The most famous plays in NFL history all have names: “Immaculate Reception,” “Miracle at the Meadowlands” and “The Catch.” So do the infamous ones.
Tonight’s Monday Night Football matchup – the Oakland Raiders versus Denver Broncos (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN) – marks the one-year anniversary of the “Fail Mary,” one of the strangest and most unforgettable plays in NFL history.
In last year’s Week 3 MNF game played on Sept. 24, the the host Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers 14-12. On the final play, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone that receiver Golden Tate and Packers defender M. D. Jennings both got their hands on while attempting to gain possession. The two officials near the play initially gave separate signals of touchdown and time out, before ruling the players had simultaneous possession, resulting in a Seahawks game-winning score.
The controversial outcome took place under the cloud of the NFL officiating lockout, which coincidentally ended just days later. Front Row spoke with MNF’s Mike Tirico to get his thoughts on the “Fail Mary” and what he remembers from calling the game that night in Seattle.
What are your memories from the “Fail Mary” game?
It was such a strange game to begin with. [Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers was sacked so often in the first half. [Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson was an unknown entity at that point. The game had so much building up to the bizarre finish. When you think back to the play, and the moment and the ensuing confusion, there were so many abnormal things. The fact that two players legitimately had a chance to come down with the ball, and you can make an argument one way or the other for who had it, the most blatant pass interference possible, it was one of those plays that until you saw it three or four times, you really couldn’t put your arms around everything that happened on that play.
I really do believe that play on MNF – seen by everyone, discussed by everyone who is tied to the game – was the catalyst to get the lockout with the officials wrapped up within a matter of 72 hours.
From a play-by-play perspective, how do you approach that kind of final play?
You know the game is going to end barring a foul on the defense, and [MNF analyst] Jon Gruden has schooled us so often about pass interference rarely being called in those situations. So, as the ball’s coming down, I’m watching to see if there is any receiver who has good position to possibly jump up and get it – possibly find the tallest guy there, and try to get an eye on him. If you see that someone has good position on one of those plays, it gives you a chance to get a half-step on the play. I never saw the pass interference because I was so focused on where the ball was coming down. I thought the Packers were in position to knock down the ball and not make it a great catch. In those situations, you try to anticipate. Do we have anything here? Do we have something special? Or is it just another Hail Mary that gets batted down, as about 75-80 percent of them do.
What do you recall from that particular moment?
We were just trying to figure out with some clarity, ‘What are they potentially calling on this play?’ I remember Jon – he was angry. Not because it was either Seattle or Green Bay he was pulling for. He was just angry the play was so sloppily officiated – that it came at the end of the game and cost the Packers. The way that transpired, the way Jon was so angry about that as a football coach, really sticks with me.
Those guys [the officials] were trying their best. I don’t think they had any malice. They were just outmatched in that situation. There was no clarity of call, handling of the situation. From the pass interference to the point of possession to the way the situation was handled on the field on the back end – in terms of explanations and replay – it was too much for anyone in that position who hadn’t been there for years. They just shouldn’t have been in that situation.
What did you think of the play being included as a signature moment in ESPN’s new MNF open?
You kind of realize as you do this more years that any snap could be one of the memorable moments of MNF. Only until you see it included with those do you then realize the impact that one play can happen on a Monday night. The fact that everyone in the league is watching – it’s the only game going on that day – elevates a play that’s on Monday night to more of a legendary status than say if this was the final play of the D game on a Sunday afternoon. You’re not expecting that to happen and when you see it included with other memorable moments in Monday night history, you are reminded of the legacy of the series.
How often have people asked you about it?
A lot, especially on trips near or through Wisconsin. When I did a couple of Wisconsin basketball games during the Big Ten season, people brought it up pretty often. It certainly comes up and it’s in our mind anytime there’s a Hail Mary. You’re thinking, ‘What’s going to happen here? You know what happened in Seattle.’
It also seems like this game introduced the national audience to the Seahawks.
It was a launching point for this stretch of Seahawks football. Seattle, Week 3 last year, was not thought of with the elite teams. Russell Wilson was still unproven, too small. They had questions of the team beyond [running back] Marshawn Lynch. Now you look a year later from that play, beating Green Bay, continuing that momentum and going forward, and a lot of these power polls have Seattle No. 1 in the league. So, in many ways, it was a milepost moment for the franchise. And, on the other side, the Packers fans still – and rightfully so – have not gotten over getting the short end of that decision.
Editor’s Note: See Rick Reilly’s feature on the one-year anniversary of the “Fail Mary” game.