Hail Murray!: Inside the catch heard around the NFL

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A race in the AFC East, the first 9-0 start for the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger apparently does not need practice, the AFC North is over, the Raiders are legit, the Eagles are not, here come the Giants (?!), the Pack survives, kickers are amazing, a three-way tie in the NFC West, the Bucs are absurd, a monsoon assists the plucky Patriots, and, gulp, End Times for Brees?

This day wasn’t supposed to have drama like this. Anytime the Game of the Week is Bills-Cards, drama might be in short supply. But let’s get back to Glendale, Ariz., to the Cardinals Radio Network, with Dave Pasch and Ron Wolfley setting the scene as the clock shows :11.

Pasch, calm voice: “Hopkins to the left. Three receivers to the right. Cardinals trail by four. They’re out of timeouts, 11 seconds left in the game. First down at the Buffalo 43. Now the Bills drop two men back, 25 yards downfield. Murray back to throw.”

:11, :10 . . . “When I got ready to take the snap, I’m trying to diagnose the defense, see if there’s any holes. Anything easy. I still figured I probably had two plays, two shots at it. The play was designed to roll out left, like I said, and they did a good job of containing,” Murray said.

Murray was sitting in a room just outside the Cards’ locker room, talking to me, watching the highlights of the game on TV. This helped. Now he could see what he’d just felt over an hour ago.

Pasch, voice elevating: “Flushed out, rolling left, in trouble. Slips a tackle”.

:09 . . . Buffalo defensive end Mario Addison, quick but not Kyler-quick, drew a bead on Murray as he gamboled left.

“The game’s on the line,” Murray said. “I can’t get tackled here. There was no chance he was tackling me. No chance.”

:08 . . . “The angle he took at me, I’m fortunate he took that angle,” Murray said. Addison touched Murray but didn’t have a good shot at him really, and flew past. Murray took another step, then turned upfield, maybe eight yards from the Cardinal sideline at about the Arizona 48-yard line.

Meanwhile, it looked like the three receivers to the right of the formation were occupying four defenders. Hopkins, who streaked down the left flank, took two DBs with him. As Murray suspected, there was a safety lurking in midfield, clearly waiting for the ball to be launched to Hopkins. It was three Bills defenders on one great receiver. It was a game of chance.

Pasch, voice another octave higher: “Gotta launch it.”

:07 . . . Murray, sounding surprised: “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.” Hail Marys count on traffic, and the benefits of crowds. Why? The more people in red jerseys in the end zone, the better chance for a fluky pop-up touchdown.

One guy in the end zone? Not good.

But that one guy? Good.

Hopkins caught 115 balls in 2018 for Houston, with zero drops. Since PFF has been keeping stats on drops in 2006, no wide receiver ever had a season with 110 receptions or more with zero drops. So, in training camp last year, I asked Hopkins about the secret of his hands.

“My brother and I used to watch a lot of Jet Li movies, so we used to always do quick things like kickboxing or catching things with our hands,” Hopkins said. “One thing I remember we always used to do—we always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one that could catch them. I actually studied it, and I grew with it. I was like, ‘How do I catch flies?’ Flies always fly up. I would always just hit over it. And I thought: If I can catch flies, I know I can catch anything.”

Flies always fly up. I would just hit over it.

:06 . . . So now, Hopkins nestled himself two yards deep in the end zone. Murray, after running left and turning slightly upfield, had to turn his body forward, so he’d be able to maximize his arm strength and get the ball to the end zone. He cocked his arm to throw, right at midfield, as Buffalo defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson sped toward him. Murray threw a rainbow-ball, falling out of bounds, hoping not to get leveled by the 290-pound Jefferson.

Think of the throw.

“I’ve never done a Hail Mary before,” Murray told me.

Running to his left, evading one rusher, turning slightly upfield and getting ready to let the ball go, knowing he had to throw it almost exactly 50 yards in the air, arced high so that his 6-1 wide receiver would have a shot at it. “Obviously in that situation you can’t overthrow it,” Murray said. The throw had to have air under it, and it had to be in the 10-yard space of the end zone or, very possibly, game over. It’s a throw that’s best made from the pocket, with some time to rev up the arm and figure how much arc to use. Throwing to a target 51 yards away while falling out of bounds? Challenging.

“I felt really good about it when it left my hand,” Murray said. “I knew it would get to the end zone.”

Pasch, getting excited: “Left side – into the end zone – jump ball – annnnd it is … “

:05, :04 . . . Down it came, aimed about two yards deep in the end zone. Three Bills were in a triangle around Hopkins: safety Jordan Poyer in front, his right hand gloved in white reaching high as the ball fell to earth; cornerback Tre’Davious White to the left, grasping two hands up near Hopkins’ hands but not quite as high, looking like he was trying to compete with Hopkins to high-point the ball; and then, in back and slightly to the right, safety Micah Hyde, with his right hand trying to knock the ball away when it landed.

Pasch: “Is it caught? Is it caught?”

:03 . . . As he tumbled out of bounds, Murray looked downfield and saw two black gloved hands rising. “We were joking about it in the locker room,” Murray said. “Like, there were all these white gloves, and everybody just saw two black gloves come out from that pile. They were above everybody else’s hands. Hop wears like 5X’s so yeah. Crazy.”

Hopkins’ black Nike gloves (with the Jumpman logo), size 5XL, were highest of the four men jumping for the Murray fly ball. Murray got a hand on either side of the ball, and vice-gripped it for the catch, then pinned the ball to his torso, and the three men fell to earth.

Pasch, yelling: “OH MY GOODNESS It’s caught! DeAndre Hopkins caught it! He caught it! Touchdown! With one second left! I can’t believe it! You’ve gotta be joking me! Hopkins reaches up with three defenders around him! And pulls it in! And the Cardinals lead it! 32-30! With a second left!

:02 . . . The side judge, Dave Hankshaw, signaled TD. The back judge, Keith Ferguson, soon followed with his signal.

“They [the Buffalo defenders] were in position,” Hopkins said later. “It was just a better catch by I.”

By I. That’s what he said.

“I never panic when the ball is in the air,” Hopkins said.

As Hopkins fell, Hyde, the safety, still tried to poke it away. Hopkins firmly pressed the ball to his legs with his right hand; it wouldn’t move.

Analyst Ron Wolfley, screaming: “You can’t cover Nuke! You’re not gonna be able to cover him! Throw the ball long! That’s what Kyler Murray did! He extended the play with his legs! And just chucked that thing up into the air! Into the desert sky, baby! And D-Hop brought it down – touchdownnnnnn!” 

Murray never saw the end of the play till well after the game. When we spoke, he was on a landline just off the locker room, watching the highlights of the game.

“That’s my first one [Hail Mary],” he said.

“Never had one in high school, even?” I said.

“No. Never,” he said.

“Have you had a moment like this?” I said. “You’ve played at a very high level of high school in Texas, and college at Oklahoma.”

“Well,” he said with a chuckle, “in high school we had a lot of moments. Never like this one, though. Last-second, I mean, this is the highest level. Hail Mary, last play of the game. [There was an inconsequential kickoff left.] I really have had a lot of moments in my life . . . but this one, none can compare.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.