John Hadl played just one full season for the Los Angeles Rams, but it was one of the franchise’s best.
With Hadl at quarterback in 1973, the Rams finished 12-2 in the regular season. Never before had the Rams achieved 12 regular-season wins, not even with renowned quarterbacks such as Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, and Roman Gabriel.
Described by The Sporting News as a “quiet, majestic leader,” Hadl was 82 when he died on Nov. 30, 2022.
Hadl had 33,503 yards passing and threw for 244 touchdowns during his pro career, but his route to becoming a quarterback was hardly conventional. He was a halfback for his hometown school, the University of Kansas, before shifting to quarterback his senior year. Kansas used a Split-T formation, so Hadl mostly handed off the ball, or carried it himself, and didn’t develop a pro passing style.
The Detroit Lions selected him in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft, intending to play him at running back, but he signed with the San Diego Chargers, who took him in the third round of the AFL draft because they offered him a $17,000 salary, a new Thunderbird and a chance to play quarterback, the Kansas City Star reported.
When Hadl got to the Chargers, he had to learn to throw a spiral, according to the Star, but he was a quick study. Hadl’s long tosses to receiver Lance Alworth highlighted a wide-open offense and helped the Chargers get to the AFL championship game three times, winning once.
Hadl’s flashier counterpart, Joe Namath, called him “the best passer in the league,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, and Chargers head coach Sid Gillman told the newspaper that Hadl was “the most complete quarterback. There’s nothing about the game he doesn’t know.”
The success didn’t raise Hadl’s stature much outside San Diego. As Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray noted, “Playing in San Diego is like spying for Russia. It’s steady work. but nobody knows what you do.”
In March 1971, Hadl was thrown from a horse, fracturing his skull and damaging his left eye, but recovered in time to keep playing. The Chargers, though, had gone to a ball-control offense and it wasn’t working. After three consecutive losing seasons (1970-72), Hadl wanted out. “I’m just sick of losing with what I consider an antiquated offense,” he told the Times.
Hadl and the Rams were the right fit. Looking for help after Roman Gabriel hurt his elbow in 1972, the Rams dealt defensive end Coy Bacon and running back Bob Thomas to the Chargers for Hadl in January 1973.
According to Jim Murray, Gabriel “got near hysterical” about Hadl’s arrival. “He reacted the way a husband would if his wife left a callback number and it was Joe Namath’s apartment,” Murray wrote.
Unamused, the Rams traded Gabriel to the Philadelphia Eagles in June 1973. Gabriel had been a glamour boy in a glamour town. Hadl was, as Jim Murray wrote, “as Kansas as corn.”
“His hair, what there is of it, is short,” Murray wrote. “He conveys the impression of being pudgy, but his thighs and calves are so big you wonder if he gets his shoes at a blacksmith. The wrists look as if they could flick a football across Colorado with two throws.”
Responding to Hadl’s poise, passing and leadership, the Rams began the season with six straight wins and ended the season with another six in a row, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1969. Though they lost in the first round to the Dallas Cowboys, Hadl, 33, was hailed a success. He threw 22 touchdown passes for the 1973 Rams and was named NFC Player of the Year.
With his value at a premium, the Rams traded Hadl in October 1974 to the Green Bay Packers for five high-round draft picks, a move that helped achieve a run of eight straight playoff seasons (1973-80), including a Super Bowl appearance.
Though his stay with the Rams was brief, Hadl’s impact on the franchise was significant.
(This piece was contributed by Mark, proprietor of the impeccable Retro Simba.)