The worst sports transaction in world history

The headline may be hyperbole (Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees? The Saints’ trading their entire draft pick collection to get Ricky Williams? The Vikings sending their future to Dallas for Herschel Walker?)

But if you’re making a list of bad pro sports player transactions, you must include the Packers’ infamous “Lawrence Welk” trade, made today in 1974, for quarterback John Hadl. The trade is known as the “Lawrence Welk” trade because, the joke goes, it took “a-one and-a-two and-a-three” in draft picks. The truth, however, is far worse — two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and a third-round pick to the Rams.

Hadl was a good quarterback in the American Football League for the high-flying San Diego Chargers …

… before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams:

Packer fans who don’t remember this hideous decision (because the unconscious mind often blots out trauma) might well wonder what would possess someone to make that kind of trade. The answer is explained by Pete Jackel:

There was little time left on the morning of Oct. 22, 1974. The heat in Dan Devine’s Lambeau Field office had reached tropical levels and this had nothing to do with where his thermostat was set.

He had to do something before it was too late.

In his mind, he had no choice but to place that long-distance call to Los Angeles.

For more than three years as the Green Bay Packers’ coach, Devine had struggled to find a quarterback of the future. And on that Tuesday morning nearly 30 years ago, Devine’s own future in Green Bay was never more imperiled as this quarterback subplot intensified to new heights.

Devine’s Packers, who had followed up a miraculous 10-4 record in 1972 with a 5-7-2 disappointment in ’73, were in serious trouble. The night before, a Watergate-weary nation had witnessed the listless Packers slump to 3-3 following a 10-9 loss to the Chicago Bears in a Monday night game at Soldier Field.

More distressingly, it had become obvious that Jerry Tagge, Devine’s hand-picked quarterback of the future for the Packers – Tagge was drafted in the first round in 1972 -Ê was never going to succeed. The kid who had led Nebraska to back-to-back national championships in 1970 and ’71 simply could not translate his limited passing skills to the NFL level.

And Devine, who doubled as general manager, no longer could afford to stay with a quarterback who had led the Packers to just three touchdowns in the previous 17 quarters. Not with a 19-22-4 record in Devine’s three-plus seasons in Green Bay.

The heat was on.

“I can’t say I saw him being panicky, but I feel he probably was about that time,” said Packers historian Lee Remmel, who was in his first year as public relations director for the team in 1974. “Things were going badly and they got worse.”

Had circumstances played out differently, the immensely talented Archie Manning, the No. 2 overall selection in the 1971 draft who had fallen out of favor with the pathetic New Orleans Saints, might have been Devine’s savior. Devine had apparently agreed to a tentative trade the previous week to bring the then 25-year-old Manning to Green Bay, but fate intervened.

On the afternoon of Oct. 20, Bobby Scott -Manning’s projected successor with the Saints – had gone down with a knee injury in a game against the Falcons at Atlanta and was lost indefinitely. The Saints had no choice but to go back to Manning, killing the deal with Green Bay and drastically altering history.

“We were playing in Atlanta and Scotty got hurt and that kind of nixed it,” Manning said. “I was in the middle of all that trade stuff. I had heard it was Green Bay. I was being shopped and I remember there were several things going on with the Giants, 49ers, Packers, Saints and Rams.”

Devine also had held discussions with Gil Brandt, then the player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, about 31-year-old Craig Morton. But Morton had mostly been a backup to first Don Meredith and then Roger Staubach since entering the league in 1965 and Devine desperately wanted an established starter.

This lingering issue just had to be resolved once and for all.

Scott Hunter hadn’t worked out as the Packers’ quarterback. Neither had Jim Del Gaizo, for whom Devine had been panicked into squandering two No. 2 draft picks to the Miami Dolphins in 1973. And Tagge, who finished 1974 with one touchdown pass and 10 interceptions, was a bust, too.

Enough was enough.

So on the morning of Oct. 22, 1974, a desperate Devine placed that call to Los Angeles.

And then he mortgaged a franchise’s future, paying the staggering price of two No. 1 draft choices, two No. 2 picks and a No. 3 to the Rams for John Hadl.

As great as Hadl had been, he was 34 years old. And regardless of Hadl’s credentials, there’s no way anyone other than Devine could justify paying that price for a quarterback who was clearly in the twilight of his career.

It was a panic-inspired trade that stirred a buzz through the National Football League that persisted for weeks.

“It was one of those things where you couldn’t believe anybody would do that,” said Ron Wolf, then general manager of the Oakland Raiders.

