By Zane Miller
After being taken 24th by the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers in 1962, and refusing to sign with the Detroit Lions who had drafted him at 10th overall in the 1962 NFL Draft, John Hadl made a name for himself as one of the AFL’s best quarterbacks throughout its decade-long run.
Hadl posted a winning record in five of his seven seasons as the starter in the AFL, leading San Diego to a league title in 1963 along with a second-team All-Pro selection in 1965. Hadl then made the jump with the Chargers to the NFL in 1970, however, this chapter of his Chargers tenure would not be so dominant.
In his three seasons with the team following the NFL-AFL merger, Hadl would not score a single winning record, though this span would not be without its merits as he led the league in both touchdown passes and passing yards in 1971. Despite this, a disappointing 1972 campaign which saw the Chargers end up last in the AFC West at 4-9-1 and Hadl throwing a league-high 26 interception, led to his trade about 125 miles north to the Los Angeles Rams. Coming off this trade, along with the dismal season the year before, Hadl would have something to prove at the helm of the Rams in 1973, and prove it he did.
Hadl’s best regular season performance of 1973 came on October 14th at home against the Dallas Cowboys, passing for four touchdowns and 279 yards as the Rams edged out a 37-31 victory to improve to 5-0 on the season. Also noteworthy is that on all four touchdowns, Hadl found wide receiver Harold Jackson, helping Jackson to eventually finish the season with a league-leading 13 touchdown receptions. Although the Rams’ undefeated season bid would eventually fall short, they would still claim a 12-2 record to win the NFC West, with Hadl starting all 14 games.
Hadl finished off the season with a total of 22 touchdown passes, barely missing a tie for first in the league between Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and Philadelphia Eagles starter Roman Gabriel with 23. Hadl also broke the 2,000-yard mark with 2,008 through the air, claiming the eighth spot with 105 less than Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings. These numbers earned Hadl first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career, along with taking the runner-up spot in the MVP voting behind Buffalo Bills running back OJ Simpson. The playoffs, on the other hand, would be a different story.
On December 23rd, the Rams took on the NFC East-winning Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium for the first round, as Dallas was hungry to make the NFC Championship game for the fourth consecutive season. Utilizing their playoff prowess, the Cowboys jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, although the Rams would somewhat slow the bleeding with a pair of second quarter field goals to just one for Dallas to make it a 17-6 game at halftime.
The Rams would chip away with a field goal and short rushing touchdown from running back Tony Baker to nearly take the lead away for the first time all afternoon. Despite this valiant comeback attempt, it would indeed fall short as Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson grabbed his second touchdown from 83 yards out, with another field goal putting the final touch on a 27-16 win. Not surprisingly given how the game went, Hadl struggled throughout the day, passing for 133 yards and no touchdowns, while also giving up an interception. His offensive line did not help him much either, as he was sacked five times in the loss.
Hadl would not have another 10+ win season, although he would remain in the NFL for many years after 1973. The Rams would trade Hadl midway through the 1974 season to the Green Bay Packers, although he would never find the same magic he harnessed in California, taking a combined record of 7-12 in his one and a half seasons in Green Bay. Hadl wound his playing career down as a backup with the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) prior to his retirement after the 1977 campaign. He ended his career with 37 NFL victories, along with 45 wins in the AFL.
Hadl would rejoin the Rams organization in 1982 as he became the new quarterbacks coach, although he moved on the next season to take the quarterbacks coach role for the Denver Broncos. After helping lead Denver to a 9-7 record and a postseason appearance, Hadl left the NFL for the final time to join the USFL’s Los Angeles Express as head coach. Although the team reached the semifinals in 1984, they struggled to a league-worst 3-15 record the following season before the league folded during the ensuing offseason.
Thanks to his lengthy and successful tenure with the Chargers, Hadl entered into the team’s Hall of Fame in 1983.