what is a hail mary in football

What Is A Hail Mary In Football: The Ultimate Guide

In the last few seconds in a football game, you will experience desperate moves to win or tie a game. You’ll see a quarterback make a very long pass in desperation to score a touchdown in the last seconds of the clock running down.

The desperate throw is what is a Hail Mary in football, in reference to the Catholic Church Hail Mary in search of supernatural help.

If the quarterback is lucky enough and a wide receiver catches the ball, they can score a touchdown and win the game or force a tie. However, there is very minimal chance of completion of the pass.

Wondering what Hail Mary means, who invented it, and how it’s run? Keep reading below.

Where Did Hail Mary Come From in Football?

The Hail Mary pass or route comes from the Catholic church to refer to the Hail Mary. It’s an expression of seeking supernatural help in the most desperate times. 

Hail Mary is a traditional prayer in the Catholic church to seek intervention for supernatural help from Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

The expression has been around since the 1930s to mean any kind of desperate play from a team. While the term was not officially used in football, the same could happen in 1941. 

In a game-sealing win for Notre Dame, Kizer was heard screaming to Crowly, “this is the best Hail Mary we’ve got.” In several public speeches in the 1930s, Crowley would be heard repeatedly using the term.

Who Invented the Hail Mary in Football?

The name is credited chiefly to Nobel Kizer and Elmer Layden for being the first people to name the pass Hail Mary. However, the invention of the pass came much earlier.

Jim Crowley told a story of a game in 1922 between Georgia Tech and Notre Dame in which fighting British soldiers would say a prayer before scoring their touchdowns.

Notre Dame always left as the winner, and it was thought the Hail Mary prayers intervened.

Jim Reflected on the game, saying it was the offensive guard Nobel Fizer who convinced the team to say prayers in the huddle.

However, it would take a decade later before Jim Crowley and fellow coach Elmer Layden would use the name in football.

football in blue color

The name would take a full swing in the Game of the Century between Ohio St and Notre Dame. The game had over 80K fans in the stadium and millions watching across the country.

Bill Shakespear of Notre Dame threw a touchdown, completing a comeback with less than a minute on the clock.

Coach Elmer, speaking afterward, referred to the play as a Hail Mary pass. The following morning, “Daytona Beach Morning Journal” had their headlines referring to the play as a “Hail Mary Pass.”

Regarding the invention of the term, three main characters are involved; Nobel Kizer, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden.

How To Run a Hail Mary Play

The Hail Mary is quite easy to run when you compare different football plays. It starts with the offense bringing many receivers into the field. The receivers are then split out wide. 

You’ll have five offensive linemen and no available running backs. There is the quarterback tasked with playing a fake just like in the play-in-action tactic and five wide receivers.

The offense can have the quarterback playing in a short gun situation. On the snap, you need all receivers running downfield. When running a Hail Mary, you need the receiver running fast to the end zone. They can then turn and see where the ball is headed.

To play a Hail Mary, you’ll need the QB rolling left or right to buy time for the wide receivers to run to the end zone. Executing a Hail Mary requires the ball high in the air. This gives enough time for the receivers to be under the ball.

However, it’s not only the receiver lining under the ball. Defenders will also line up to knock the ball down. Receivers need to box defenders with their bodies and leap the highest.

Situations When To Execute Hail Mary

A Hail Mary is called in situations when a team is 8 points or fewer, and the clock is running down. It’s a desperate attempt in the last minutes to score a touchdown and force a tie or win the game.

In situations where a team is 9 points down or more, then a Hail Mary is not necessary. It’s only ideal in situations where it can win you the game or force a tie.


The strategy is to score a touchdown in the remaining few seconds or minutes before the clock runs down. This can have you win the game or force a tie. It’s a strategy that works when a team is down by 8 points or less.


A touchdown results in six points with an option to score extra points. If a team cannot make this desperate move, then the clock will likely run down without them scoring.


To execute the Hail Mary, wide receivers must split out wide and run towards the end zone. The team will only have five offensive linemen and a quarterback.

The quarterback will play the ball in a shotgun formation giving wide receivers time to run. After a throw, if a receiver gets the ball, then there are chances of a touchdown.


A successful Hail Mary ends with a touchdown, where wide receivers get to score six points.

Pass interference in the Hail Mary is rarely called for. If a penalty is given when time has expired, defenses can accept it and end the game.

How Many Points Is a Hail Mary?

If a Hail Mary pass is successful, it can result in a touchdown worth six points. If a hail mary is not successful, then no points are scored. A Hail Mary is usually a desperate last-minute kick to score a touchdown. 