“It was a hard trade for me to understand,” Brandt said. “It was not a good trade for them (the Packers).

“What happens is, people make a trade because they feel that trade can maybe get them into the playoffs or win a championship for them. But I remember there were a lot of people who said, `I can’t believe that Green Bay gave up that much for a 35-year-old quarterback.’ ”

And to this day, the lop-sided nature of that trade lingers in Green Bay.

“It was the worst trade in Packers history, without a doubt, and one of the worst in pro football history,” Remmel said. “That trade deprived us of two No. 1 picks, two No. 2s and a No. 3. It was pretty hard for his successor, Bart Starr, to rebuild the football team without those premium draft choices.”

The trade was made with the Rams, and Jackel provides an interesting detail:

Playing mostly during an era when rules made life so much more difficult for quarterbacks, Hadl passed for 33,503 yards and 244 touchdowns in a career that lasted from 1962-77. His primary receiver during his years with the San Diego Chargers was Lance Alworth, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1978.

While with the Chargers from 1962-72, Hadl developed into one of the great quarterbacks of the old American Football League. Five times he played in the Pro Bowl as a member of the Chargers. And a man who was one of the last NFL quarterbacks to wear a number higher than 19 (Hadl wore No. 21) passed for more than 3,000 yards in a season three times and threw for 20 or more touchdowns in a season six times while with San Diego.

Furthermore, the guy was indestructible, never missing a game during his 16-year career because of an injury. …

By 1973, though, Hadl was in need of a change of scenery. At least in part because of his difficult relationship with Chargers offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker – who went on to hold the same position with the Packers under Starr -ÊHadl was traded to the Rams for defensive end Coy Bacon and journeyman running back Bob Thomas prior to the 1973 season.

Bacon and Hadl were both coming off Pro Bowl seasons at the time. It would be the last time a trade involving players who had appeared in the Pro Bowl the previous season was consummated in the NFL until this year, when the Washington Redskins traded cornerback Champ Bailey to the Denver Broncos for running back Clinton Portis.

In what proved to be his only full season with the Rams, Hadl was clearly revitalized. Surrounded by talent that included wide receiver Harold Jackson and running backs Lawrence McCutcheon and Jim Bertelsen, Hadl earned NFC Most Valuable Player honors after passing for 2,008 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Behind Hadl, the Rams improved from 6-7-1 in 1972 to 12-2 in ’73. It appeared the Rams, under first-year coach Chuck Knox, were entering a prosperous new era with Hadl at the controls.

“He meant everything to us that year,” Knox said. “He was the Most Valuable Player offensively in the National Football League that year. The Rams had won very few games the year before and then we went 12-2. We lost two games that year with John Hadl at quarterback. We got beat by Minnesota 10-9 and we lost a tough game in Atlanta 15-13 when (Nick) Mike-Mayer kicked five field goals on us and we had a touchdown for an interception called back.

“John Hadl was an inspiration. He was a great player and he was just everything you could want in a quarterback and a person.”

But the magic didn’t last. Hadl seemed to be missing something in 1974, when the Rams lost two of their first five games. When he completed just six of 16 passes for 59 yards during a 17-6 loss to the Packers on a rain-swept day at Milwaukee County Stadium Oct. 13, Hadl was benched in favor of James Harris.

Nine days later, Hadl would become a Packer.

I remember the trade, though I do not remember Hadl’s playing against the Packers just before he played for the Packers.

The trade gave the Rams three first-round draft picks, which they used to draft three players who were Rams for a long time — defensive tackle Mike Fanning, offensive guard Dennis Harrah and offensive tackle Doug France.

Meanwhile, the late Don Klosterman, the Rams’ general manager, was giddy over his windfall from a desperate coach.

“Green Bay came to us with an offer you can’t refuse,” Klosterman said. “As Carroll Rosenbloom (the Rams owner at the time) has always said, we strive for continuity. The draft choices leave us in excellent shape.”

While Klosterman and Rosenbloom are no longer around to speak of the trade from a historical context, Knox remembers it as one that the Rams simply couldn’t pass up.

“They had a football coach there (Devine) who also had control of personnel,” Knox said. “He could make trades or whatever and he didn’t have to go through a lot of people. So he wanted a quarterback very badly and Carroll Rosenbloom and Don Klosterman decided that we would be able to get along – we had a very good football team. We had James Harris and (Ron) Jaworski and quarterbacks like that.

“So we decided that two ones, two twos and a three, that’s probably one of the greatest trades made in the history of the National Football League. We got some good football players out of that mix and, in five years there, we won 54, lost 15, tied one and won a divisional title five straight years.”

