Why all but one ‘Hail Mary’ pass should be renamed a ‘Big Ben’

It’s the play football teams try when there’s time on the clock only for one last, desperate heave. Two or more receivers line up on the same side of the formation, all of them run for the goal line, and the quarterback hopes his pass reaches the end zone. A receiver can produce the winning touchdown either one of two ways — by leaping above the crowd to grab the jump ball, or by tipping the pass like a volleyball so that a teammate can catch it.

That’s what Green Bay star Aaron Rodgers was hoping for Thursday night in Detroit. The Lions appeared to have the game won, only to have it extended by a facemask penalty as the Ford Field clock struck 0:00. Since a game cannot end on a foul by the defense, quarterback Rodgers, given a reprieve, launched a high rainbow that traveled 70 yards in the air. With players from both teams gathering behind him in the end zone, tight end Richard Rodgers positioned himself in front of the crowd and jumped high to complete a 61-yard scoring play. In the most stunning finish of the NFL season, the Packers turned a 20-0 third-quarter deficit into a 27-23 triumph.

The play was described on Twitter and other media as a “Hail Mary” pass, but “Big Ben” would be more historically accurate.

On November 12, 1978, the Atlanta Falcons put the play on the football map when they became the first NFL team to win a game with it. Before 1978, the tactic hadn’t been tried because the rules didn’t allow it. In fact, that was the main reason for the controversy surrounding the famous “Immaculate Reception” play of 1972. The only way that pass could be legal would be if it ricocheted off Oakland defender Jack Tatum, not Pittsburgh running back John Fuqua, before Franco Harris caught it off his shoe tops to complete perhaps the most unlikely scoring play in football history. Under a gray December sky and with no stripes on the ball to contrast with Fuqua’s black jersey, video technology of the time could not definitively show whether the ball deflected from Fuqua directly to teammate Harris. Such a deflection — from one offensive player to another without a defensive player touching the ball in between — would have been illegal then.

Among several rules changes introduced for the 1978 NFL season — the first with a 16-game schedule — was the freedom for one eligible receiver to tip the ball directly to another. So Falcons coach Leeman Bennett took advantage of the opportunity to dream up a play called “Big Ben,” named after the clock tower in London (Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t even born yet). At New Orleans in Week 11, the Falcons tried “Big Ben” at the end of each half — and it worked both times. But when they ran it to the left just before halftime, the officials ruled that the tipped pass had struck the turf before wide receiver Alfred Jackson caught it for an apparent touchdown. Replays showed that the call was incorrect, but the NFL had not yet embraced replay as an officiating tool. So the call on the field stood and was looming large when, trailing the Saints by four in the last half-minute, Atlanta dialed up “Big Ben” again, this time to the right.

From his own 43-yard line, quarterback Steve Bartkowski heaved the ball down the right sideline. A group of six players were waiting around the Saints’ 10 when the throw finally descended from the Superdome ceiling.

“My job is to tip the ball up and keep it alive,” Falcons receiver Wallace Francis said. Francis, who became an ordained minister after his playing career, did just that. Thanks to his volleyball move, the Falcons still had a prayer.

“I follow right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tips it,” Jackson said. The play went down as a 57-yard pass from Bartkowski to Jackson that gave the Falcons a 20-17 victory.

After the game, Bennett said, “We practiced that play all week.” The assembled reporters laughed, not realizing the coach was serious. Before long, everybody knew.

Somehow, though, “Big Ben” never caught on as the term describing this tactic of last resort. The idea of prayer replaced the idea of beating the clock, and “Hail Mary” pushed “Big Ben” out of the football lexicon.

But anyone who has seen footage of Roger Staubach’s “Hail Mary Pass” to Drew Pearson (and at this point, who hasn’t?) knows that it was a much different type of play. Restricted by the same rules that clouded the “Immaculate Reception” in controversy, Pearson made his memorable 50-yard touchdown catch in the 1975 playoffs while going one-on-one with Minnesota Vikings cornerback Nate Wright. The two were running side by side. There was no crowd waiting for the ball to come down, and in no way did the play resemble volleyball.

Perhaps it was because Staubach was one of the game’s most popular players and his Dallas Cowboys one of its most popular teams. Perhaps it was because Staubach, good Catholic that he is, told reporters after the game that he just threw the ball to Drew and said a Hail Mary. Or perhaps it was because there is simply too much religiosity in football.

Whatever the reason, “Hail Mary” pass has become a generic term, rather than a reference to a specific play in NFL history. And the contributions of the 1978 Atlanta Falcons — who used “Big Ben” as a springboard to their first playoff berth in franchise history, and dealt Saints quarterback Archie Manning (below) a crushing defeat — are largely forgotten.

