February 3, 2023 12:00pm

The NFL and the Greatest Pass Play

We asked Power Poll NFL.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

The Super Bowl has showcased some of the greatest pass catchers in NFL history, including Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, Lynn Swann, Randy Moss, Fred Biletnikoff, John Stallworth, Cliff Branch…

But the greatest catch in Super Bowl history didn’t come from any of them. Not according to this week’s NFL Power Poll.

We asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters a two-pronged question regarding pass-catching in the post-season. First, we asked what was the greatest catch in Super Bowl history and offered up seven options. Then we asked the greatest nickname of a catch in NFL playoff history and offered up six choices.

The greatest catch was authored by a reserve on the 2007 New York Giants – David Tyree, whose 32-yard helmet catch fueled a game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes that ended New England’s bid for a perfect season after 17 consecutive wins. The Tyree catch received 131 of the 210 votes cast.

“The Tyree catch featured two remarkable facets on the same play,” said Paul Dottino, the NFL beat reporter for WFAN. “Eli Manning’s magical escape followed by Tyree’s spectacular helmet-assisted catch.”

Added Bud Geracie, the sports editor of the Bay Area News Group: “All that went into that play – the scramble for starters and the Patriots perfect season ruined – made the difference for me in a crowded field of sensational catches.”

Santonio Holmes’ game-winning touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger in the 2009 Super Bowl finished second with 43 votes, followed by Lynn Swann’s 64-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw in the 1976 Super Bowl with 14 votes and John Stallworth’s 73-yard game-winning TD pass from Bradshaw in the 1980 Super Bowl with eight votes.

Interesting that the Steelers would finish second, third and fourth on this list.

“I guess I can be accused of provincialism,” said Jim Colony, a sports reporter with KDKA-FM in Pittsburgh, “but the Holmes catch was the complete package – perfect throw, catch, footwork with 35 seconds left.” Swann had his supporters.

“Lynn Swann had three (spectacular) catches in Super Bowl X,” said John Bednarowski, the sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. “Swann getting his feet in on the sideline, the juggling catch of a 50-yard bomb and eventually the game-winning touchdown catch. I’ll take all three.”

Next came Eagles quarterback Nick Foles’ 1-yard touchdown catch on a trick play – the Philly Special – in the 2018 Super Bowl with six votes, followed by the Otis Taylor 46-yard TD catch in the 1970 Super Bowl and Isaac Bruce’s 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass in the 2000 Super Bowl with four votes apiece.

There clearly was divine intervention in the second question as the “Immaculate Reception” and “Hail Mary” finished 1-2.

The Immaculate Reception was a 60-yard touchdown catch by Franco Harris of a deflected pass in the final seconds of a 1972 divisional playoff game that gave the Steelers a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders. It received 156 votes to easily distance itself from the 31 votes of the runnerup Hail Mary.

“The Immaculate Reception is immediately known,” said Teresa Walker, the Tennessee Sports Editor for the Associated Press. “While that Hail Mary from Staubach was the first and has become the catch-phrase for the last-second, last-gasp deep pass attempts, the Immaculate Reception stands alone.”

The original Hail Mary was a 50-yard touchdown heave from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in the closing seconds of a 1975 NFC semifinal that lifted the Dallas Cowboys to a 17-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

“The reason why the ‘Hail Mary’ stands above the rest is because it’s used for last-second plays in other sports,” said Bob Papa, the radio voice of the New York Giants. “It’s used in last-minute business deals that seem like a long shot to close. It’s basically used in all last-second scenarios.”

The counter-point comes from Nick Pugliese, the sports editor of the Palm Beach Post: “There are dozens of Hail Marys but only one Immaculate Receptions.”

But leave it to Drew Pearson – Mr. Hail Mary himself – to put debate of the second-question to rest.

“No play in NFL history is referred to more than the Hail Mary,” Pearson said. “The play, the controversy, the significance coined by Roger Staubach and the repeated references… Unfortunately, we’re probably going to need a Hail Mary to win this question.”

“The Catch,” authored by San Francisco’s Dwight Clark, finished third with 10 votes, followed by the “Philly Special” of Foles with seven. The “Minneapolis Miracle” by Stefon Diggs and the “Sea of Hands” by Clarence Davis rounded out the voting with three apiece.

Added Geracie, “Having spent the last 40 years in the Bay Area, `The Catch’ stirs the soul. But there will never be a better name than the `Immaculate Conception.’’’

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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