As for the 1974 Packers, well …

With Jack Concannon serving as stopgap quarterback as Hadl learned a new offense with the greatest of urgency, the Packers lost two more games to drop to 3-5, three games behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Central Division. When Hadl finally made his first start for the Packers Nov. 10 against the Bears at Milwaukee County Stadium, the division race was all but over.

Under Hadl’s guidance, the Packers surged to three straight victories, but then lost their last three to finish 6-8. There was only so much Hadl could do with pedestrian receivers the likes of Barry Smith and Jon Staggers, with a rapidly fading John Brockington (who averaged just 3.3 yards per carry that season) lining up behind him.

During his abbreviated season with the Packers, Hadl completed 89 of 184 passes for 1,072 yards, with just three touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Devine’s mistake was this: He greatly overestimated the talent that would surround Hadl when he pulled the trigger on the trade. That reality was underscored by the fact the Packers would have just two winning seasons (1978 and ’82) between the time Devine left Green Bay in 1974 and Mike Holmgren arrived in 1992.

As for Hadl and Devine, well …

Devine’s desperation move had failed. This partnership between Devine and Hadl had lasted just 54 days. …

“Let me tell you this one,” Hadl said. “He was getting blown out in Green Bay and we were down in Atlanta for the last game and it was raining about a foot a second. Anyway, the game is over, we go in and I say, `Coach, I’m sorry this thing didn’t work out.’

“He said, `John, don’t worry about me. They’re going to announce me as the head Notre Dame coach tomorrow.’ I couldn’t believe that. He knew that before that game was over!’ “

Then came Bart Starr to replace Devine as coach and general manager:

Going into the 1975 season, there was reason to believe the old Hadl might re-emerge. Starr had been hired to replace Devine and it was a reasonable assumption that two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history would combine to comprise an ultimate braintrust. …

Nothing, though, not the arrival of Starr and not the return of No. 21, could salvage this season. The reality was, the 1975 Packers almost had expansion-team talent with players on offense the likes Pat Matson, Keith Wortman and the over-the-hill Ernie McMillan, Bruce Van Dyke and Brockington.

Gale Gillingham, one of the greatest guards in NFL history, was so disgusted with the team’s offensive direction that he sat out the 1975 season after Starr refused to trade demand. And Hadl, playing behind a makeshift line, was left to run for his life most of the season as he tried to pass to his new receivers, Ken Payne and Steve Odom.

“They were nice guys, but they just weren’t NFL caliber, most of them,” Hadl said. “We had Kenny Payne, who was a real tough kid. He was pretty good. Odom was fast. But there was the time factor throwing the ball. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we had to adjust our routes a little bit and get rid of it a little bit quicker.”

It was an unmitigated disaster. The Packers, losing eight of their first nine games, finished 4-10. And Hadl, playing his only full season in Green Bay, completed 191 of 353 passes for 2,095 yards, but with just six touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Meanwhile, there was no help on the way. They had not drafted until the 47th pick in 1975. And if Starr had not traded future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round choice, the Packers wouldn’t have made their first selection in 1976 until the 72nd pick.

Had Devine not panicked into overpaying for Hadl, the Packers would have been in position to draft such quality players as Dennis Harrah, Russ Francis, Louie Wright, Tom “Hollywood” Henderson, Fred Dean and Doug English.

Instead, what Devine left behind was utter chaos.

Ironically, during a time when Starr was trying to build something out of so little, Devine, who never could find a quarterback in Green Bay, found one at Notre Dame.

Maybe you heard of him. His name was Joe Montana.

Starr had to clean up Devine’s mess by trading Hadl, former All-Pro cornerback Ken Ellis and two draft picks to Houston to get quarterback Lynn Dickey, which meant that Hadl cost five draft picks to acquire and a player and two more draft picks to get rid of him. One wonders how often Starr must have asked himself why he agreed to take the job without an available first-round draft pick for his first two seasons, though as with Devine and other Packer GM/coaches, Starr’s draft record wasn’t the greatest.

Dickey joined the Packers in 1976, then missed part of the 1977, all of the 1978, and part of the 1979 seasons after suffering a broken leg. Dickey didn’t play a complete season until 1980, though he was one o the NFL’s better quarterbacks of the early 1980s, once he had some actual talent around him.

If new quarterback Brett Hundley doesn’t play well today, there will be great clamor to pick up a quarterback this week, since the Packers have a bye week. Be careful what you wish for.

 

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