The other evening a man stopped in a Lambeau Field corridor, where a television was replaying Aaron Rodgers’s latest Hail Mary touchdown pass.
He watched as the Green Bay Packers quarterback dropped back, fired the ball on such a high arc it was as if he was simulating a punt; watched as befuddled New York Giants defenders ran into each other and mistimed their jumps as the ball landed in the hands of Packers receiver Randall Cobb.
The man was understandably impressed — with his team, his luck, with himself.
“That’s how you draw it up,” Rodgers would say, moments after standing in that corridor to watch himself execute the rarest and most exciting play in sports for the third time in about 13 months.
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Rodgers is good at this, a particular knack for the shocking and bizarre, and in many ways a successful Hail Mary — which most NFL teams practice, more as a refresher on how to defend the play on defense — is a series of little miracles. Converting a Hail Mary is exhilarating; surrendering one is a psychological kill shot. Just look what it did to the Giants on Sunday in a first-round playoff game: After two mostly mistake-free quarters, Rodgers and Green Bay outscored New York 24-7 after halftime and outgained it 259-162.
Rodgers’s 42-yard, throw-it-and-see touchdown as the first half expired was enough to deflate the Giants; Green Bay therefore advanced to play top-seeded Dallas in the second round, and New York’s brief postseason ended.
Memorable as that was, it wasn’t the most amazing thing about Rodgers’s Hail Mary. It was that he keeps doing this. Green Bay stunned Detroit with a similar play in December 2015, then did it again during a playoff game against Arizona last January.
“It’s fun. Every single time, it’s fun,” Rodgers, the maestro, said Sunday, still a little giddy about it.
Indeed, there’s an art to it, and the Packers seem to have mastered it. Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said his team practices the play each Saturday, though like other teams, it’s not quite a live simulation. Rodgers said he hasn’t actually thrown a Hail Mary pass since early in the season; often players simply run toward the end zone and take their places, pretending a ball is bearing down on them. The risk of injury is too great, the odds of completing the pass too long, to actually throw the ball and engage in a scrum - though maybe Green Bay’s opponents would be wise to rethink that.
Then again, the lack of true rehearsal time is one reason it’s not such a long-shot with Rodgers; NFL players, who are true creatures of habit, sometimes lock up when something new bears down on them. In this case, it’s the breakneck pace of a Hail Mary, Green Bay’s organization and calmness, and the height Rodgers puts on his pass. It’s like a missile coming down, and as the seconds pass and the pressure builds, defenders forget their assignments and just react.
“We’re like cats: We can only stay on the ground for so long,” Fred Smoot, a former Washington and Minnesota cornerback, said of NFL defensive backs. “The hang time on that thing is everything. It’s an anxious five or six seconds. You need a Xanax just to get through the five or six seconds.”
On Sunday, five Giants defenders surrounded three Packers receivers in the end zone. Green Bay’s Davante Adams was the intended “jump man,” or the only receiver of the three assigned to leap for the ball. Jeff Janis waited in front of Adams in case the ball was tipped, Cobb lined up behind them all, if the tipped ball bounced backward.
Herm Edwards, a former NFL defensive back, secondary coach and head coach, said the Giants’ mistake was that two defenders - 6-foot safety Landon Collins was the designated jumper — made an attempt at the ball, rather than waiting for a chance to bat it down.
“It’s a basketball thing: It’s only one jumper,” said Edwards, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “There can only be one jumper on defense. It’s the most uncoached play, and I think guys just lack discipline. It’s not that difficult a play to defend if you do it right.”
Rodgers makes things no easier for defenders, though. His passing arc is unusually high, and he is remarkably accurate — even from long distances — at placing the ball in the center of the end zone. On Sunday, Rodgers’s pass looked initially like he had overthrown it, but like a pilot who studies weather patterns before takeoff, the Packers’ quarterback suggested the arctic chill — kickoff temperatures were in the teens — would help keep the ball in play.
“In this type of weather, with that height on the ball,” Rodgers said, “it’s tough to throw it out of the end zone.”
He was right, and as the ball came down, Giants rookie cornerback Eli Apple jumped along with Collins and Green Bay’s Adams. The three collided, and New York’s defenders jumped too early; by then it was too late to adjust. “One person,” former NFL receiver Donte’ Stallworth said of the play, “can throw off the whole pack.”
Cobb nudged a defender forward and positioned himself near the back of the end zone; avoiding the commotion, the ball just landed in his hands as everyone misjudged it.
“Everyone,” the former University of Kentucky star said with a smile, “but me.”
The Giants walked away with their heads down and their hands on their hips. Cobb and his teammates celebrated. Rodgers barely smiled, barely reacted, barely seemed impressed with himself — though that would come later when he saw the replay.
Then they retreated to the Green Bay locker room for the second half, businesslike, as if they had all performed this kind of crazy, heart-stopping, will-breaking act many times before.