The official NFL rule book never uses the phrase “Hail Mary.” It doesn’t create a separate pass interference rule for the Hail Mary play. But that doesn’t stop the NFL from applying a different standard to those plays that are unmistakably characterized as a wing and a pray and a deep, high throw aimed at picking up a large chunk of yardage quickly.
A Wednesday interview with NFL senior V.P. of football operation Al Riveron made abundantly clear two things about the Hail Mary play. First, a different standard for determining pass interference applies to Hail Mary plays, even though the rules don’t provide for or allow it. Second, the same uncodified standard for spotting pass interference in a Hail Mary setting will apply to replay review of pass interference calls and non-calls on Hail Mary plays.
“For the Hail Mary, there’s a lot of things that could happen that’s allowed that everyone knows when there’s Hail Mary for example there’s some contact allowed that generally would not be allowed when it’s just one receiver and one defensive back on a normal pass play situation,” Riveron explained. “Everyone understands what the philosophy on that is. We got input from the coaches, the General Managers, presidents, players, legends, officials, what we came back with on the final way of how we’re going to write this rule, we simply put in there that if that play goes to replay by either a coach’s challenge or it’s stopped inside of two minutes, it will be reviewed in replay under the same philosophies that is being allowed to be played on the field. We will not apply a different standard when reviewing that play in replay as opposed to how it’s officiated and what is allowable on the field. The same way we’re allowing the players to do certain things when there’s a Hail Mary involved, it’ll be reviewed in replay the same way.”
That makes sense, but with the Hail Mary play never addressed in the rules, it’s hard to know what the standard is for making a ruling on the field of interference in those instances, and for reviewing the ruling on the field when that occurs.
“There were so many variables and we didn’t want to limit the players per se,” Riveron said. “So what is a Hail Mary? This might not be the scientific answer we’re all looking for, but I think overall everyone understands when we see it, what a Hail Mary is. Again, how do we define it? Outside the 30? One minute and 28 seconds? 35 yard line? Two defensive players? Four offensive players? Equal numbers of players? How much pushing? How much shoving? It’s one of those things you know it when you see it and that’s a Hail Mary. When something goes beyond the point of what’s allowable, we will all agree on it. Or maybe we won’t. For the most part, everyone understands what’s allowed, what’s not allowed on a Hail Mary. It’s probably fortunate that we’re not putting this play into a box because it’s something when we see it, and when I say we I mean the football community from fans to coaches to players to officials, we’ll all agree that that’s a Hail Mary and we’ll understand what’s allowable and what’s not.”
He’s right, in theory. But it’s one thing for the officials who are among the players to decide to flag or not flag pass interference in those Hail Mary settings. It’s quite another for Riveron to study one frame at a time a veritable Zapruder film of clues lurking among bodies jostling for position and deciding whether he truly knows it when he sees it, when he knows that he’s seeing it in a way that no one has ever seen it before.