By Eddie Pells
AP National Writer
Not so long ago, it was a one-in-a-million play, the sort of thing a player or fan would pray about.
These days, Aaron Rodgers is turning the Hail Mary into touchdowns — and doing so at such a rate that his high-in-the-sky heaves into the end zone feel more like routine, and less like a miracle.
Three times over the past 13 months, including last week against the New York Giants, the Packers quarterback has dropped back at the end of a half, reared back and thrown the ball high toward the end zone. The ball has dropped on the trajectory of a javelin from the sky and landed in a Green Bay receiver’s hands.
The plays have resulted in touchdowns no one could’ve expected , though maybe now, they should.
“Because he’s done it before, you’re thinking, ‘You never know,’” said Roger Staubach, the Hall of Fame Cowboys quarterback who famously coined the term ‘Hail Mary’ for the desperation heave he used to beat Minnesota in 1975.
Staubach dubbed Rodgers “Mr. Hail Mary.”
“There’s a belief on the team, too, that he can make it happen,” Staubach said. “And, golly, maybe the next 10 in a row he throws, he’s not going to complete it, but right now he’s on a hot streak.”
Football was different when Staubach threw his touchdown to Drew Pearson to win a divisional-round playoff game. In that situation, he basically drew up a play in the sand, looked off the Vikings safety (Hall of Famer Paul Krause, who holds the record for career interceptions with 81) and found Pearson in single coverage, where the receiver slowed down to make the catch.
Explaining the TD afterward, Staubach said, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”
Over the next several decades, the play was refined, but the name stuck. Receivers were coached to bunch up in a section of the end zone, quarterbacks were told to throw it in that direction. The best chance for a miracle score would come — or so the thought went — off a tipped ball that ricocheted to a receiver who was in the right place at the right time.
On rare occasions, it worked:
— Doug Flutie comes to mind; his final-play completion to Gerard Phelan helped upstart Boston College defeat Miami in 1984 and kick-started a career that took Flutie to five NFL and three Canadian Football League teams over the span of two decades.
— There was, of course, the “Miracle at Michigan.”
— Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh almost made history in the 1995 AFC title game, but instead wound up with a painfully close miss against the Steelers.
And mostly, successful Hail Marys have been as rare as lunar landings. The numbers, usually four or five receivers against up eight defenders, simply didn’t work, and defenses, by and large, heeded the constant reminders to knock the ball down, not try to intercept it.
Along came Rodgers.
His offensive line gives him plenty of time to roll out and wind up. His arm strength allows him to throw the ball farther, both vertically into the air and horizontally down the field. The changing angle of the ball, combined with the newly calibrated timing that’s dictated by the throw, has allowed his receivers to make these catches on balls that no defender has gotten a hand on.
“I think we’re starting to believe that anytime the ball goes up there, there’s a chance,” Rodgers said after his latest TD, a pass that landed in the hands of Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone to increase Green Bay’s lead to 14-6 over the Giants at halftime last week.
The New York defenders allowed Cobb to sneak behind them, just inside the end line at the back of the end zone.
“As I watch it, it reminds me of the Flutie-Phelan catch there, where he just kind of sneaks behind the last defender,” Rodgers said.
That, any secondary coach will tell you, is a Cardinal sin when it comes to defending the pass.
Speaking of Cardinals, last January, receiver Jeff Janis caught an arcing 41-yard touchdown from Rodgers on the last play of regulation to send their playoff game into overtime. The Packers lost, but the highlight of the game came because Janis found himself not in a pack, but alone against only two Arizona defenders in the middle of the end zone — not bad odds for a play like that.
Only a month before that, Rodgers kicked things off with his “Miracle in Motown,” a ball he released from his 36-yard line and that was plucked down by receiver Richard Rodgers for the win.
The Packers practice the play about once a week, but, says Cobb, “it’s more for the defense to give them an opportunity to break it up.”
In a sense, things come full circle Sunday when the modern-day master of the Hail Mary goes against the team that gave the play its name — the Cowboys. This group of Dallas defenders know the history, and certainly don’t want to be on the wrong side of it.
“When it happens to one team, (coach Jason Garrett) brings it back up to us the next week,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said, “and we’re already working on it.”
AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich, and Sports Writers Genaro C. Armas and Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.