How Packers mastered art of the Hail Mary

Nobody expects to catch one, but Rodgers keeps completing them

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GREEN BAY – They line up once a week every week, seven offensive players against seven defensive players, reviewing the back page of their playbook.

This is more dress rehearsal than practice, a half-speed jog. Never mind the absence of linemen. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t participated in this drill since October.

It’s January now, the playoffs, and you never know when a game — or an entire season — might swing on one Hail Mary.

It happened again in the Green Bay Packers' wild-card win against the New York Giants. After the Packers were outplayed through the first half, Rodgers heaved another pass that mimicked a flying saucer into Lambeau Field’s lights. Receiver Randall Cobb caught the football, securing a 14-6 lead.

Exactly how the Packers draw it up each Saturday. There was just one, big difference.

In practice, they intentionally let the ball drop.

“Usually we don’t try to make a play on it if there’s defenders around you,” receiver Jeff Janis said. “Keep everybody safe. You don’t want to get anybody hurt.

“Now that we've been successful with it, we expect to come down with it.”

Think about that. Nobody expects to catch a Hail Mary. You can be hopeful, sure. You can pray. But this is supposed to be the most unlikely play in football. A complicated magic trick.

Expectation is preposterous.

Except Rodgers keeps completing them. His Hail Mary has become picturesque, the perfect pass. Like a power pitcher adding a wipeout slider.

From its apex, the football could drop through an elevator shaft. Its feathery descent is hard to duplicate, but natural for Rodgers.

“I’ve always been able to throw it pretty high,” he said.

The Packers mastered the Hail Mary better than anyone. In the past 13 months, Rodgers has thrown four. He has completed three for touchdowns. They have won a game on the final play in Detroit, forced overtime in a divisional playoff at Arizona, sparked a second-half romp against the Giants.

The game’s most unlikely play is somehow one of the Packers’ most efficient.

“You always have great intentions when the ball is launched up,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think like most plays, there is a design to it.”

The Hail Mary is bedlam. There is a strategy, a structure. Usually, it deviates off script.

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Other than kick coverage, nothing in the playbook has more components. Each must fall into place. From long distance, a quarterback drops his pass into a bucket. Receivers sprint 40, 50 yards downfield, judging where the missile will land. Offensive linemen sustain blocks a few ticks longer.

It is systematic disorganization. A clash between football and art. Like any creative expression, success hinges on balancing cohesion and chaos.

The throw

Calculations run through his mind before Rodgers even gets the snap. He is eyeballing the distance. Surveying the defense. Outdoors, he’ll judge the wind.

It’s inexact science, but don’t be fooled by Rodgers’ three-month absence from the Hail Mary drill. The throw is part of his practice routine. Tight end Jared Cook said Rodgers chucks a couple “every day” before practice. Sometimes, he’ll loft the same, looping arc just so his receivers can see it.

“The plays that happen on the field, the throws,” Rodgers said, “I’ve done all those in practice. So even the Arizona throw, the Detroit throw and this last one, I’ve done similar plays where we’re moving the pocket slightly, or not moving the pocket, or escaping and resetting the edge, and then you’re throwing it as high as you can and trying to judge the trajectory and distance, and then how hard you’re going to throw it.

"It’s a matter of a quick, mathematical equation in your mind based on your feel and your muscle memory.”

The raw science is astounding. Each of Rodgers’ four Hail Marys, including an interception on the first half’s final play in Tennessee, hung in the air more than 3.5 seconds. Their average was 3.92 seconds of hang time, with a max of 4.4 seconds in Detroit.

For context, Packers punter Jacob Schum averaged 4.05 seconds hang time on six punts against the Giants.

“The high arc is definitely by design,” Rodgers said.

Micah Hyde, the Packers' punt returner, believes defensive backs struggle tracking Rodgers’ Hail Mary because it looks like a punt.

“Some DBs aren’t used to that,” Hyde said.

