Josh McCown's hail mary pass to Nathan Poole deserves a deep rewind
It’s December 28th, 2003. The 9-and-6 Minnesota Vikings are playing on the road. A win in this game clinches a playoff spot for the Vikes. And with the Cardinals entering the contest with a record of 3-and-12, it looks like Minnesota is headed back to the postseason
The ball is placed at the 28-yard line. But with the Cardinals down by five and under 10 seconds remaining, a field goal does them no good here. As such, it’s up to quarterback Josh McCown to heave up a hail mary for the incredible comeback win.
But a lot is happening here. In fact, there was a lot of drama coming into this moment. The mere fact that the Cardinals still have a chance to win the game is practically unbelievable.
Before we find out what happens next, we need to understand where both teams currently stand. Nothing is ever simple in football, especially when it comes to a hail mary attempt. Win or lose, it’s coming down to the last play for both teams. And for that, we need to rewind.
The Vikings have a decent record at 9-and-6. But for Vikings fans who remember the 2003 season, they should have a lot more wins.
Minnesota was once undefeated this season. Impressively, the Vikings won their first six games.
But things started to unravel quickly for the Vikes. After a red-hot start to the year, Minnesota dumped its next four in the toilet. Even more embarrassingly, only one of those four straight defeats was by less than 10 points.
While it didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, Loss Number 2 of the four-game losing streak was a critical 3-point defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. This was huge because the Vikings outlasted the Packers 30-25 during Week 1. If the Vikings had won during Week 9 against the Packers, they would’ve owned the head-to-head tiebreaker for the NFC North Division. This means that the Vikings wouldn’t need to win on the road in Week 17.
But, the Vikings couldn’t take care of business, and the losing continued into Week 12. From 6-0 to now 6-4. Now the Vikings are 9-6. And if they could’ve just outlasted the Bears a couple weeks ago, they’d be in the playoffs. Instead, Charles “Peanut” Tillman made the signature play of his underrated career as he overpowered Randy Moss in the endzone. And now, the Vikings need a win today to clinch their postseason tickets.
Both the Packers and the Vikings were 9-6 coming into Week 17, so the Vikings need a win or a Packers loss to win the division. The old saying, “Every game matters in football” definitely stood the test of time for the Vikings in 2003.
Still, going from 6-and-oh to 9-and-6 is technically a minor collapse. And this was supposed to be a new era of Vikings football with Mike Tice as the head coach.
Gone were the days of Dennis Green’s Vikings blowing playoff leads or getting dominated in the tournament. Green’s Vikings went 15-and-1 during the 1998 regular season, but they couldn’t finish the deal as the “Dirty Birds” Atlanta Falcons upset them at the Metrodome during the NFC Championship Game.
Didn’t Green know the Dirty Birds who he thought they were, but he still left them off the hook? A primarily running team led by Jamal Anderson, the Falcons took advantage of a late missed field goal by Gary Anderson and then won in overtime.
A crushing blow for the Vikings in 1998, but they were still good enough to get another bite at the Lombardi Trophy apple in 1999.
The Vikings offense was still as dominant as ever in 1999. While the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams were the only team in the NFL with over 6,400 total yards, the Vikings still finished Top 5 in total yards at just under 5,800. However, turnovers were problematic for Minnesota in 1999: They turned the ball almost 19% of the time when they drove down the field.
With Randall Cunningham struggling at QB the year before Y2K, Green made a quarterback change and gave the keys of the offense to journeyman Jeff George. George was a former No. 1 overall draft pick, and he looked the part of a franchise QB in 1999. His Vikings went 8-and-2 with him as the starting QB, with the Vikings earning a spot in the Wild Card round.
They easily took care of the aging Dallas Cowboys 27-10 as the Vikings advanced to the Divisional round against Kurt Warner’s Rams. George was excellent on this day, but incredibly, his 4 touchdown passes weren’t nearly enough to outlast the Rams. A terrible day for the Vikings on defense as the Vikes gave up 49 points and 5 touchdown passes to the future Hall of Famer in Warner. If the Vikings defense had just been moderately respectable, they probably would have advanced to the NFC Title Game: Jeff George finished with 423 yards passing on 29 completions, but he also had 21 incompletions. The Vikings originally trailed 49-17, so to be fair, some of George’s completions came during garbage time.
