We're less than three weeks away from the start of college football and, aside from the winding down of the Olympics, there isn't much going on in the sports world apart from the MLB, especially for college football fans. So, in that spirit, let's remember some good and bad Heisman Trophy winners.
College and professional football have always completely different beasts and the disparate styles have probably never been so far apart as they are right now. College football is a breeding ground for innovation and, by and large, the best offenses in the country are spread and shred, high tempo, option-heavy systems. Think Oregon, Ohio State, TCU, Clemson, and the like.
Those types of systems don't really fly in the NFL. Now, while the "Pro Style Offense" is largely a myth at this point, there's still a huge disconnect between what prolific college offenses run and what prolific pro offenses run. NFL teams are more willing to spread the field out and incorporate more option-style sets, but you won't see anyone but the athletic freak Cam Newton running any zone reads.
All of that is to say that predicting success--especially at the quarterback position--from one level to the next is an incredible crapshoot. Since 2000, 13 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks. Cam Newton has been a slam dunk for the Panthers, but the next best QB is . . . Carson Palmer. Not great.
This problem is best illustrated by quarterbacks, but Heisman winners have been incredibly up and down in the pros during the modern era. With that, here are The 7 Best And 8 Worst Heisman Trophy Winners To Have Played In The NFL. Enjoy!
15 Worst: Eric Crouch, Nebraska
Eric Crouch starred at Nebraska during the waning years of the Cornhusker's dominance of the 90s. He ran Frank Solich's I Formation offense to perfection, running for more than 1,000 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns while adding seven more through the air during his 2001 Heisman season.
Unfortunately, he also threw ten interceptions and only averaged eight yards per attempt that year. He, like another player we'll see later on in this list, steadfastly refused to play any position but quarterback in the NFL despite his limited skill set and his lack of experience in a vertical offense.
He was drafted in the third round by the Rams, but ended up suffering a serious injury in rookie training camp and eventually ended up in NFL Europe (remember that whole experiment?) . . . as a safety. He never took a snap in the NFL.
14 Best: Cam Newton, Auburn
For the best Heisman winners in the NFL, we'll start with the only true Heisman winner that has star status in the NFL right now, Cam Newton. Newton is an elite runner, has fantastic pocket presence, a cannon of an arm, and is built like a particularly scary linebacker.
He took a circuitous route to the Heisman trophy, though. He played his way into the backup role for Tim Tebow as a freshman, but had some not-insignificant trouble with the law during the season, which led to an indefinite suspension. He decided to attend a junior college in Texas, where he predictably dominated inferior competition.
Fast forward a season and he's lighting up the SEC at Auburn under Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn en route to a Heisman and a national championship. He threw for over 2,800 yards and ran for over 1,400, tallying 51 total touchdowns. This was his first full season of Division I football, mind you.
In 2015, Newton became only the ninth Heisman winner to win an NFL MVP Award (he was the first since Barry Sanders). The Panthers went 15-1 and eventually lost to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Newton had a superlative season despite the fact that he lost his best (and honestly only serviceable) receiver--Kelvin Benjamin--early in the season. Newton is one of the best at his position and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
13 Worst: Jason White, Oklahoma
Here's another QB who never took a snap in the NFL, Jason White, winner of the 2003 Heisman Trophy. He went undrafted and retired before his first professional season. Not only that, it took him weeks to even get a tryout with a team.
White had multiple surgeries on both knees in college and was never projected to be an effective professional quarterback. Ironically enough, though, White's knees were at their worst during his Heisman winning season, when he threw for 40 touchdowns and only eight interceptions as his Oklahoma Sooners lit the college football world on fire for most of the season.
12 Best: Charles Woodson, Michigan
Charles Woodson remains the only primarily defensive player to have ever won the Heisman Trophy. In addition to being the best defensive player in the country, he was a weapon on offense as a receiver and returned punts on an elite level. Despite the acrobatic interceptions, long touchdown catches, and big hits, his most iconic moment--probably the one that sealed a Heisman race that included Peyton Manning and Randy Moss--was an improbable 77 yard punt return touchdown that put the final nail in Ohio State's coffin and eventually led to a birth in the 1998 Rose Bowl.
Woodson led the Wolverines to an undefeated season and a national championship before being drafted fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders. Woodson was a stud initially in Oakland, earning Pro Bowl honors in his first four seasons in the NFL before flailing a for bit on a terrible Oakland team with no direction.
His career was rejuvenated when he was acquired by the Green Bay Packers in 2006. He moved to safety and proved to be equally effective patrolling the backfield as he was at shutting down one side of it. He was selected to four more Pro Bowls as a Packer and was First Team All NFL twice and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. He was also a captain on the Packers' Super Bowl winning squad.
He returned to Oakland to end his career and, at age 39, made his final Pro Bowl. He is the only player in NFL history with 50+ interceptions and 20+ sacks. Pretty impressive.
11 Worst: Charlie Ward, Florida State
During his Heisman winning season, Charlie Ward threw for 27 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions while leading Florida State to their first national championship ever, kicking off a multi-decade run of great success for the Seminoles.
