State Your Case: John Hadl
One of biggest arms in pass-happy AFL
John Hadl played quarterback during an era when passing was a downfield game. It was high risk, high reward.
So talented was Hadl that, after a five-Pro Bowl career in San Diego in the 1960s, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for a Pro Bowl pass rusher (Coy Bacon). After winning NFL MVP honors in his first season with the Rams, Hadl was traded to the Green Bay Packers for two first-round draft picks, two seconds and a third.
So his talent was easily recognizable when Hadl was on the football field. His problem came after he left the field in retirement when his talents were quickly forgotten by the Hall of Fame selection committee. He has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 37 years now but his career has never been considered for a bust in Canton.
“I always felt John was the most underrated quarterback in the league,” his Hall-of-Fame batterymate Lance Alworth said. “The reason San Diego played as well as we did during those years was John Hadl. He’s the type of guy who always took charge and made things happen. He stands out from that era and I feel like he’s been overlooked.”
Part of the problem with his candidacy was the 1963 season. Hadl was the 10th overall pick of the 1962 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions but opted to sign with San Diego. He started as a rookie and threw 15 touchdown passes but the Chargers won only four games.
The following season, San Diego signed veteran quarterback Tobin Rote out of Canadian Football League in an attempt to accelerate the winning. Rote took over for Hadl and led the Chargers to their only AFL title.
Hadl was back on the field in place of Rote in 1964 and took San Diego back to the AFL title game in 1965. But the Chargers lost to the Buffalo Bills – the only time Hadl ever played for a championship in his 16 seasons.
Hadl led the AFL in passing with 3,473 yards and 27 touchdowns in 1968, then led the NFL in passing with his 3,975 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1971. He won league MVP honors in 1973 when he threw 22 touchdown passes in leading the Rams to a 12-2 record. But he lost the only other playoff start of his career that season.
That lack of a championship ring has proven costly. Sixty-nine percent of everyone in Canton won a championship.
The other knock on Hadl was his interceptions. No doubt, he threw a ton of them – 268. He threw more career interceptions than he did touchdown passes (244), in fact. But quarterbacks didn’t spend their time padding their completion percentages with swing passes out of the backfield or flips to tight ends on bootlegs that have become so common in today’s game.
Joe Namath threw more interceptions (220) than touchdowns (173) but his errant throws didn’t keep him out of Canton. George Blanda led the AFL in interceptions four consecutive seasons, including a record 42 in 1962, but also has a bust in the Hall of Fame. Jack Kemp was another AFL contemporary and an eight-time Pro Bowler with more interceptions (183) than touchdowns (114).
That was the nature of quarterbacking in the pass-happy AFL. You challenged defenses throwing the ball down the field to your wide receivers. The turnovers became trade-offs for touchdowns. And Hadl’s greatest asset as a passer also become, at times, a liability.
“John was one of the most accurate quarterbacks I ever played with,” Alworth said, “and I played in my share of all-star games. He threw a great ball to catch. It wasn’t a hard spiral and looked wobbly but it was so easy to catch. Unfortunately, it was also an easy ball to intercept.”
Was Hadl a Hall of Fame talent? Does he belong in Canton with the Starrs, Staubachs, Montanas and Elways? We’ll never know until his candidacy is discussed. But anyone who was an NFL MVP that teams were willing to trade two-first-round draft picks, two-second rounders and a third plus a Pro Bowl pass rusher for his services is certainly deserving of that discussion.