NFL Draft Diaries – The Heisman QB Crap Shoot


The 2015 NFL Draft will have not one but two Heisman Trophy winners vying for a job with an NFL team in Quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. It really isn’t that rare of an occurrence anymore as it has happened in eight prior drafts since 1950 with four of those eight since 2006 and in each of the eight occurrences, it was because one of the Heisman winners was at most a college Junior when they won the award.

[Note: I elected to start with the 1950 draft as it was this year where draft oddities such as “bonus picks” were discontinued. As such, the 1950 draft, other the number of rounds, still closely resembles the current draft]

In the 64 drafts held between 1950 and 2012, there were 63 Heisman Trophy winners drafted as Archie Griffin was a two time winner (technically there are 62 winners as Reggie Bush surrendered his trophy but he was still a Heisman Trophy winner when drafted in 2005). So, how did these 63 players fare once they were drafted into the NFL?

Of these 63 Heisman winners, only eight have gone on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame;

  • Paul Hornung. QB, Notre Dame – 1956. (Was elected to the HOF as a Running Back.)
  • Roger Staubach. QB, Navy – 1963.
  • O.J. Simpson. RB, USC – 1968.
  • Tony Dorsett. RB, Pitt – 1977.
  • Earl Campbell. RB, Texas – 1978.
  • Marcus Allen, RB, USC – 1981.
  • Tim Brown. WR, Notre Dame – 1987.
  • Barry Sanders. RB, Oklahoma State – 1988.

Of these same 63 players, seven are still active players on an NFL roster;

  • Charles Woodson. CB, Michigan – 1997. Remains as the only defensive player to win the award since its inception in 1935.
  • Carson Palmer. QB, USC – 2003.
  • Reggie Bush. RB, USC – 2004.
  • Sam Bradford. QB, Oklahoma – 2008.
  • Mark Ingram. RB, Alabama – 2009.
  • Cam Newton. QB, Auburn – 2010.
  • Robert Griffin III. QB, Baylor – 2011.
  • Johnny Manziel. QB, Texas A&M – 2012.

Realistically (as of this writing), only Charles Woodson has a legitimate shot at being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Three Heisman Trophy winners went undrafted;

  • Pete Dawkins. RB, Army – 1958. Dawkins went on to a career in the U.S. Army rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
  • Charlie Ward. QB, Florida State – 1993. Ward opted for a career in the NBA. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round (#26 overall) and spent the next eleven years in the NBA.
  • Jason White. QB, Oklahoma – 2003. White spent three years on the practice squad of three different teams but never played a snap in a regular season NFL game.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, fourteen of the sixty-three players were drafted #1 overall.

  • Paul HornungGreen Bay Packers, 1957. Played for 9 years (excluding 1 year suspended).
  • Billy Cannon – Houston Oilers, 1959. Played for 11 years with 3 Pro-Bowl and 2 All-Pro years. Cannon was a major player in the AFL/NFL draft wars.
  • Ernie DavisWashington Redskins, 1962. His rights were traded to Cleveland and then he was diagnosed with Leukemia before playing a down in the NFL.
  • Terry BakerLos Angeles Rams, 1963. Played only three years for the Rams then went to the CFL for one year before hanging them up.
  • O.J. SimpsonBuffalo Bills, 1969. Played for 11 years with 6 Pro-Bowl and 5 All-Pro years.
  • Jim Plunkett – Boston (New England) Patriots, 1971. Played for 16 years with no Pro-Bowl or All-Pro honors. Was the starting QB in two Super Bowl victories but, curiously, never played a single game against the Patriots – the team that drafted him.
  • Earl Campbell – Houston Oilers, 1978. Played 8 years with 5 Pro-Bowl and 3 All-Pro years.
  • Billy SimsDetroit Lions, 1980. Played only 5 years with 3 Pro-Bowl and 1 All-Pro year.
  • George Rogers – New Orleans, 1981. Played 7 years with 2 Pro-Bowl appearances.
  • Bo Jackson – Los Angeles (Oakland) Raiders, 1986. Played 4 years in the NFL before a dislocated hip ended his career. Also drafted by and played for the Kansas City Royals.
  • Vinnie Testaverde Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987. Played for an astonishing 21 years with 2 Pro-Bowl and 1 All-Pro year.
  • Carson Palmer Cincinnati Bengals, 2003. Has logged 12 years (so far) with 2 Pro-Bowl appearances.
  • Sam Bradford – St. Louis Rams, 2010. Entering year number 6.
  • Cam Newton Carolina Panthers, 2011. Entering year number 5 with 2 Pro-Bowls on his resume so far.