In 2000, the Vikings truly believed the third time would be the charm. Choosing to not retain George or Cunningham, President Gary Woods saw enough in Daunte Culpepper to allow him to be the full-time starter in 2000, even though he didn’t play a single snap the previous year. The 2000 season would be Culpepper’s first year as the starter and his rookie season all together. It turned out to be a great decision as Culpepper’s Vikings won 11 games and the NFC Central Division.
However, the Vikings lost their last three regular season games, allowing the New York Giants to clinch homefield advantage for the playoffs. Whether playing in the Meadowlands was the key difference maker for the Vikings is debatable, but whatever the reason, the Vikings offense looked lost and bewildered during the NFC Championship Game. A 4-1nothing shellacking in East Rutherford, New Jersey saw Jim Fossil’s Giants play on Super Bowl Sunday and the Vikings crumble in yet another embarrassing playoff defeat. This was by far the worst of the three consecutive playoff losses during the Dennis Green tenure, and it begged the question….If not now, when would the Vikings finally get over the hump and back to the Super Bowl?
A losing record in 2001 saw the Vikings gamble and terminate the consistent winner in Green. In came his assistant in Mike Tice, and the 2003 Men in Purple were once again contenders during Tice’s second year in Minneapolis.
But, as was the case under Green, this Vikings corps always chokes when the stage is fully lit. And here we go yet again. From an 11-and-2 start to an 11-and-5 finish, the 2000 Vikings blew a chance at having the Super Bowl go through the Metrodome. And in 2003, the Vikings went from undefeated to being on the cusp of not even participating in the NFL tournament.
Even if the Vikings don’t allow the game-winning touchdown pass, the mere fact that they have to hold on against the 3-and-12 Cardinals is pretty darn head scratching. But do the Cardinals have some individually talented players on offense? In two words….Not really.
While it’s true that Anquan Boldin was on this team, the rest of the roster was very underwhelming to say the least.
Boldin was a rookie in 2003, and the rest of his wide receiving teammates just weren’t going to get the Cardinals over the top. Neither quarterback, Jeff Blake or Josh McCown, trusted any other wide receiver besides the former second-round draft pick. Consider this: Boldin was targeted 165 times in 2003. No receiver received more than 89 targets.
The little-known Nathan Poole finished with just 19 targets this season. But he was the go-to receiver on this version of “Any Given Sunday.”
Boldin wasn’t his normal self against the Vikes as he has just 5 receptions for 27 yards coming into this play. However, Poole was up to the task and caught all but one of his targeted throws for 58 yards. Considering that Poole finished the year with 177 total receiving yards, it’s safe to say he was having the game of his season. Almost 39 percent of his total season production occurred today in the season finale.
The Cardinals led 6-zero at halftime thanks to two successful field goals from Neil Rackers. But the Vikings scored two touchdowns in the second half. And now, the Vikes lead 17-6 with under 7 minutes to go thanks to Aaron Elling’s field goal. Can the Cardinals, led by McCown, score twice in 6 minutes and 48 seconds?
Insert McCown. Week 17 of 2003 is just his third career start in the NFL, but he’s definitely improved from last year’s rookie campaign. In the 2 games that he played during the 2002 season, he completed less than 40 percent of his passes and finished with a pedestrian quarterback rating of 10.2.
But the Cardinals had nothing to lose after being 7 games under .500 when they entered Week 14. With his team now in the double-digit loss category, head coach Dave McGinnis gave McCown a chance by starting him in Week 15 over the veteran in Jeff Blake. Despite a sack rate of under 5%, Blake’s completion percentage of 56.7 this season wasn’t enough to keep his job, and with the team at 3-and-10, it was probably time to start the young pup anyway.
The Cardinals needed more than just a quarterback, though, and after losing in Weeks 15 and 16, Cardinals fans were thinking of a new regime and new signal-caller. The 2004 NFL Draft saw Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning rising up draft boards, and if the Cards and Chargers win today, Arizona would obtain the No. 1 overall draft pick. The Cards were so bad in 2003 that they only won a single game in division play.
But losing on purpose, AKA tanking, wasn’t the intended goal for Arizona late in the season. They just really stink. A team that was once 3-and-5 is now in danger of finishing the year with 8 consecutive losses. And for Cardinals fans, they’ve seen enough of Josh McCown to be happy with Eli Manning as the franchise’s No. 1 draft pick come April.
