Little did they know at the time, of course. But on a whim, the quarterback and tight end went out to the field before the start of official pregame warmups and started playing catch, with Aaron Rodgers throwing high, arcing passes to Richard Rodgers just for fun.
Then, when it counted, on the final play of the game, the quarterback’s ceiling-scraping 61-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to his tight end gave the Packers an improbable 27-23 victory Thursday night.
“In the pre-pregame warmups, I was out there messing around and I threw kind of some moonballs to Richard, as high as I could,” Aaron Rodgers explained afterward. “Not 60 yards in the air, but he caught two out of three. So I’m glad he made it three out of four.”
It’s actually unusual for Aaron Rodgers to take part in early pregame warmups; while dealing with a calf injury late last season, he’d break from his normal pregame routine and go out to test his calf and check the field conditions. According to Richard Rodgers, the impromptu silliness Thursday night paid off when he saw the ball coming down in the end zone and went up in the crowd to snatch it at its highest point.
“I think the practice before the game helped a little bit,” Richard Rodgers said. “I was catching them, and I kind of saw the same thing [on the game-winner]. I ran down there, saw the ball and made sure I was in the end zone and then went up and caught it.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers practice Hail Mary plays, as well as the lateral play that came before it, every Saturday (or before a Thursday game, on Wednesday) as part of a period the coaches call “The Final Eight.”
Because the Packers have been burned by such plays in the past -- including in the infamous “Fail Mary” play in Seattle in 2012, which he referenced Thursday -- McCarthy said the Hail Mary focuses more on the defense in practice. McCarthy said it’s also done at jog-through speed to reduce injury risk.
“It's not a competitive play, because you don't want somebody going up and getting hurt on a Hail Mary play 24 hours before you play [the game],” McCarthy explained. “It's just more about the mechanics and getting to the landmarks, getting the throw executed.”
The execution in Thursday night’s Hail Mary -- which, according to Elias Sports Bureau, was the longest Hail Mary to win a game in NFL history -- was perfect, but it wasn’t on the lateral play that came before it.
The Packers practice that play, which McCarthy said he used to call the "River City Relay," as part of “The Final Eight,” too. But it’s not designed to have Richard Rodgers throw the ball backward to Aaron Rodgers -- although that’s what made the Hail Mary possible since it led to Lions defensive end Devin Taylor's face mask penalty on Rodgers.
“That was not exactly the play,” Aaron Rodgers said with a laugh. “I threw [the first pass] to James [Jones] and I was kind of trailing the play looking for what was going to happen. I saw Richard get it and turn back to me and I was thinking, ‘No, no, no, no, no! I’m the last line of defense here.’ As I caught it, I knew I was going to have to try and make somebody miss to keep this thing alive because nobody’s behind me. I was going to have to run for some yards in order to throw it. I had my fast Adidas on -- as I showed off on that touchdown [earlier in the game] -- but I wasn’t able to get away from those guys. But luckily, my face mask was grabbed.”
And luckily, the Rodgerses’ pregame tomfoolery came in handy one play later.
“I knew I could get it to the end zone with a good spiral and I just wanted to give our guys a chance to come down with it,” Aaron Rodgers said. “It’s a low-percentage play, but I’m thankful that Richard came down with that.”