Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dissecting the Original Hail Mary Pass

LOOKING BACK
By Joe Zagorski
There have been few individual plays in pro football history that have received more scrutiny than the play that occurred on December 28, 1975, in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota.  The play known for posterity as the original “Hail Mary Pass” has been written about, discussed and even argued over for the past two generations now, and not unlike Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” in the 1972 playoffs, it probably will continue to earn further study and discussion as time goes on.  The play gave the league one of its most exciting moments, and it is certainly one that has earned its “legendary” status.

I had to look at the play again several years ago when I wrote my first book, The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade. Since then, several readers of my book commented on different aspects of the play that are unique to consider, most notable concerning the offensive pass interference that did or did not occur on the play. As a result, I decided to readdress the play, dissect it as closely as possible in its frame by frame seconds from every angle that is available, just to see if I missed anything, and finally, to offer my definitive opinion here in this article on the legality (or illegality) of the play.

Many memorable plays in NFL history have one common denominator: Controversy.  The original Hail Mary Pass is no different in that regard. Practically every Minnesota fan today claims that Dallas wide receiver Drew Pearson pushed off on Vikings cornerback Nate Wright, in order for Pearson to make the catch. Those Vikings fans have good reason for their accusation.

If you watch the film of the play, as the ball descends, both Pearson and Wright collide with each other for a brief moment…less than a second if you will. But before we address that moment, let’s go back to the start of the play.  Heck, let’s go back to several plays before the start of the play, when a mini version of the Hail Mary Pass occurred.

The Cowboys had been dominating this playoff game, at least statistically. They held an advantage in practically every statistical category, yet they found themselves down on the scoreboard, 14-10, with just 1:51 remaining on the game clock. Dallas was situated at their own 15-yard line when they took control of the ball following a Vikings punt.

They would need to gain another 85 yards to win this game, and Minnesota was employing their Prevent Defense, with their defensive backs staying further back than usual, in order to foil a long pass. But as former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden was so famous in expressing, “The only thing that the Prevent Defense prevents is victory.”

Dallas managed to move the ball to their 24-yard line, but they were faced with a fourth-and-16 situation.  This is where the mini version of the Hail Mary Pass takes place. During the first three downs of this momentous drive, veteran Dallas center John Fitzgerald was having difficulty snapping the ball back to quarterback Roger Staubach, who stood five yards behind him in the Shotgun formation. Most of his snaps were low, and one even bounced back to Staubach, who adroitly fielded it.

Cowboys head coach Tom Landry quickly realized that this was becoming a big problem, especially in so important of a game. So Landry threw caution to the wind and replaced Fitzgerald with rookie center Kyle Davis. That move proved to be yet another example of Coach Landry’s genius (or at the very least, his good luck). The snaps that Davis sent back to Staubach for the remainder of the game were perfect.

But the situation that the Cowboys found themselves in at this particular moment was certainly not perfect. They needed 16 yards on the next play, or their season was over. Landry called for a pass where the primary receiver, Drew Pearson, would be required to run a deep fly pattern, then stop on a dime after roughly 20 yards, make an abrupt turn to his right, then run back towards the sideline, where he would – if the play worked – catch Staubach’s pass before he would go out of bounds. It is commonly referred to as an “down and back” route. It sounds simple, but the play would require more than just Pearson’s efforts for it to work.

First of all, Davis would have to snap the ball back to Staubach accurately, which he did.  Next, Dallas right offensive tackle Rayfield Wright would have to drive Minnesota defensive end, Carl Eller, far outside of the pass pocket and away from the backpedaling Staubach. Wright succeeded brilliantly in this task. Staubach would then have to deliver as perfect a pass to his receiver as possible, which he did. Finally, Pearson would have to run his route and catch the ball, which he did.

As Pearson leaped and grasped the ball, he was hit by Nate Wright before he landed. In fact, Wright’s hit knocked Pearson out of bounds. It looked like the game was over right there. But wait! The NFL rules at that time stipulated that if a defensive player knocked a receiver out of bounds before the receiver could land on the ground, the referee then had the duty to individually determine if the receiver would have landed inbounds had he not been forced out by the defender. The head linesman on the sideline, Jerry Bergman, determined that Pearson indeed would have landed inbounds had he not been shoved out of bounds by Nate Wright. Despite a gruntled group of Minnesota defensive players, Dallas was given a first down at midfield.