Sometimes, teams that are too many points behind in the first half might try a Hail Mary. This aims to reduce the point gap before they start the second half. Either way, a Hail Mary scores six points if successful like any normal touchdown.

What Happens if the Offense Catches a Hail Mary?

If the offense catches a Hail Mary, it counts as a touchdown. This is why you’ll see wide receivers running into the end zone in anticipation of a long pass.

The five best wide receivers will run to the end zone and position themselves to catch the ball.

receiver catching the football

The ball is thrown very high to give wide receivers time to get to the end zone and prepare to catch.

As the ball is in the air, wide receivers must locate it and position themselves under the spot it’s likely to fall. 

A Hail Mary is an infrequent play with minimal chances of success. However, it’s worth a try when you consider that the clock is running down.

However, it’s never a guarantee the offense will catch a Hail Mary because of the commotion at the end zone.

The defense aims to knock the ball down and prevent the offense from catching it. They usually tip it into the air, which gives the offense a second chance to catch the ball.

How Defense Reacts to Hail Mary Pass

The defense must quickly knock the ball dead and guarantee their team’s victory. In the end zone, it’s a tussle between the defense and the offense. All players will try catching the ball.

In most cases, the defense outnumbers the offense. When the ball gets to the end zone, defenders will jump together with the offense to catch the ball. Most defensive players know how to spike the ball out of the air and knock it dead. 

You’ll see the tallest defenders running first towards the ball. Some defenders react by going to the goal line. This prevents crowding around the ball. When receivers are outnumbered, they usually tip the ball back in the air. This gives them a second chance to try and catch the ball.

Famous Hail Mary Passes

One thing to note is that there is very few Hail Mary passes. Very few teams attempt Hail Mary passes. However, when they do and are successful, they can completely change the outcome of the game.

When Hail Mary passes happen, they make players legends. They are so alluring and can leave fans thrilled with excitement.

Take for example, the famous Hail Mary pass in 1975 between the Dallas Cowboy and the NFC Championships Minnesota Vikings. Roger Staubach, who was the Dallas quarterback, threw a 50-yard pass that was caught by Drew Pearson, a receiver.

Our second famous Hail Mary pass took place in 1984.  Doug Flutie, playing for Boston College, threw a 52-yard Hail Mary pass to Gerald Phelan of the University of Miami Hurricanes. 

The game was in the last dying seconds, giving Boston College crucial points. Doug Flutie remains immortalized by Boston College with a statue erected in 2008. 

Another famous Hail Mary pass took place in the NFL 2015-2016 season.

In a game between Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Packers threw a 61-yard pass from the 35-yard line to tight end Richard Rodgers.

Rodgers caught the famous pass and scored a touchdown. The game is widely remembered and known as the “Miracle on Motown,”

The last famous hail Mary pass occurred during the NFC Championship between the Arizona Cardinals and the Packers.

Playing for the Cardinals, Rodgers threw a 60-yard pass that Jeff Janis caught. The touchdown score tied the game, taking it to extra time.

Other Alternatives to the Hail Mary

Apart from a Hail Mary, coaches might opt for laterals. This is the case, especially when a quarterback cannot make the throw to the end zone. Laterals involve throwing the ball back to get the defense tired out of their positions.

coach briefing his team

Laterals are even more difficult to score than Hail Mary passes. However, teams have tried them. In 2018, the Miami Dolphins played a lateral, beating the New England Patriots by throwing the ball downfield.

What Football Team Threw the First Hail Mary?

The first recorded Hail Mary in football was thrown by the Dallas Cowboys, who were playing the Minnesota Vikings. In the game, Roger Staubach threw a 50-yard Hail Mary pass which was caught by Drew Pearson, resulting in a touchdown.

Who Is the Hail Mary King in the NFL?

Aaron Rodgers remains the Hail Mary King in the NFL. Playing for the Green Bay Packers as a quarterback, Aaron is known to have one of the strongest arms. He has thrown 3 Hail Mary passes throughout his career.        

What Is the Longest Hail Mary Pass in NFL History?

The longest Hail Mary pass in NFL history is 70 yards. The pass was thrown by Baker Mayfield playing against the Baltimore Ravens.


A hail mary pass seems a pretty good idea when the game is on the line, and the clock is ticking. It’s the last desperate move to win the game or at least take it into extra time. 

It is a pretty long pass from a quarterback to receivers in the dying seconds of the game. While chances of completion and a touchdown are very minimal, it is a worthwhile try since there is no time left for other plays.

In the worst scenario possible, most teams have a Hail Mary in their playbook as their last desperate move. A quarterback with the strongest arm is the one that usually makes the throw trying to get the ball high and farthest to the end zone.

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