Here’s a stiff-arm for people who believe the Heisman Trophy, the winner of which will be announced Saturday night in New York, translates to pro football greatness: Paul Hornung, Jim Plunkett and George Rogers were the only winners who were No. 1 picks overall in the NFL and won a Super Bowl.
According to its website, the Heisman Trophy is awarded “to the most outstanding college football player in the United States.” For generations, it included the phrase “best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity,” but that was deleted in 2014 after Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston won.
No, I’m not kidding.
But you could say it’s a joke.
No matter its criteria, the Heisman never was intended to serve as any meaningful measure of individual NFL success. It’s a good thing, too, because only nine winners made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hornung, O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell were the only three winners taken first overall who were enshrined in Canton.
Thirteen quarterbacks and two running backs have won the Heisman since 1999. Charles Woodson (1997) is the only defensive player to win the award in its 80-year history. Woodson and receivers Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991) were the only winners since 1949 who didn’t play quarterback or running back.
The trend continues.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson earlier this week were named finalists for this year. Henry is considered the favorite with 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, leading the nation. McCaffrey piled up 3,496 all-purpose yards, breaking Barry Sanders’ record.
It’s no coincidence that the three finalists play for top-five teams listed in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll. The last Heisman winner to play for an unranked team was Steve Owens in 1969. In the past 45 years, 30 winners played for teams that were ranked first or second at the time they were honored.
The most outstanding college player could be LSU back Leonard Fournette. Or perhaps it’s Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich. LSU is ranked 22nd while Temple is 24th. The last Heisman Trophy winner to play for a team ranked 20th or worse was Ricky Williams, who played for No. 20 Texas in 1998.
Over the past 25 years, only seven winners were selected in the first three picks overall in the NFL draft. Five were quarterbacks. Winston and Marcus Mariota arrived in the same year. Over the same stretch, seven other winners weren’t even selected in the first three rounds of the draft unless you count Charlie Ward.
Ward won the 1993 Heisman after a terrific year for Florida State. He was taken in the first round … of the NBA draft. He was undrafted in the NFL and spent the next decade playing for the Knicks. Jason White, who won the Heisman in 2003 and finished third a year later, had knee problems and never played in the NFL.
Let’s not forget the Year of the Quarterback.
In 1983, six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino landed in the Hall of Fame. While they were positioning themselves in college for NFL greatness, it was a running back, Herschel Walker, who won the Heisman.
Walker was the 11th of 12 straight backs to win the trophy. Over an eight-year stretch in the 1980s, four Heisman Trophy winners were selected first overall in the NFL. Walker was not one of them. He signed with the USFL, played three years before it folded and had two 1,000-yard seasons over his 12-year career in the NFL.
Bo Jackson won the Heisman in 1985 and was taken first overall by Tampa Bay. He chose baseball with the Royals over the Buccaneers. He was placed back in the draft and started his football career after the Raiders selected him in the seventh round in 1987. He starred in both sports for four years before suffering a hip injury.
Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman and was taken first overall the following season, but 15 years passed before another Heisman winner was the top NFL pick. Teams passed in the early rounds on the likes of Gino Torretta (1992), Danny Wuerffel (1996), Chris Weinke (2000) and Troy Smith (2006), among others. All were taken in the fourth round or later until Carson Palmer won the trophy in 2002.
It doesn’t account for Heisman winners in the past quarter century who were first-round picks but didn’t fare well in the NFL. Rashaan Salaam (1994) played four forgettable NFL seasons. Tim Tebow (2007) played three memorable ones. Matt Leinart (2004) kicked around for six uneventful seasons.
Reggie Bush (2005) was forced to vacate the Heisman for breaking NCAA rules while playing for USC. Newton (2010) has blossomed into an MVP candidate. Robert Griffin III (2011) is warming the bench in Washington. Sam Bradford (2008) has been a marginal quarterback with St. Louis and Philadelphia.
Winston (2013) has emerged as a top rookie with Tampa Bay while Mariotta (2014) has played well in his first season with Tennessee. Check back with both in a few years. RGIII was a star during his rookie year but is now sitting behind Kirk Cousins, who was selected three rounds behind Griffin in 2012.
If Henry wins the Heisman this year, he should enjoy the moment while he can. It’s a terrific honor. But, certainly, he has heard about Alabama back Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman in 2009 while leading the Crimson Tide to a national title. In four-plus NFL seasons, he has started half the games he played.
Past results do not guarantee future success.