Credit: CBS
But the Cowboys were now down to under a minute left in the game. An incomplete Staubach pass on first down left Dallas with just 32 seconds left on the clock. The ball was situated on the 50-yard line. It was definitely one of the most pressure-filled moments that the game could present. For the previous few plays, Staubach had been asking Pearson in the huddle if he felt the time was right to go deep.  Finally, Pearson told his quarterback that it was time.
Excellent protection for staubach on the 'Hail Mary" pass
Staubach caught the snap from Davis. Second-year running back Charles Young then broke from his stance and ran backwards to help the other Dallas blockers fend off the surging Minnesota linemen in the pass pocket. Wright drove Eller far out of the way. Staubach pump-faked his throw toward the center of the field, in the hopes of drawing Vikings safety Paul Krause away from where Pearson would be running towards.

The ploy worked to perfection, as Krause hesitated just long enough to keep him from helping Nate Wright. Staubach then threw deep for Pearson. As soon as he released the ball, he muttered a Catholic prayer to himself, The Hail Mary.
Credit: CBS
Staubach’s throw was one of the longest that he threw in the entire game. Unfortunately for him and for Pearson, however, it was not long enough. This is where the grand controversy came into play. It is a controversy that has withstood the test of time, as supporters of both sides continue to vehemently argue the issue. 

We’re talking 45 years now folks! Anyway, I will try to describe what I saw from two different NFL Films angles, as well as the original CBS-TV broadcast. Pearson had to slow down to have any chance to catch the descending ball. Wright did not originally notice that Pearson had to slow down on running his route, as Wright’s focus was on the ball. Both men had their arms extended, as if to catch the pass. The two men did bump into each other, but only slightly, and not intentionally.

Their collision was enough, however, for Wright to lose his balance and fall to the turf.  This was due, I believe, because Wright had to practically stop and come back further for the ball than Pearson did. Wright had maintained inside position on Pearson all throughout the play.

I can understand why many Vikings fans feel that Pearson had pushed Wright at this moment. Pearson brought his arms across the back of Wright in order to try to catch the ball. His arms may have brushed against the back of Wright’s jersey, but his hands and arms were not extended in any way until he gained a position behind Wright, who at this time was trying to redirect his body to the arc of the football. The ball had finally arrived at this point, but neither man was in a decent position to actually catch it.
Credit: NFL Films
This is the moment where an actual and extremely rare “football miracle” occurred. As Wright fell to the ground, the ball hit his left leg, above his ankle, but below his knee. The ball immediately (and I mean immediately…like a shot out of a gun) ricocheted right into the Pearson’s right hip, where it lodged between his hip and the inside of his right forearm.  

It happened so fast, that to actually see it, you really have to slow the game films down to a frame by frame analysis. But it did happen in just that way.  Pearson appears to be just as surprised that the ball was now attached to the side of his body as any of the people in Metropolitan Stadium, or the millions of television viewers across the nation were, most of whom were probably not believing what they had just witnessed. It was certainly an epic moment of “Divine Intervention.”

The third-year wide receiver contained his wits about him at this moment, however.  He quickly saw that he was holding onto the ball, not with his hands mind you, but rather with his right arm and his right hip!  But he also instantly noticed that he was still two yards away from the end zone.

He immediately moved toward the goal line. Minnesota safety Paul Krause had by this time recovered from his initial reading of the play and Staubach’s pump fake to make it to the sideline. But he was a step late, and just a fraction of a second before he could reach to try to make a tackle, Pearson had crossed the goal line.

“Looking back, I think the pump fake helped a lot,” said Staubach after the game. “Not only did it keep Krause from being involved in breaking up the pass, but it delayed him just long enough so he couldn’t tackle Drew and stop the touchdown.”

Pearson in a moment of expressible glee then threw the ball at the giant scoreboard at the open end of Metropolitan Stadium, just before he was mobbed by a throng of his jubilant teammates. There was certainly no joy on the part of the Minnesota players, however.