Of these fourteen #1 overall picks, only three (Hornung, Simpson and Campbell) went on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s no secret that the NFL is now a passing league. And, for the most part, so is the college game. Thirteen of the last fifteen Heisman winners have been Quarterbacks. (Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram were the exceptions.) Of the eleven that have been drafted (excludes Winston and Mariota) it is not unreasonable to expect these highly drafted Quarterbacks (eight were drafted in the 1st round, four were selected #1 or #2 overall) to give the game well in excess of ten years play. Less than half of these Quarterbacks are still playing in the NFL (Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel) and three of those five are struggling to make an impact. Of the six that are no longer on an NFL roster, their average NFL tenure was 3.5 years. In other words, they didn’t even make it through a four year rookie contract.

For the entire period from 1950 through 2012, twenty-five Quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy. These twenty-five Quarterbacks averaged only seven years in the NFL, earned 2.3 Pro-bowl appearances and only 1.5 All-Pro honors each. Only one (Roger Staubach) made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

By comparison, over the same time frame, thirty-four Running Backs have won the Heisman. Their average tenure in the NFL was 6.5 years. That’s only a half year difference for a position that (historically) doesn’t last nearly as long in the NFL as a Quarterback. These same thirty-four Running Backs averaged 3.3 Pro-Bowls and 2.2 All-Pro honors each. And, six of them have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So who are these guys who vote on the Heisman Trophy and how can they hit the mark on Running Backs more often than not and miss so badly on Quarterbacks? There are three separate classes of Heisman voters;

  • Sports Journalists. The 50 states are divided into six regions. Each region gets 145 voters for a total of 870 votes.
  • Previous Heisman Winners. Each previous winner gets one ballot. (In the case where an underclassman wins the award and remains in school – he could conceivably vote for himself.)
  • Fan Poll. A recent addition consists of fan voting conducted by ESPN. The results of this poll constitute one ballot.

Obviously the sports media is largely responsible for the outcome of the voting. But you have to keep in mind that their objective is not to identify the player “most likely to succeed in the NFL”. Their job is to identify college football’s “most outstanding player who’s performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity”.

The skill sets of a running back in college are not that much different than the skill sets needed to succeed in the NFL. A Quarterback, however, is a different story. Today, very few colleges run a “pro-style offense”. Most run some variation of the read option offense. And the difference between these two styles of offense is dramatic.

For example:

Current Heisman winner Marcus Mariota ran a read option offense at Oregon. It’s been reported that Mariota has never taken a snap under center in a game while at Oregon. If true, then he has never had to take a three, five or seven step drop with his back turned to the defense, turn around and find an open receiver in a game situation. It is entirely plausible that, given the offense he ran at Oregon, Marcus was the “most outstanding player who’s performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity”. That doesn’t mean that Mariota can’t learn how to perform at a high level in a pro-style offense. If he does, he will have bucked the trend.

The same can’t be said about the second Heisman winner in this year’s draft. Jameis Winston has operated in a pro-style offense for his entire career at Florida State. He is quite used to operating from under center and has provided NFL scouts and personnel guys with ample film with which to evaluate him. His problems aren’t his play on the field, they’re some of his decisions off the field.

This scenario reminds a bit of the Robert Griffin III / Andrew Luck draft. RGIII won the Heisman (Luck finished second in the balloting), but, for the most part, he has come up snake eyes in the NFL.

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.


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