Its vertical drop also helps prevent a tipped pass. Nothing thwarts a successful Hail Mary more than deflection. Rodgers’ lone, unsuccessful Hail Mary in the past 13 months happened when Titans safety Kevin Byard outjumped everyone in the end zone, knocking away the football.

Rodgers’ three successful conversions were clean catches. Tight end Richard Rodgers, on the receiving end in Detroit, said the trajectory is key.

“If you get one coming in at a flat angle,” Richard Rodgers said, “it gets tipped. It’s kind of hard to react to that. It’s kind of hard to adjust to a tipped ball at that angle. If the ball gets tipped when it’s straight down, it usually can hit someone’s hand and go back in the air, something like that. And you’re going to have time to react and adjust.”

It isn’t just the loft Rodgers puts on his pass. It's raw power.

Each attempt came outside the 40-yard line. Rodgers’ passes traveled 68 yards forward in Detroit, 60 in Arizona, 68 in Tennessee and 61 against the Giants, a 64.25-yard average that would make any punter proud.

“Sometimes the Hail Mary doesn’t even get down there to you with other quarterbacks,” Cook said. “You’re better off running one of the pitch plays, where you just keep pitching it the rest of the game. His ball is always hard to judge. Because he knows how to hang it up there like a punt, to where it just kind of sways in the air.”

The protection

The first Hail Mary almost didn’t happen. Sixteen yards behind the line of scrimmage, Rodgers felt a hand clutch his left shoulder pad. The Lions brought only three rushers, but Rodgers had to avoid a sack.

So McCarthy inserted a small wrinkle almost nobody noticed. Instead of sending five receivers deep, the Packers kept a running back beside Rodgers for extra pass protection on each of their past three Hail Marys.

“I’ll be honest,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “I didn’t even know.”

The most celebrated part of a Hail Mary is the throw, but Rodgers said the key is protection. Before the snap, Rodgers knows the exact spot he wants as a launching point.

It’s his blockers’ job to escort him there.

“By the time I hit my spot on the field where I wanted to throw it,” Rodgers said, “I’m 100 percent confident that the ball is going to be in a catchable spot.”

Opponents have varied their prevent defenses. After the Lions were unsuccessful rushing only three defenders, the Cardinals rushed six — and overloaded the right side — in the playoffs. The Titans were successful rushing three in November. The Giants rushed four, bringing a late linebacker from the left.

Rodgers’ blindside blocker is usually blocking blind. Before each snap, Bakthiari knows he must sustain longer. What he doesn’t know, Bakhtiari said, is where Rodgers’ spot will be. Rodgers launched 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage in Detroit, 14 yards behind in Arizona, 7 yards behind in Tennessee, and 10 yards behind against the Giants.

In Arizona, the play called for Rodgers to roll right. When the Cardinals blitzed that side, Rodgers instead rolled left.

Bakhtiari didn’t know until he caught Rodgers in his peripheral.

“I really don’t know where the hell he is,” Bakhtiari said. “Whereas standard protection, I know where he’s going to sit in the pocket. This one, because of the duration of it, where he might want to throw it, he might not be standing directly where he is (supposed to be). Or he might be drifting a little bit more left or right.

“I don’t think where he’s supposed to be is exactly as concrete.”

No matter how many rushers the defense brings, Bakhtiari’s job usually doesn’t change.

On each Hail Mary, a defensive end rushed from the wide-nine technique. While Bakhtiari anchors, they crash his outside shoulder.

Bakhtiari said the challenge comes after initial contact. With Rodgers buying time for receivers to run downfield, rushers execute any number of pass-rush moves. Rodgers held the football 8.25 seconds before throwing in Detroit, 4.05 seconds in Arizona, 5.13 seconds in Tennessee and 5.06 seconds against the Giants.