They surrounded practically every referee that they could find and voiced their displeasure that no offensive pass interference call was made.  They and the multitude of Vikings fans felt (and still feel) that Pearson had pushed Wright to the ground.

“From our side of the field, there is no question that Nate (Wright) was pushed,” exclaimed Minnesota head coach Bud Grant. Pearson had nothing to lose. If they call a penalty on him, what had he lost? They would just line up and try another long pass. It was one chance in a hundred that he would get away with it, but it was the only chance he had.”
Credit: NFL Films
This author disagrees with Grant’s assertion that Pearson pushed off on the momentous play. If one slows the films down to their absolute slowest speed, one can see that Pearson was trying to bring his arms across Wright’s back, not against Wright’s back. Pearson never extended his hands and arms, as if to push against Wright, until after Wright’s body was already beyond Pearson’s. 

As a result, this was simply a moment of unintentional contact between two players trying to make a catch. The referees were correct in keeping their yellow hankies in their back pockets. The Cowboys thus prevailed, 17-14.

The Dallas miracle touchdown with just 24 seconds left on the clock shocked football fans across the country. Dallas was an underdog going into this game, but the fact remains that they had outplayed the Vikings all game long. The better team on this day won, albeit with the help of one big controversial play.

This game, not unlike the defensive pass interference call that was not called on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman in the 2018 NFC Championship Game at New Orleans, has unfortunately given many football fans the firm belief that the officials will keep their penalty flags hermetically sealed inside of their trousers during the final two minutes of a big game.

No referee wants to be the reason why one team wins and one team loses, even if a penalty is blatantly obvious to millions of others watching that particular game.

In conclusion, many Minnesota Vikings fans feel that they got jobbed in the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoffs. The films, however, if observed keenly and with an open mind, say otherwise.

Editor’s Note: Joe Zagorski has written three books about the NFL.  They include The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade (2016); The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence (2019); and America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier (2020).  He is currently writing his fourth book, a biography of former Philadelphia Eagles free safety Bill Bradley.

9 comments:

  1. A security guard(?) tried to kick Pearson in the head after the 4th and 16 catch. I agree that Wright's momentum took him to the ground, not Pearson's "shove."

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  2. I agree 100%. I've always wondered if Nate Wright ever publicly stated what he thought happened, because I've never found any articles giving his side of the story.

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  3. That sideline catch by Pearson was the greatest I ever saw ... I think Pearson would have had both feet down anyway, regardless of the forceout ... Smooth and clutch is all you can say ... the Hail Mary was just icing on the cake.

    Pearson won three postseason games with his clutch catches and should have won a fourth, against SF in 81/82 if QB Danny White doesnt fumble the ball on the very next play.

    I am confident he will be one of the senior inductees into the PFHOF in the next two years.

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  4. This game has always been a reminder of why I hate the Shotgun formation. Its amazing Staubach didnt fumble five times. It also telegraphs the play every time, where deception is an afterthought.
    Todays QBs, rarely take the ball from center anymore, which makes the play action pass redundant.

    Another interesting thing about the Hail Mary play, was that fans thought a yellow flag was thrown for pass interference, when actually, it looked like an orange was thrown on the field probably by someone in the stands. It helped cause the confusion.

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    1. And seconds later someone threw a glass bottle that hit a ref in the head. Then Tarkenton's father dies of a heart attack. Crazy day.

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  5. I'd like to see that play with all the angles you suggest you've seen....the frame by frame in the article is inconclusive at best....in your frame 4, Pearson's hand disappears then in frame 5 Wright appears to be pitched forward off balance.....looks like a push to me from this evidence....thoughts?.....Brian, I hate the shotgun too but for a different reason....the underdog 49ers debuted it against Baltimore in the 1960 stretch run which culminated in an upset Colts loss in the downward spiral to 6-6 and the loss of defense of their title....Bobby Watters indeed!

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  6. I just like seeing QBs going back from center ... ball handling, fakes, draws are ancient history now. Jim, I remember watching a replay of the 69 Rose Bowl when Ohio State upset USC in OJ Simpsons final college game and QB Rex Kern for Ohio State, was a magician handling the football, Griese was great in the NFL ...

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