Ward, of course, also never took a snap in the NFL, but that was because he chose to pursue a career in the NBA, becoming the only Heisman winner to ever play professional basketball. He was far more successful on the gridiron than he was on the hardwood: he ended his college basketball career averaging 8.1 points per game, 4.4 assists per game, and 2.9 rebounds per game.
Respectable numbers, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to his football achievements. He did go on to have a steady, if nondescript, NBA career as a sixth or seventh man.
10 Best: Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State
Barry Sanders quite possibly had the greatest season ever by a running back in NCAA history in 1988. The stats just don't even make sense: 2,628 yards on 7.6 yards per carry and 37 touchdowns. I'll give you a second to reread that sentence so you can properly process that stat line. By the way, he did all of that in eleven games.
Unfortunately for him, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions third overall in 1989 and was the only bright spot on a lot of mediocre-to-okay Lions teams over his career. Defenses would stack the box, assign linebackers and safeties alike just to mark Sanders, and no one could find a way to stop him, even if they knew he was getting the ball. He was lightning in a bottle.
He never ran for fewer than 1,100 yards in his entire career even though he was really the only Lion other teams had to prepare for. He's third on the all time rushing list despite having played three fewer years than Walter Payton (second) and five less than Emmitt Smith (first). Sanders' retirement was a convoluted financial and personal affair, and his motivations for walking away have always been a bit vague; either way, he's an all timer and a Hall of Famer.
9 Worst: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Unlike the previous "worst" members of this list, Johnny Football actually did manage to see real game time in the NFL. Unfortunately his experience in the pros was tragically short lived (he may one day make it back into the league, as he's still young, but given the events of the past year that seems unlikely).
Manziel was the first Freshman ever to win the Heisman after an absolutely electrifying season that included more "how the hell did he do that?" plays than almost any other in Heisman history. His time with the Browns was, uh, a little less electrifying.
He ended his time with the Browns with a 7:7 touchdown to interception ratio, averaged 111.7 yards per game, and and only completed 57% of his passes. More so than mediocre stats, though, what anchors Manziel this far down the list of Heisman busts are his off the field issues. He allegedly has an alcohol (or worse) problem, has been embroiled in legal trouble off and on since college, and in general seems to care not about playing in the NFL at all.
8 Best: Roger Staubach
Going way back for this one: Roger Staubach played during an era when service academies frequently fielded Heisman contenders and he won his award after leading the Navy Midshipmen to a 9-1 regular season and a disappointing loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Stats really don't translate well from 60s era service academy football to now, but suffice to say that Staubach set all sorts of records at Navy and led the Midshipmen to victories over rivals Notre Dame and Army in 1963 (Navy wouldn't beat Notre Dame again until 2007).
Not only that, he actually served in Vietnam after he graduated from the Naval Academy. He commanded 41 men during a year long tour before he returned to the States and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Even more so than the Aikman era, the Tom Landry/Roger Staubach era might be the biggest reason the Cowboys are always in the national NFL conversation even though they've been treading water for the past 15 years.
Staubach and Jim Plunkett are the only Heisman winners to have won multiple Super Bowls. Unlike Plunkett, though, Staubach won a Super Bowl MVP, made six Pro Bowls, and won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.
7 Worst: Troy Smith, Ohio State
Troy Smith had an uber-efficient Heisman campaign, completing over 65% of his passes while throwing 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He led Ohio State to an undefeated regular season (including a victory over second ranked Michigan) before getting smoked 41-14 by the Florida Gators in the National Championship Game.
Smith was undersized and lacked elite arm strength, so he ended up dropping all the way to the fifth round of the draft in 2007 before he got picked up by the Baltimore Ravens to assume a backup role. He only started two games in Baltimore before being shipped off to San Fransisco to assume a similar role.
Due to some injuries, he ended up starting six games in 2010, his last year in the league. He went 3-3, completed only half of his passes, and threw five touchdowns to four interceptions. He is probably better known for melting down on the sideline during a confrontation with coach Mike Singletary than he is for anything he did on the field during his tenure with the 49ers (or the Ravens, for that matter).
6 Best: Tim Brown, Notre Dame
Another Heisman winner who would eventually be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Tim Brown won the award in 1987. He was a stalwart wideout of a lot of good-to-great offenses for the Raiders, but he was a Swiss Army Knife of a player in college. He returned punts and kickoffs, played receiver, and took snaps in the backfield from time to time.
He averaged over 21 yards yards per catch, ran for over 100 yards, and amassed over 800 yards on special teams during his '87 Heisman campaign. Perhaps most impressively, he was somehow the first wide receiver to ever win the award (okay Johnny Rodgers won it in 1972, but he was way more running back than wide receiver).
Brown played from 1988-2004 and only had a handful of less than stellar seasons. He returned punts for the first half of his career as well. He gained at least 1,000 yards every year from 1993-2001, and he was also returning punts from '93-'97. It takes a special kind of athlete/player to assume the same type of college style do-it-all role in the pros and still be hugely effective.