“We know it’s going to take a while for them to get down there,” Bakhtiari said. “Just making sure we don’t get beat or overcompensate on first, second, even third reactions, and make sure we’re in front of our guy. So Aaron can kind of move around, get himself where he needs to be to launch that ball.”

Bakhtiari knows he doesn't fill a glamorous role in the sport’s most glorified play. Fans sitting in the stands have a better view. Usually, Bakhtiari said, he relies on crowd noise to know whether a Hail Mary was caught.

Even then, Bakhtiari remains in the dark. When he left the field Sunday, Bakhtiari kept asking teammates the same question.

“I didn’t even know who caught it,” Bakhtiari said, “until I got to the sideline, and I asked around. I’ve got to block my guy. I’m not a spectator.”

The catch

Four throws. Three touchdowns. It’s a remarkable ratio, but the Hail Mary never unfolded how the Packers expected.

“Davante has never caught one,” Richard Rodgers shrugs.

Davante Adams, the third-year receiver, is the Packers' designated “jumper” in the end zone. It’s his job to catch Rodgers’ pass. Around him, teammates box out defensive backs like power forwards angling a rebound.

They know they’re not supposed to reach for the football, but instincts take over. Richard Rodgers, tracking his quarterback’s pass all the way, jumped in front of Adams in Detroit. Cobb snuck behind the cluster Sunday, nine yards deep in the end zone, and let his quarterback’s pass come to him.

“Very unusual,” Cobb said. “My job on that play is to kind of box out and give our jumper a little space to jump. But I got behind the defense, and was able to nudge a guy and make the judgment.”

Cobb certainly nudged. Two hands on Giants safety Leon Hall’s chest, Cobb pushed off like a blocker.

But that’s life in the end zone during a Hail Mary. Normal rules are discarded. When as many as 11 players from two teams conjoin in one knot, almost anything goes.

In each Hail Mary, the Packers were outnumbered in the end zone. There were five receivers and six defensive backs in Detroit; three receivers and five defensive backs in Arizona; four receivers and seven defensive backs in Tennessee; and four receivers with six defensive backs against the Giants.

The odds were especially bad in Arizona. The Packers, expecting Rodgers to roll right, put two receivers on that side with Janis split left. Richard Rodgers pass blocked, matching the Cardinals’ six-man blitz.

Janis said he didn’t expect Rodgers’ pass until he turned and saw his quarterback rolling to his side. He was at the 20-yard line when Rodgers released his prayer. That feathery descent gave Janis enough time to sprint into the end zone, locate where the missile would land, and catch it over a pair of Cardinals defensive backs.

“It was just a reaction play,” Janis said, “because he got flushed out of the pocket that way. I was heading toward the other side of the field. He got flushed out when I looked back, so I came back the other way.

“That’s just how it happens.”

The Packers lost in overtime, but Janis’ catch serves as a reminder.

This is January. The playoffs. You never know when a season might swing on one Hail Mary.

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

By the Numbers: Packers' Hail Marys

At Detroit

Hang time: 4.4 seconds

Forward distance: 68 yards

Snap to throw: 8.25 seconds

Pass rushers: 3

Launch point: 5 yards behind line of scrimmage

End zone cluster: Five receivers, six defensive backs

At Arizona

Hang time: 3.59 seconds

Forward distance: 60 yards

Snap to throw: 4.05 seconds

Pass rushers: 6

Launch point: 14 yards behind line of scrimmage

End zone cluster: Three receivers, five defensive backs

At Tennessee

Hang time: 3.83 seconds

Forward distance: 68 yards

Snap to throw: 5.13 seconds

Pass rushers: 4

Launch point: 7 yards behind line of scrimmage

End zone cluster: Four receivers, seven defensive backs

Vs. N.Y. Giants

Hang time: 3.89 seconds

Forward distance: 61

Snap to throw: 5.06 seconds

Pass rushers: 3

Launch point: 10 yards behind line of scrimmage

End zone cluster: Four receivers, six defensive backs

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