However, McCown showed signs of promise on the drive following Minnesota’s field goal. Needing a touchdown to make things interesting, McGinnis had no choice but to go for it on 4th and 6 at their own 44-yard line. Mr. Consistent Anquan Boldin made a huge catch, and his dive at the chains was enough to create a new set of downs for the home team.
However, with only 1 timeout left, the Cards still have to recover the onside kick. The Vikings knew this, so they played conservatively on defense and forced the Cardinals to kill the clock with dumps and dunk passing plays.
A couple of costly penalties by the Vikes allowed the Cards to keep the drive alive. Even so, McCown’s touchdown pass in the red zone happened with just 1:54 remaining in the 4th quarter.
Even if the Cards convert on the two-point attempt, they still have to have a successful onside kick. It was still a big two-point conversion attempt, and just like it’s been the case their last 7 games, the Cards couldn’t make a big play in crunch time. McCown dumped it off to Emmit Smith, but EJ Henderson greeted him in the flat for the huge open field tackle. Even if the Cards get the onside kick, they need a touchdown to win it.
The Cards haven’t recovered an onside kick all year. But this is also a Vikings franchise who has crumbled late in ball games the last five years. And wouldn’t you know it….when all they needed to do was catch a kick 10 yards away from the tee, they butter-fingered it and gave the Cards new hope.
Even so, the Vikings had a 73% winning probability due to the Cards having an unproven QB and a talent-devoid roster. But Vikings cornerback Denard Walker got beat by Cardinals wideout Brian Johnson and was forced to hold him for a killer penalty. Even on defense, the Vikings can’t get out of their own way.
Remember though, the Cardinals need 6 points to win. A field goal does them no good here, so the Vikings can still play a little conservative as long as the Cards don’t go out of bounds to stop the clock. McCown led his offense as close to the 9-yard line, but the Vikings defense finally showed up with a big play. McCown took a sack at the worst time, forcing him to call his team’s last timeout at the Vikings 17-yard line.
McGinnis is most likely getting fired on Black Monday for a lot of different reasons, but his clock management skills were also very piss poor. The Cards had to call a very dumb timeout early in the 4th quarter. As such, if McCown takes another sack, the Cards have to hustle to get the 4th down play in before the clock runs out.
And wouldn’t you know it….back-to-back sacks by the Vikings, this time by Lance Johnstone, forced the Cardinals into a 28-yard hail mary attempt. The Cards are lucky to have another chance, as McCown got stripped but Reggie Wells was Johnny On the Spot with the fumble recovery.
But McCown can’t stop the clock. So after Johnstone sent him to the grass, the offense had to quickly get set and lined up. This is tough to do as the offensive line has to regroup and give McCown enough time to set his feet. Assuming McCown has enough time, he can then deliver a strike into the end zone.
Now, before we look at the final play, we have to acknowledge the year is 2003. During this time, the NFL allowed the most controversial rule outside of the infamous Tuck Rule. Until the 2008 season, the NFL allowed what was simply known as the force out rule.
Here is the full iteration of the rule. According to this procedure, the nearest official could subjectively determine if the receiver would’ve had two feet in bounds if not for a push out by the defender. In essence, if the receiver had the second foot in bounds but was forced out while making the catch, the catch would count and the touchdown would be awarded.
This is big because any receiver with great size can position themselves in a prime position for the forceout rule to take effect. Boldin would obviously be the intended target on such a play, but considering that Poole has more receiving yards than Anquan, Poole might be the best option on a hail mary prayer pass.
So here we go. Can the Vikings knock the ball down and advance to the playoffs? They have to win today as the Denver Broncos got absolutely destroyed in Green Bay.
Or can the Cardinals snap their 7-game losing streak with an incredible hail mary finish? Does McCown trust more in Boldin, or will he throw it to Poole? Boldin has been one of the NFC’s best wide receivers during his rookie season, and a TD reception would give him over 1,400 receiving yards for the season. However, Poole has 58 yards receiving to just 27 from Boldin. In fact, Poole has more receiving yards this afternoon than Randy Moss.
It’s the last play of the game, regardless of what happens next. Welcome to a moment in history.
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