On October 13, 1974, doughy, balding John Hadl started at quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams.
Hadl was 34-years old. He’d been an All-Pro a year prior, playing the part of hired gun for the Rams, who’d picked him up in a trade hoping the aging pro could lead them to the playoffs. He did, but his arm was dead now. For most of the 1974 season, he’d played like the rest of him was dead, too, or close to it. In four games he’d thrown five touchdowns and four interceptions, which was good enough for the dead ball era of the NFL. But he’d also completed just under 48% of his passes, which was bad for any quarterback ever.
The visiting Green Bay Packers were no juggernaut, and a competent performance from Hadl probably would have gotten the job done. He was pulled in the third quarter after throwing two interceptions, only to return once the game was out of reach and promptly fumbled the ball away again. His passer rating on the day was 9.1, his worst mark in nearly half a decade.
Three weeks later, he was starting at quarterback for the Packers.
The Packers wanted a star. John Hadl used to be one.
The Packers were an irrelevant team in 1974. It would be nearly 20 years before they’d be a relevant NFL team again.
Not that anybody in Green Bay knew that. The 1974 squad was just seven years removed from Vince Lombardi’s last game and a return to prominence was imminent. It had to be.
Though Phil Bengston, Lombardi’s handpicked successor, hadn’t worked out, newcomer Dan Devine was ready to right the ship. He had taken the Packers to the playoffs in 1972 and was well equipped to do it again in 1974. John Brockington and MacArthur Lane led a bruising backfield, and newly acquired linebacker Ted Hendricks helped legitimize a promising defense. All Devine needed was a quarterback, a star for the rest of the Packers to follow on their return to glory.
But John Hadl wasn’t supposed to be that star.
In theory, he ticked all the boxes. Former All-Pro? Check. Multiple time Pro Bowler? Check. High-visibility player representing a significant upgrade at a valuable position? Check, check, and check.
But the Packers wanted help in the long term as well as the short term. With Hadl approaching middle age, he was out. The true object of Green Bay’s desire was New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning.
They almost had him, too.
Manning got off to a rough start in 1974, but the Packers drew up a deal to get him to Green Bay anyway. They agreed in principle to send two first and two second-round picks to the Saints in exchange.
Bill Tobin, the Packers’ director of pro scouting, flew to Atlanta on October 20, 1974, to watch the Saints play the Falcons, planning to finalize the deal after the game. But fate intervened.
Manning had been benched after a poor outing the previous week and the Saints figured to ride his backup, second-year man Bobby Scott, into the future with their new hoard of picks.
But Scott injured his knee against Atlanta, third-string quarterback Larry Cipa was awful in relief, and the Saints got cold feet. New Orleans nixed the deal and Tobin went back to Green Bay empty-handed.
Panic pulls the trigger on a trade
When the human brain experiences stress or fear, the delicately balanced machine that runs the body kicks into high gear, but not always for the better.
A study evaluated by Scientific American found that fear can sometimes make the systems that keep us safe force us into danger instead: “When our defense mechanisms malfunction,” the researchers wrote, “this may result in an overexaggeration of the threat.”
We call this phenomenon “panic.”
The Packers were 3-2 when they beat Hadl and the Rams on October 13. But eight days later, having just lost out on their prized trade target, the Packers lost to the hated Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Quarterback Jerry Tagge was abysmal, and Dan Devine sensed the Packers’ season, and perhaps his head coaching gig, slipping away.
Devine was afraid. His defense mechanisms malfunctioned. He overexaggerated the threat.
Through some backchannel connections, the Rams learned Devine was desperate for a quarterback. Catching him at a moment of vulnerability, the Rams proposed a deal for Hadl, and the Packers accepted. Or rather, Devine accepted. He struck a deal without consulting the Packers’ executive committee or his personnel staff.
The day after the loss to the Bears, Devine sent first-, second-, and third-round picks in the 1975 draft and first- and second-round picks in the 1976 draft to Los Angeles for Hadl, who’d been benched by the Rams after his poor showing against the Packers.
Tagge started the next week but was pulled the week after in favor of the new quarterback. For a moment, Devine looked like a genius.
Hadl was solid in his first three starts, all Packers wins. At 6-5, the Packers suddenly had life in the playoff race.
It didn’t last. With no margin for error, the Packers traveled to Philadelphia on the first day of December and got blasted, first by bitter-cold wind and driving rain, then by the Eagles. Hadl managed just 16 completions on 40 attempts and fumbled in Packers territory three times, twice inside the ten-yard line. Philadelphia cruised to a 36-14 win.
John Hadl fails — and the fallout followed Starr
Conventional wisdom says drafting the wrong quarterback can set an NFL franchise back ten years. That may not be entirely true, but the Packers didn’t get a chance to find out in 1975 or 1976. They’d already spent their top picks on a quarterback,
Devine left the Packers for Notre Dame after his deal for Hadl scuttled the 1974 season. The Packers handed the aftermath over to a living legend: Bart Starr. The man who’d led thrilling comebacks for Vince Lombardi now had to rebuild a Packers team with one hand tied behind his back.
Predictably, he failed.
The Packers went 13-29 over Starr’s first three seasons, badly needing an injection of talent but finding themselves without the resources to get it. Green Bay would make the playoffs just one time during Starr’s tenure.
Hadl played one more season in Green Bay, leading the Packers to a 4-10 record and throwing 21 interceptions to six touchdowns in 1975. Improbably, Hadl’s Green Bay stint didn’t end his NFL career. Another big traded landed him in Houston; the Packers sent Hadl, defensive back Kenny Ellis, and two draft picks to the Oilers for quarterback Lynn Dickey.
Hadl played two unremarkable seasons in Houston before landing on his true last shot in the NFL. In 1982, Hadl took over as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.
In his first game, the Rams played host to the Packers in Los Angeles. Much like his last experience with Green Bay, things started well. The Rams raced out to a 23-0 lead at halftime. And much like Hadl’s last experience with Green Bay, things ended poorly. The Packers roared back in the second half, hammering the Rams for 35 straight points to secure a thrilling victory.
Dickey was excellent that day, doing what Hadl never could in Green Bay. He threw three interceptions but rallied to throw three touchdowns, including a decisive pair of scores in the fourth quarter. The Packers' quarterback carousel had come to rest, thanks in part to a trade involving John Hadl. It was too late to save Devine and didn't save Starr, but at last the Packers had a quarterback.