Sources: Ambassadors for Christ International USA; NFL.com; NFL Films; pro-football-reference.com; “1978 Wrap-up: A Wild and Crazy Season,” by John Jeansonne, Football Digest, April 1979, pages 78-85.

Posted November 12, 2015, and updated December 4, 2015

What’s wrong with the NFL, and how it can be fixed

“The actual malady is that football has gotten away from its essence. Football wasn’t made to be played in a domed stadium on a rug. Players are supposed to get dirty. Every team isn’t supposed to call the same plays and look the same. Offense and defense are supposed to be evenly matched. Officials are supposed to regulate the action, not dictate it.”

— Paul Zimmerman, “Dr. Z’s Rx To Revive The NFL,”
Sports Illustrated, November 12, 1984

I wholeheartedly agree with every word from this magazine excerpt published 31 years ago. Sadly, Paul Zimmerman has endured multiple strokes; he suffers from aphasia and is unable to express his thoughts in words the way he once did to such great effect. But the longtime Hall of Fame voter and football historian remains one of my favorite sports writers, and his description of what’s wrong with the NFL rings just as true today as it did in 1984.

During my schoolboy and college years, the 1970s and ’80s, I was an NFL nut. I considered every televised game must-see TV, planting my butt in front of the set from 12:30 p.m. (when “The NFL Today” kicked off on CBS) to the last spoken word on the post-game show shortly after 7 that night. As soon as the telecast ended, I experienced a letdown, similar to the morning after Christmas, because I knew I’d have to wait a long time — nearly a whole week — to enjoy another NFL Sunday. The disappointment was especially strong in those years when I was too young to stay up late and watch “Monday Night Football” to its conclusion. As the years went on, I made an attempt to chronicle the game’s history by collecting newspaper and magazine articles, box scores clipped from sports pages, even episodes of ESPN’s “NFL Primetime” that I recorded on video cassette.

That’s the way it was when I loved football. But I don’t love football anymore. In fact, I barely recognize it. And I can’t help but think that other longtime fans might feel the same way.

Now that the 2015 season has reached its halfway point, I will attempt to follow Dr. Z’s example and outline what I’d like to see changed in pro football:

1) Break up with your “fantasy” girlfriend — On Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanded that DraftKings and FanDuel — the two leaders in the suddenly booming daily fantasy sports (DFS) business — stop taking bets from fans in the Empire State. His cease-and-desist order finds DFS to be an illegal “contest of chance,” not a game of skill. In Nevada, where such games of chance are legal, regulators declared last month that DFS is a form of gambling and ordered fantasy companies to acquire gaming licenses in order to continue operating. The fantasy sports money-making machine is also being investigated by the United States attorney in Manhattan, a grand jury in Florida and the FBI office in Boston, where DraftKings’ headquarters are located.

For decades, the NFL has fought vigorously to distance itself from the gambling establishment. The policy was made clear in 1963, when commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended star players Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for an entire season, even though Hornung never bet on his Packers to lose and Karras’ wagers amounted to a relative pittance. Through the years, the NFL has used its considerable political clout and litigation budget to ensure that betting on games against the point spread remains confined to Las Vegas, Reno and other oases of legalized gambling across the nation.

But now the league has welcomed DFS with open arms, bringing DraftKings and FanDuel into the family as two of the NFL’s biggest sponsors. The twin behemoths of DFS have replaced Viagra and Cialis as the two most annoying, most omnipresent advertisers on NFL broadcasts. This about-face by the league not only reeks of hypocrisy, but also stands as the surest sign yet that the NFL has sold its soul for money.

To be fair, pro football isn’t the only professional sport that is making big bucks off fantasy sports these days. Baseball, hockey, even auto racing have made similar, though undoubtedly less lucrative deals. But just as the NFL set the example for other sports in 2001 by postponing its slate of games the week after the attacks of 9/11, the league can lead the way for the rest of the sports world by disassociating with DFS businesses and making its multimillion-dollar deals only with advertisers that are indisputably above board.

Will that happen? Don’t bet on it.

2) Keep the cons out of the pros — The Dallas Cowboys have been at the center of a firestorm because Greg Hardy is wearing their uniform. The release last week of photos detailing the physical abuse Hardy’s ex-girlfriend endured intensified the calls for Jerry Jones to kick the standout defensive lineman off his team.

Keep in mind that Hardy was not acquitted in his assault case, which detailed how he dragged his girlfriend across the floor by her hair, threw her onto a futon that was “upholstered” with assault rifles, and choked her so that she thought she was going to die. Hardy merely took advantage of a North Carolina judicial process that badly needs reform. A judge found Hardy guilty in a bench trial, and the case likely would have ended there for a less affluent defendant. But Hardy’s hefty NFL salary allowed him to appeal the judge’s ruling and get a second chance in a jury trial. Only there was no jury trial, because the alleged victim in the case declined to cooperate. She reportedly was paid off, as Hardy’s hefty NFL salary again helped him walk away from a situation that would have landed a poorer man in jail.

