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The Hail Murray Had No Business Working

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 15: Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals catches the game-winning touchdown pass as safety Jordan Poyer #21 and safety Micah Hyde #23 of the Buffalo Bills defend during the final seconds of the fourth quarter at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I’m just gonna toss this out there, what might be a hot take with, I swear, no hot-take intentions behind it: Kyler Murray’s Hail Mary to DeAndre Hopkins, going only by degree of difficulty and degree of skill required to complete it (and ignoring all other context, like that this wasn’t a playoff game, but merely a super-fun game between two super-fun teams), might have been the greatest Hail Mary in NFL history. Murray shouldn’t have been able to get the pass off; it shouldn’t have been an accurate throw; Hopkins absolutely should not have come down with the ball.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

via CBS Sports

Two things about the Hail Murray which gave the Cardinals a miracle 32-30 win over the Bills, which are not mutually exclusive: It worked exactly as designed, and it was not a very good play-call. It was meant to go to Hopkins from the start, and Hopkins lined up alone on the left, with three decoy receivers on the right. Just how clear was it that they were decoys? They didn’t even bother running to the end zone, for fear of drawing their defenders within coverage range of Hopkins. It was, from the moment it was drawn up to the moment it was called to the moment Murray rolled to his left, always going to come down to Hopkins vs. however many defensive backs were on him, for a jump ball.

This is counter to the conventional wisdom of Hail Marys, which says offenses should cram the end zone with as many hands as possible and hope for the best. But as Murray told Peter King in an enlightening breakdown of the play, “I looked downfield, I locked in on Hop. And what was weird was, he was the only player on our team in the end zone.”

It almost didn’t even get that far. The Bills, unlike some defenses that inexplicably rush only three and give a quarterback time to line up his throw, made Murray work to get a throw off. As Murray rolled left—as designed—Bills DE Mario Addison got a hand on Murray’s arm but the cat-quick QB slipped him off. Quinton Jefferson menaced him along the sideline, and put two arms up to narrow the window for a high-arcing pass. But Murray, moving left, pivoting right, throwing across his body and with something less than a full wind-up, put up a perfect 50-yard ball. It was improbable that he’d put up anything at all. “Just to get the pass off was incredible,” Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “If you watch the replay, he’s running and dodging and ducking, and I didn’t think he’d get it off.”

Any and every Hail Mary “should” fail. The coverage on Hopkins should have made that all but guaranteed. The Bills double-covered Hopkins because he was the most obvious target, and had a third man, a lurking safety, within sprinting distance. And when Hopkins went up for the ball, the three Buffalo d-backs were in a triangle surrounding him.

“They were in position,” Hopkins conceded. “It was just a better catch by I.”

It would be too simplistic to present the following figures as the entire explanation for how Hopkins did what he did, but sometimes simple is accurate. Hopkins is taller, can jump higher, and has larger hands than any of the Bills defending him:

via NFL Network

Murray admitted he didn’t see the catch himself as he fell out of bounds. But he knows what it looked like. “Everybody, all they saw was black gloves arising from everybody. There was like, what, a group of four people, and all they saw was black gloves.”

A few lessons from this play, this game, and this season, which sees the Cardinals leading their division and Kyler Murray looking like a real-deal MVP candidate. 1) If a team is stupid enough to offer you DeAndre Hopkins for a replacement-level back and a second-round pick, accept it and try your hardest not to burst out laughing before you get off the phone. 2) We were dumb for ever entertaining the idea that Murray might or could or should play baseball instead of football, and if he ever considered it, he was dumb, too. 3) If you’ve got a hotshot young QB, try your hardest to give him a great receiver. It might be tempting to expect quarterbacks to need a couple of years to develop, and so not want to spend big money on a big-time WR in those developing years, but god-damn can an elite ball-catcher make an immense but unseasoned talent look like and perhaps become an actual superstar, and in almost no time flat.