5 Worst: Matt Leinart, USC
Matt Leinart was an instrumental part of one of the best college dynasties of the modern era. The early 2000s USC Trojans were a steamroller that flattened the college football landscape like they were making room for a 90s era mega-mall. He and Reggie Bush both won Heisman trophies during their run. That's all to say, Leinart had a lot of help, as he was surrounded by some of the most talented players in the country. The most memorable moment of Leinart's college tenure, in my mind, might be when he insisted, literally just after losing to Texas in the 2005 National Championship Game, that USC was the better team.
Leinart was drafted tenth overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He rode the pine behind Kurt Warner (who eventually led the Cards to a Super Bowl appearance). Number ten overall didn't seem like too much of a reach at the time for a former Heisman winning, two-time national champion quarterback coming out of one of the most prestigious college programs in the country.
Still though, Leinart didn't have a strong arm, exacerbated by the fact that his motion was elongated by virtue of him being left handed. He also never had to carry any of his USC squads and was generally the second or third best player on the roster at any given time. All in all, Leinart got relatively decent playing time, but ended his career with 15 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and a completion rate under 60%. He went 8-10 in games he started and was out of the league in six years.
4 Best: Bo Jackson, Auburn
If you're only looking at the stats, Bo probably doesn't belong on this list. I know many a terrible sports take has started off with that premise, but I'm not putting Jackson here because he had more grit or will or determination or whatever than anyone else. I'm putting him here because he was a cultural phenomenon off the field and a force of nature on it.
Could you imagine if he played today? It would be like Tebowmania, only more intense and legitimate. He was bigger than a normal linebacker and faster than a cornerback with the agility of a much smaller back. He was an All Star in two sports. He ran up a wall after chasing down a fly ball (no, actually, he ran up the centerfield wall in an MLB game because he couldn't slow down fast enough) and in general he just made elite athletes look foolish in two major American sports.
He had endorsements like no other athlete before him and fundamentally changed the way Nike do business with individual athletes. He was must watch TV before it was really possible to find a way to actually watch whatever you wanted.
3 Worst: Chris Weinke, Florida State
Chris Weinke, because of professional baseball aspirations that kept him in the minor leagues from 2000-2006, didn't start playing quarterback at Florida State until he was 25 years old. He saw immediate success after he stepped into the starting role as a 26 year old sophomore. He started through his senior year, with the Seminoles finishing no lower than third in the polls and led FSU to their first undefeated season en route to a BCS National Championship.
He won the Heisman the following year despite falling to the Oklahoma Sooners in National Championship Game. He threw for over 4,100 yards and 33 touchdowns as Florida State continued to dominate the ACC.
Unfortunately, there's a reason NFL teams like to draft young quarterbacks and mold them to their systems. Older quarterbacks take longer to adapt and are already slowing down, making it even harder to acclimate to the insanely high paced tempo of the NFL. Weinke was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the fourth round, his drop can probably be accounted for by the fact that he was 28 by the time he graduated.
Weinke was thrust into the fire during his rookie year, where he went 1-14 as a starter in Carolina and threw only 11 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. Not great. He only started five more games in his career and ended with a 2-18 record, throwing 11 more total interceptions than total touchdowns. Quarterbacks that pursue baseball on a professional level only to come back to college to play football usually excel in college and crater in the pros.
2 Best: Earl Campbell, Texas
Earl Campbell is another Hall of Fame running back whose career seems like it was cut far too short. He was a big, bruising back with elite speed and vision. He ran for over 1,000 yards twice during his time in Austin, including 1,744 at 6.5 yards per carry during his senior, Heisman winning season.
He was drafted first overall by the Houston Oilers in the 1977 draft and made an immediate impact: he ran for 1,450 yards and touched the ball over 300 times, so he was pretty much carrying the entire offense on his back as the Oilers went 10-6. During the 1980 season, Campbell had a record four games with over 200 yards on the ground on his way to 1,934 yards on the season.
When he was healthy, Campbell was one of the most dominant running backs ever. The problem was that his trademark was hitting people like a linebacker as a running back, which isn't going to lead to much longevity, as Campbell found out.
1 Worst: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin
Ron Dayne was an absolute powerhouse during his time at the University of Wisconsin. His Heisman winning campaign may not have even been his best season: he ran for 2,109 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 6.5 yards per carry as a freshman. He won the Heisman as a senior, when he again eclipsed the 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, all of that production came at a cost: he amassed 1,220 carries in college. That should have been a red flag for the New York Giants, who drafted him eleventh overall in 2000. Dayne had so many miles on him by the time reached the pros, he could barely keep up as part of a two back system with Tiki Barber.
Dayne never reached the 1,000 yard mark for the Giants, which, considering Barber's involvement in the offense, isn't all that surprising, but Dayne finished his career with a yards per carry average under 4.0, which is hugely disappointing for a back so dominant in college and drafted in the first round. In the end, Dayne probably lost a step or two in college and his frame (5'10", 250 lbs) wasn't ideal for the NFL unless you're a primary fullback or a physical freak.
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