The Carolina Panthers, with whom Hardy emerged as one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, parted ways with him — and in a happy example of the good guys winning, Carolina is now undefeated without Hardy while Dallas is in last place with him. Unfortunately, it only takes one team owner to get a bum like Hardy back on an NFL payroll, and Jones was willing to be that owner. Jones has gotten what he deserves. Dallas has lost six straight games, and since joining the team, Hardy has added to the embarrassment, expressing no remorse in public comments that often come across as ignorant and insensitive.

Hardy would fit better in a police lineup than he does in Dallas’ starting lineup. And while a certain woman might be richer, she also might still live in fear of her 280-pound ex who is known to have a violent side. The NFL does have less tolerance for domestic violence than it did a few years ago — but less tolerance needs to become zero tolerance.

3) Give D’s a chance — Now, at last, I will begin to look at the product on the field. The fact that it’s taken me this long speaks volumes about what’s wrong with today’s game.

Paul Zimmerman says, “Offense and defense are supposed to be evenly matched.” But never in the history of the NFL has the playing field been less level than it is today. Rules changes have made it virtually impossible for a defense to dominate. Far too often, defenses play the role of the Washington Generals while the Harlem Globetrotters on offense make them look foolish.

Seriously, why would any athlete in his right mind want to play on an NFL defense? All the odds are stacked against him. If he makes a hard hit, he’s likely to draw both a penalty during the game and a fine from the league office days after the game. The quarterback holds all the cards. Defenders must keep their hands off receivers, pass blockers are free to use their hands, and pass rushers are likely to get flagged if they so much as sneeze on the quarterback after the ball is thrown. No wonder Tom Brady says he wants to play past the age of 40 — the pass pocket is a pretty safe place to work.

The NFL had good intentions when it legislated dangerous hits out of the game, but recent rules changes gave too many advantages to the offense. If a tackler cannot grab the facemask, then a ball carrier who grabs a tackler’s facemask when making a stiff-arm needs to be penalized, too. If receiver and defender are hand-fighting while the pass is in the air, then no penalty should be called — just let the players play and may the better man win.

Mainly, though, officiating crews need to show common sense. If an innocent play is technically against the rules but clearly presents no danger to the players involved, don’t throw the penalty flag. Again, I quote Dr. Z: “Officials are supposed to regulate the action, not dictate it.”

4) Make a catch less fishy — While the forward pass dominates the NFL landscape like never before, the definition of a completed pass has never caused more confusion. That’s because NFL rules, in addition to being heavily loaded in the offense’s favor, are also far more complicated than they have to be.

For what constitutes a reception, make two rules: one for plays in which the receiver must reach above his head to grab the ball, and the other for all other situations. When the receiver reaches above his head, he needs only to bring the ball down to his waist and hold it in a runner’s position — as the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant did against the Packers in last season’s playoffs — in order to complete the catch. In all other instances, including passes along the sideline or on the goal line, the receiver must maintain control of the ball when he hits the ground in order to get credit for a reception. This change would prevent a non-catch from being ruled a touchdown — as was the case Oct. 18, when Golden Tate of the Lions bobbled the ball at the goal line before he hit the ground and saw the pass intercepted by the Bears. I’m not the only observer still scratching my head over why that play was ruled a touchdown.

On one play, Bryant clearly maintained control of the ball as he moved it through space a good five yards. On the other, Tate allowed a defender to pop the ball out of his hands before demonstrating that he could move the ball through space even a little bit. Yet Bryant wasn’t credited with a reception and Tate was. How is that fair?

5) Simplify the overtime format — Then there is the debacle of overtime. Again, the NFL has made the rule much more difficult than it has to be. The purpose of overtime is to break a tie — not create one. But because of the NFL’s cockamamie rule, it is now possible for an overtime to include a go-ahead field goal, then a tying field goal, then — at last — the winning field goal, which is exactly what happened Nov. 2 in the Colts-Panthers Monday night game. Ridiculous. This is football — not baseball. It’s a game of aggression in which possession of the ball must be earned by stopping the opponent. There’s no taking turns in football!

Only one change should have been made to the previous first-score-wins format — the team that takes possession first in overtime is not allowed to attempt a field goal at the end of that possession. Enforcement of this rule would be as follows: If, in the heat of the moment, a coach mistakenly sends his field-goal team onto the field on the opening possession of OT, no penalty is assessed but the referee stops the clock and politely orders the place-kicker to return to the bench. This would have restored the aura of sudden death while ensuring that the overtime coin toss does not have so much impact on determining the winner.

Sources — Deadspin; ESPN; NFL.com; NFL Films; Sports Illustrated; The New York Times.

Posted November 10, 2015