Football 101: Nos. 59 and 58
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No. 59: Aaron Rodgers
To me, this is inarguable: Aaron Rodgers throws the best Hail Mary pass in NFL history. I don’t know exactly what that says about his greatness as a quarterback, but it surely says something powerful. He’s just SO good at the Hail Mary, SO much better than other people. It’s like, Steph Curry is the best last-second, half-court-and-beyond shooter in NBA history. It’s like, Javy Baez is the best tagger in MLB history.
It has to mean something, right?
Rodgers has completed three successful Hail Mary passes in his career, and each one was glorious.
Dec. 3, 2015 vs. Detroit: The Miracle in Motown
Sorry, Lions fans. The Packers were losing 23-21 and had the ball on their own 39-yard line with time for only one play. Rodgers dropped back, was chased left, stopped, ran backward to the 23 to avoid one tackler, worked into the clear and heaved the ball from the 36.
“Will it get there?” Phil Simms asked, and it was the right question … he would basically have to throw the ball 70 yards in the air to have a real chance at pulling this off. In the original Hail Mary — Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson against Minnesota — Staubach made it clear that he could throw a football only 60 yards in the air (and he actually underthrew that legendary pass, which is why it worked — well, that and probably offensive pass interference).
But Rodgers’ arm is basically unlimited. He easily threw it 70 yards in the air, and placed it perfectly within the reach of tight end Richard Rodgers, who was somehow left uncovered (sorry, Lions fans), R-Rodgers leaped up and pulled it in.
The thing that strikes me about this particular one is that it doesn’t feel like luck at all. Hail Mary passes, by definition, are lucky plays — as Staubach famously said, you throw the pass and then you pray. But this one was so perfect, the pass was so outrageous, the catch so uncontested, that it seemed like it worked exactly as planned.
Jan. 16, 2016 vs. Arizona
Seriously, this happened like a month and a half later. This time the Packers trailed Arizona 20-13 with just enough time for one play.
This one was not as spectacular or ridiculous — the Packers were on the Arizona 41-yard line — but it has its own special charms. Rodgers dropped back and was immediately pressured; the Cardinals were not about to rush three and drop everyone back the way the Lions had. Rodgers turned and raced out to his left, which always makes it tougher for a right-handed quarterback.
At his own 45, and about to get sacked, he somehow set himself and heaved the ball downfield. There is absolutely no way that a human being under such circumstances can throw a ball 60 or 65 yards in the air, unless that human being is left-handed (see Michael Vick) or Aaron Rodgers. The ball sailed deep into the end zone and somebody named Jeff Janis (who caught 17 passes in his entire career — two during that season) jumped in front of All-Pro Patrick Peterson and pulled it in for the touchdown.
One of the charms of this one was Rodgers’ reaction: He wasn’t jumping up and down and screaming and going crazy. No, he went up to tackle David Bakhtiari and his reaction was more like, “OK, obviously that was going to happen, now the game’s tied, let’s go and win this in overtime.”
By the way, they lost the game in overtime, as Arizona fans will tell you.
Jan. 8, 2017 vs. Giants
This was on my 50th birthday, not that it matters, but it does make the memory more vivid for me. It happened at the end of the first half rather than the end of the game, and the Packers were already up 7-6. So there wasn’t desperation involved.
Instead, there was this sort of inevitability. The Packers were on the Giants 42, it was fourth down, time for one more play, and I know I wasn’t the only one in America who thought: Oh, Rodgers is going to hit another Hail Mary pass here.
He dropped back to his own 40-yard line, and the Giants put no pressure on him at all — they had rushed four, but two collided into each other like it was some sort of Three Stooges skit. Rodgers unloaded the pass and, again, as he threw the ball, it seemed destined for glory.
“Rodgers does this better than anybody,” Joe Buck said with the ball still in the air.
Rodgers threw the ball about 65 yards in the air, all the way to the back of the end zone, where Randall Cobb had slipped behind everybody. The ball just dropped right to him, and he caught it and got two feet down for the score.
“Unbelievable!” Joe Buck yelled, but what made it so absurd was that it was perfectly believable. It was exactly what we expected.
When Rodgers was asked why he’s so good at the Hail Mary, he shrugged. “I just try to throw it as high as possible,” he said. Which is a fun answer but not revealing — a magician does not reveal their secrets.
As for the rest — Rodgers has won three MVP awards (same as Tom Brady), was first-team All-Pro three times (same as Tom Brady), his 435-touchdowns-against-93-interceptions ratio is beyond compare, and his 104 career pass rating is utterly ridiculous, the highest in NFL history for anyone with more than 2,500 passes. I’m not one to put much stock in the passer rating, but it is interesting that it’s way higher than the other Big 4 quarterbacks:
Aaron Rodgers, 104.0
Drew Brees, 98.7
Tom Brady, 97.6
Peyton Manning, 96.5
Could Rodgers be higher on this list? Absolutely he could … but, alas, quarterbacks (fairly and unfairly) also get judged on championships. Rodgers and the Packers beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, but the playoffs have been pure heartbreak ever since. The Packers have not been back to the Super Bowl and are 0-3 in NFC Championship Games against three different teams — Atlanta in 2017, San Francisco in 2019 and Tampa Bay last season.
You certainly cannot blame Rodgers for the Packers’ inability to build a Super Bowl team around him, but when talking about the greatest players in NFL history, the judgments are harsh. Wherever he’s ranked overall, however, he’s definitively the best ever at throwing the Hail Mary pass.
No. 58: Steve Van Buren
There are only a handful of players — Gale Sayers comes to mind, John Mackey, Night Train Lane, Raymond Berry — who transcend the highlight reel. That is to say that even in black and white, those players LOOK modern somehow, look like they could jump out of the grainy footage of yesterday and find their place in the game today.
Steve Van Buren is decidedly NOT one of those players.
He doesn’t look like anything special when you watch him run.
But he WAS special — one of the most special and under-appreciated players in NFL history. Van Buren played from 1944 to ’51, and in those eight seasons, he led the NFL in rushes four times, in rushing yards four times, in rushing touchdowns four times and in rushing yards per game five times. In 1945, he scored an unheard of 15 rushing touchdowns, which might not sound like much today but that was in a TEN-GAME SEASON.
The record was not broken until 1962, when Jim Taylor ran for 19 touchdowns — but that was in a 14-game season.
One of the reasons Van Buren’s talents don’t just pop off the screen when you watch old highlights is because he was not about ELUDING tacklers but RUNNING OVER THEM (“He’d run the sweep and lower his shoulder and scatter bodies,” the great NFL writer Paul Zimmermann would say), and because he was at his very best on muddy, torn-up, sheet-of-ice fields when he seemed to be wearing different shoes from everyone else.
The 1948 NFL championship game between Philadelphia and the Chicago Cardinals was played in a blinding snowstorm, and he ran for 98 yards and scored the only touchdown in the Eagles’ 7-0 win. The next year’s championship game between Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Rams was played in a driving rainstorm on a field as soft as chocolate cake, and Van Buren was unstoppable, running for 196 yards, a playoff record that would last for a generation.
It’s harder to go from one generation to the next in football than it is in baseball because the football in the 1940s and 1950s — and heck, the 1960s and 1970s and even 1980s as well — doesn’t look like it does now. But at a time when running the ball was everything and running backs were often interchangeable, Steve Van Buren was the very best in the game.