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

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John Scuderi

John Scuderi has more than a quarter-century of experience editing, writing and reporting for community newspapers.