Desperation time in the NFL has produced some truly memorable moments, from Aaron Rodgers’ miracle throw against the Lions in 2015 to this throw from Roger Staubach in 1975 to the Music City Miracle. These plays rarely succeed, and that is what makes the successful ones so great.

Teams usually run one of two plays when they need a miracle. One option is the Hail Mary. Here, a team throws up a ball to the end zone, sends a bunch of receivers there, and hopes one of them can catch it. This requires the quarterback to throw a ball all the way to the end zone on the fly and a receiver to catch a jump ball amidst a sea of defenders. Most of the time, the throw is batted down or intercepted, but sometimes it works, as on Rodgers’ throw.

The other play is the hook and lateral. This play involves a shorter pass to a receiver, who then laterals it to another receiver when he is about to be tackled. The goal is to keep lateraling the ball the length of the field, always throwing it to someone else when the defense closes in. Here’s an example of a successful hook and lateral from the end of the first half of a 1982 playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers.

A hook and lateral is also incredibly difficult to pull off. While the initial throw and catch are easier than a Hail Mary, the multiple laterals are very hard to pull off. Each lateral is a throw from a player who is not a quarterback, usually with defenders bearing in. Fumbles are always a risk, and so teams usually only run this play in desperation situations.

But which play is more successful? For the purpose of finding out, I have used Pro Football Reference’s Play Index. Using the play index, you can query for specific plays in the Pro Football Reference database, which goes back to 1994. I defined desperation time as occurring in the last 8 seconds of any game, regular season or playoffs, with the ball outside the opponents’ 30 yard line, down by 8 points or less. I also filtered the query to only accept pass plays. I did this to capture only plays that were the last play of the game, with no time for another play afterward, where a touchdown could tie or win the game, and the team wasn’t close enough to be able to run a normal play.

I admit the 30 yard line definition for being close enough to run a normal play is somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted to avoid capturing touchdown passes on normal routes as Hail Marys, when the difficulty of pulling them off is significantly less. It is likely that this query did capture some plays that are neither Hail Marys or hook and laterals, since teams in this situation might not always be going for a touchdown and could attempt shorter passes. But most of these plays will be either Hail Marys or hook and laterals, and they will all be some sort of desperation play.

The results of my query can be viewed here (for analysis on plays I split it into two parts here and here). One thing is immediately apparent. These plays almost never work. The success rate of any desperation play is 1.7%, with 9 touchdowns occurring out of 515 such plays (I did not count the 46 spikes in the table). Of those plays, there were 32 sacks and 54 interceptions, making it perfectly obvious why teams don’t run a Hail Mary or hook and lateral on every play. I did some simple analysis on the plays using R (code here) and found that 79 of those plays involved laterals, with only 1 going for a touchdown, for a rate of 1.2%.

The successful lateral play came in the Saints-Jaguars game in 2003. The Saints were 7–7 and needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. They were down 20–13, with the ball at their own 25-yard line, with 7 seconds left, needing a miracle. Then this happened. They got the miracle play they needed, but kicker John Carney missed the extra point, and they lost anyway.

The other 8 touchdowns came on Hail Marys. Its hard to tell if the other 436 plays that do not involve laterals were Hail Marys, as they include incomplete passes and sacks. But since incomplete passes and sacks are far more likely to occur on a Hail Mary than a hook and lateral, there is a good chance they are. Since they are likely not all Hail Marys, the success rate for a Hail Mary is probably a little bit higher than 1.8% (8/436), but not too much higher.

The successful Hail Marys in desperation time since 1994 include two from Aaron Rodgers, the throw against the Lions and another in a playoff game against the Cardinals in 2016, just a little over one month later. But Aaron Rodgers isn’t the only quarterback with 2 game-winning or tying Hail Marys on his resume in the last 24 years. Tim Couch has also done so. Yes, that Tim Couch, of the Cleveland Browns. He threw one in 1999 against the Saints, and another in 2002 against the Jaguars. Other quarterbacks to throw touchdowns on Hail Marys in desperation time include Andy Dalton, David Garrard, Shaun Hill, and Shane Matthews, not exactly a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. I also saw several completed Hail Marys that did not result in touchdowns. This most recently occurred to my beloved Bears in their game against the Patriots this year.

Hail Marys seem to be more likely to succeed than hook and laterals, and perhaps that explains why teams run them more often. But the longest touchdown in a desperation situation was that Saints touchdown, which went for 75 yards. That is longer than just about any quarterback can throw ( maybe not Patrick Mahomes), so if a team has too far to go, a hook and lateral may be their only choice. But if your quarterback can get the ball to the end zone, a Hail Mary seems to be more likely to succeed than a hook and lateral.

Featured image from Getty Images

Originally published at on November 14, 2018.