The Hail Mary Play In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

The Hail Mary pass is one of the most exciting plays in football. Players, coaches, and fans often hold their breath as the ball soars through the air.

The Hail Mary play in football is a long forward pass that is thrown by the offense in desperation to score a touchdown. Hail Mary passes are often thrown at the end of the second quarter or the end of the game as time expires.

This article will show you precisely what a Hail Mary pass is and its purpose in football.

Hail Mary Football

The Hail Mary pass in football is a rare play. The play can often be seen at the end of the second quarter (right before halftime) or the end of the game.


What is a Hail Mary In Football?

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The reason teams will throw a Hail Mary pass is to score a game winning touchdown pass as time expires.

The Hail Mary pass is a high arching pass by the quarterback, which he throws toward the end zone hoping that one of his five receivers will catch the ball over the defenders.

The quarterback will drop back as far as he can, then he will often throw the football as far as he possibly can. This play is a low-percentage play that is often the last chance for the offense to score points.

Hail Mary passes are often not very accurate, and it’s common that the throw doesn’t reach the end zone or is thrown completely out of bounds.

The quarterback must drop back and often scramble back and forth to buy some time, so their receivers can get to the end zone.

If the quarterback doesn’t let the receivers run downfield, the throw will often not be a successful touchdown as there will be no receivers to catch the ball.

Why Do Teams Throw A Hail Mary Pass?

Coaches in football will often call a Hail Mary in a desperate attempt to score points. Hail Marys are often called when a team is down by eight or fewer points and needs a touchdown.

If the team is down by nine or more points, there is no sense in throwing Hail Mary passes. It’s often strategized based on the points the offense needs.

It’s not common to throw a Hail Mary pass outside of a desperation scenario. Teams will only throw the last-second heave when there’s no other option.

This play is often thrown from a spread formation.

Where Did Hail Mary Play Originate In Football?

Rodger Staubach Drew Pearson Hail Mary

The term Hail Mary originated when the Dallas Cowboys played the Minnesota Vikings. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a last second touchdown to Drew Pearson. After the game, Staubach was quoted telling reporters “I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary”. This is where the term Hail Mary comes from.

For those unfamiliar, a Hail Mary is a religious prayer. The reason it’s called a Hail Mary is that teams will often pray when they throw the ball at the end of the game as time expires. That’s why teams call it a Hail Mary, as they are throwing up a “prayer” in hopes of catching it.

Hail Marys are rarely caught, so the term “throwing up a prayer” was also coined.

Teams will have different versions of the Hail Mary, but often it’s signaled by the coach doing the “father, son, holy spirit” mannerism.

Every team will have a Hail Mary play in their playbook, as teams will always prepare for the worst-case scenario.

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What Happens If The Offense Catches A Hail Mary?

The last play of the game, or the half often called the Hail Mary, will count as a touchdown if caught.

Teams will often send their five best receivers down the field to wait for the football in the end zone.

Quarterbacks must throw a high-arching pass that gives their receivers a chance to run down the field, locate the football, and successfully catch the football.

It’s doubtful that the offense will catch the football simply because there’s often a big scrum in the end zone fighting for position on the football.

The defense will often knock the football down to stop the ball from being caught by an offensive player. Defensive players who try to catch the Hail Mary pass will often tip the ball in the air, which gives the offense a second chance to catch the tipped pass.

The best example of this is when Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers threw a Hail Mary Pass at the end of the game to tight end Richard Rodgers.

The deep pass was thrown by Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter, on the last play of the game in a last ditch effort to score a touchdown. With only seconds left, and a small chance to win, Richard Rodgers lept in the air and caught the ball over the other team. It won the best play of the year and will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest Hail Mary attempts.

green back packers hail mary
via Green Bay Packers Website

Hail Mary attempts are rare but when they are completed in the final seconds of the game it’s one of the best sights in football.

Another example is when Boston College’s Doug Flutie completed a Hail Mary for a winning touchdown as time expired.

These moments will forever live in Hail Mary’s history.

Alternatives To The Hail Mary

If the head coach or offensive coordinator believes that their quarterback can’t reach the end zone, they may elect for laterals rather than a Hail Mary.

Laterals are when a team throws the ball backward in hopes that the defense gets tired and out of position.

A great example of this is when the Miami Dolphins beat the New England Patriots in the 2018 season. The Patriots were in a prevent defense, but the Miami Dolphins could lateral the ball down the field and score. This is an alternative to the Hail Mary pass; however, it is harder to score later.

Keep Learning

Hail Mary passes are a small part of the game that make a big impact.

Hail Mary passes in football are deep passes thrown in a last-second effort to gain the lead. Teams will throw these last-second desperation passes to get points as time expires.

Every team has a Hail Mary pass in their playbook, as they always need to game plan for the worst possible scenario.

Teams will often have their starting quarterback or even their backup quarterback come into the game to throw the ball as far as they can. It’s common to have the quarterback with the strongest arm come into the game to reach the end zone, especially if it’s a far throw.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.