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What is a Hail Mary in Football?

There is no more exciting play in professional sports than the Hail Mary.

With the game’s outcome undetermined and with mere ticks of the clock remaining, one play for all the marbles.

Hero to goat. Winner to loser. Success to failure. Saint to sinner. Staubach to Pearson. The Hail Mary can flip the script in a nanosecond. So how did Catholicism and American football become so inextricably entangled? 

In this article, I define the Hail Mary, show that it is anything but randomly chaotic, and explore its origins.

Key Takeaways

  • A Hail Mary is an American football play in which the quarterback of a team facing a deficit of eight points or fewer in the game’s final seconds throws a deep pass to a group of receivers stationed in the end zone.
  • Not every extended game-winning pass play as time expires is a genuine Hail Mary.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the Hail Mary is a well-rehearsed, detailed, and practiced play. 

What is a Hail Mary?

A Hail Mary is a long, high-arcing pass thrown by a quarterback towards a group of receivers either in the end zone or just in front of it, in a last-ditch attempt to score either a game-winning or game-tying touchdown in the final seconds of a football game. The term is a reference to Catholic prayer. [1]

Image source: ESPN

Although the term Hail Mary is often assigned to any improbable game-winning pass as the game clock expires, a proper Hail Mary must meet several clearly defined criteria:

  • The team attempting the pass is trailing by eight or fewer points.
  • The game is in its final seconds.
  • The pass is not directed to a single individual but toward a cluster of individuals in the end zone.
  • The pass is intentionally thrown with a high trajectory, as if it’s dropping out of the sky, allowing the receivers to position themselves to elevate through contact and grab the football.
  • The quarterback throws the pass at least forty yards from the end zone (This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but a more traditional pass would be in order, were the distance less than forty yards). [2]

What is not a Hail Mary?

There appears to be some confusion about what constitutes a Hail Mary pass.

Some people mistakenly assume that any unlikely game-winning pass as time expires qualifies as a Hail Mary pass. Please allow me to shed some light on the matter.

For example, the following is NOT a Hail Mary pass: 

The quarterback for the team trailing by five points with ten seconds remaining in the game takes the snap near midfield and fires a fifty-yard pass to a receiver in the end zone, hitting him in stride as time expires.

Why not?

The quarterback is throwing to his intended receiver and hits him in stride. When the quarterback throws to a particular receiver and not to a group of receivers or a specific area, the pass is not classified as a Hail Mary. [3]


The Hail Mary is a Designed Play

While many believe any desperation pass at the end of a game is a Hail Mary, the reality is that every team has a Hail Mary play in the playbook. 

The design of the Hail Mary play is to get a group of receivers into the end zone in a particular spot. Some players look to tip the ball while others prepare to capture the ball off the tip. [4]

Although Hail Mary passes may seem chaotic, they are carefully thought out, executed, and practiced. Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt says, “There is more thought that goes into it than just lining three guys up and telling them to run down the field, and we’re going to throw it up. There is a lot of strategy that goes into it.” [5]

The Hail Mary play is no different than any other play in that every player is assigned a task. For example, the quarterback must drop back and scramble around to create time for his receivers to travel to the end zone. Similarly, the receivers need to reach the end zone and strategically position themselves to jump up, brace for contact, and catch the football.


The receivers must expect to secure the football through significant contact, as defensive pass interference has been called only once on all Hail Mary attempts since 2009. [6]

When referring to the receivers in the end zone, Super Bowl champion and former New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin explains, “You tell the jumper that his job is to go get the ball, catch the football. If you can’t get to the football, keep it alive. Keep it up there and let somebody else come get it.” [7]

Defenses also practice the Hail Mary, ensuring that the personnel best equipped to prevent a disaster are on the field. 

While attempting to foil the Hail Mary, defenders are encouraged to swat the ball down to the ground instead of intercepting it. 

With all of the practice and detailed player assignments, how successful are Hail Mary passes? Hail Mary passes are successful about 10% of the time. [8]

How did the Hail Mary get its Name?

The term’s first usage dates back to a 1922 Notre Dame football contest, where the players literally said a Hail Mary prayer in the huddle prior to scoring a touchdown. [9

However, the play that cemented the Hail Mary into the American football lexicon occurred in the NFC divisional playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys.

On Dec. 28, 1975, with the Cowboys trailing the Vikings 14-10, the ball at midfield, and 32 seconds remaining in the game, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach hit Drew Pearson with a fifty-yard TD pass to win the game.

After the game, a reporter asked Staubach what he was thinking about when he tossed the ball. Staubach replied, “When I closed my eyes, I said a Hail Mary.”

And 47 years later, the Hail Mary play remains the most exciting in sports. [10]


  7. The History of the Hail Mary | #TDTuesday | NFL Films Presents
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