another element to the play: the receivers skill.

Cobb’s mental processing is put on full display on this catch. First off, as he’s running downfield, he checks on the development of the play. When he reaches the 10-yard line he recognizes the ball is out of Rodgers’s hand. As he gets to the end zone, a crowd begins to form with Packers and Giants players in the general area the ball may be expected to land.

On this play Davante Adams (#17) is considered the leaper while Cobb is the back man. Rodgers further suggested that there is more to the scrum than might appear, as, “It’s just a matter of those guys getting in the right situation, and that’s how you draw it up.” Cobb and Eli Apple (#24) are almost in the identical spot but, when the ball comes close to its landing spot, Cobb nudges Leon Hall (#25) and takes a step to the back of the end zone to make the catch. Cobb has the ability to recognize the ball’s trajectory, see that it’s coming to him, and times his re-positioning into the very back of the end zone accordingly.

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It has been reported that it seemed that almost everyone in the endzone misjudged the trajectory of the ball. Almost.

“I guess everybody but me,” Cobb said.

With all that said, the data set for Hail Mary passes is certainly insufficient for the kind of rigorous large sample size we would need for convincing quantitative analysis. Moreover, the sample is filled with passes that really are blind heaves and those that are intentionally placed balls with little way for outside observers to differentiate which are which. As such, I don’t believe we can apply quantitative data analysis to whether or not throwing a Hail Mary is a skill.

I do, however, think we have enough information to claim safely that Rodgers possesses abilities in this regard that most quarterbacks do not–or rather, that his skill in this area is superior to that of other quarterbacks that skill is not restricted to his arm strength. Certainly, luck is involved, such as the wind or factors that might affect your teammates being positioned in the end zone correctly. ; as Rodgers himself puts it:

It’s fun. Every single time, it’s fun. I think we’re starting to believe anytime that ball goes up there, we’ve got a chance.”

Rodgers cannot control all of the factors involved, of course, but he does appear to do a good job of doing that which he can control pretty well–and he certainly seems to think so too.

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jet Sweep Screen, the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the struggles of the New York Giants offense..

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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